Thanks to this dastardly Coronavirus epidemic which rages on unabated, there is no rugby for Neath RFC followers to enjoy this year.
So let us cast our minds back some 75 years – to 1945 when, after six long years of trials, deprivations and losses of life, the newly-freed world at last looked forward to its first peace-time Christmas.
Rugby football had made a rapid return in 1945 although many players and supporters were still awaiting demobilisation from the armed forces.
Neath RFC had resumed action promptly in September and, after a stuttering start, the Welsh All Blacks soon settled down … amd they had to !
For, on November 4, Neath went it alone against a major touring team for only the second time and the first since 1912 when the Springboks escaped from The Gnoll with an 8-3 win when the home side deserved better.
This time, Neath took on the might of the New Zealand Kiwis and, roared on by a crowd of 12,000 who paid 5 shillings for a stand seat and 2 shillings for the field, Neath ran them close before losing 15-22.
Skipper Tom James led his side in tremendous style and set them on the way with a try from a lineout almost from the kick-off and Neath’s selection gamble of recalling pre-War captain W.E. Jones at outside-half nearly paid off.
Glamorgan cricketer Willie Jones kicked two penalty goals, scored a try himself and supplied the pass for another by T.D. James.
And, had two of his speciality snap drop-goal (then worth four points) attempts succeeded instead of narrowly missing, Neath would have won which would have done justice to the magnificent home pack which had the better of the Kiwis.
However, the Kiwis scored four tries by John Simpson, Jim Sherratt, Wally Argus and Ike Proctor but, as John Billot reflected, “full back Bob Scott came to the rescue of the tourists” and he landed two conversions and two penalty goals to make it 22-15 to the Kiwis, 11 of whom would play against Wales and the teams were :-
NEATH – D.G. Davies; Roy Williams, T.D. James, John Thomas, Ken Hardwick; W.E. Jones, Harold Parker; Les Anthony, Cliff Williams, Les Davies; Graham Hughes, George Hughes; Morlais Thomas, Rees Stephens, Tom James (captain)
NEW ZEALAND – R.W.H. Scott; W.G. Argus, J.R. Smith, J.R. Sherratt, I. Proctor; A.N. King, C.K. Saxton (captain); J.G. Simpson, P.K. Rhind, J.G. Bond; S.W. Woolley, S.L. Young; K.D. Arnold, J. Finlay, N.H. Thornton Referee – Mr. George Goldsworthy (Penarth)
Neath’s performance had brought some of their players into post-war prominence and Wales trials immediately beckoned for centre T.D. James, hooker Cliff Williams, lock Graham Hughes, back rower Morlais Thomas and the young forward destined to become one of Wales’ finest – Rees Stephens.
Yes, Neath RFC was speedily re-asserting itself and it is interesting to note the opinion of the Bristol RFC programme which commented :-
“A small town that can produce year after year one of the best sides in South Wales must cherish a warm love of the Game” – it certainly does !
So it was that Neath RFC looked forward to its first peacetime Christmas.
The War still dominated the newspaper headlines of the day with the publication of Hitler’s “political will” and the execution of two German generals for war-atrocities by the Russians.
Domestic joy greeted the arrival of a shipment of 10 million bananas at Avonmouth Docks from Jamaica – the first since December 1940 – but food rationing continued and provided a headache for Christmas cooks up and down the land.
For Neath, Christmas 1945 proved to be very successsful too. Pleasantly, the traditional Christmas Day visit of London Welsh was immediately restored to the calendar and the fixture continued through until 1966 although it was often a tough prospect for players and supporters alike.
In 1945, 5,000 watched as Neath ran out 9-3 winners thanks to three tries by flying wing Ken Hardwick (who within two months would tragically lose his life in a colliery accident), Harold Parker and Rees Stephens who was already proving a commanding and influential figure in his first season of first-class rugby.
The only other first-class game in Wales on Christmas Day 1945 saw Llanelly beat U.A.U. 23-14.
Neath’s normal Boxing Day opponents Aberavon made a belated start after the War as the Talbot Athletic Ground recovered from its civil defence duties.
So, in poor Boxing Day weather, Abertillery stepped in and their stubborn resistance was overcome 12-5 by tries by Viv Evans (2) on the wing, centre H.M. Isherwood and scrum-half Harold Parker against a try by L. Rees converted by George Parsons.
Harold Parker promptly scored his third try in three games when Neath completed a hat-trick of holiday wins 9-3 at cold Pontypool where wing Roy Williams also crossed. Hooker Cliff Williams landed a penalty and Pontypool’s try came from W.C. Walbyoff.
The win was all the more impressive given that Neath travelled without Graham Hughes, Morlais Thomas and Rees Stephens all of whom were rested ahead of their selection for Wales to play the New Zealanders the following week.
In its post-holiday look around the Districts, the “Western Mail” – maybe due to the shortage of newsprint – limited its description of Neath’s Christmas to a brief :-
“Family reunions at Neath were on a bigger scale than during the war years. The “All Blacks” two home fixtures were a popular attraction while cinemas were well patronised.”
If these are tough times, 1945 was certainly tougher – but three wins in five days made it a happy Christmas return for Neath RFC. Merry Christmas, everyone !