Today, with no rugby to look forward to for a while, we travel back 99 years to Easter Tuesday, 1921.
Easter was early that year – the Tuesday was March 29th – a date to remember as it was on that day that Neath first played the famous Barbarians.
1920/21 had not been Neath’s best season by far; but neither was it their worst.
The All Blacks were still struggling to emulate their pre-war supremacy especially up front where it was taking time to re-build the pack after all the tragedy of the Great War.
But Neath enjoyed a good Easter which was much to the approval of the sporting fraternity in the Town who had been denied their rugby football during the war.
Glorious Good Friday weather drew 8,000 to The Gnoll to see Neath beat Briton Ferry but the rugby football disappointed as only a Glyn Morgan try gave Neath the spoils at 3-nil.
Still, the Blacks completed a handsome double over Northampton on the Saturday, winning 21-6 through tries by the brilliant Dai Hiddlestone (2), Llew Edwards, Arthur Hopkins and scrum-half Eddie Watkins who converted three.
Neath made it an Easter hat-trick but ended the Easter Monday game with Headingley with 13 men but, watched by 6,000, still managed to win 17-3 through tries by Reason (2), Harris (2) and Arthur Hopkins, Francis converting one.
Injuries to half-backs Eddie Watkins and David Reason ruled the pair out of Tuesday’s big game. Glyn Stephens (the first Neath man to captain Wales) was injured as was the previous year’s captain Will Hopkins who broke a leg at Swansea a fortnight earlier.
Fellow internationals Bill Perry and T.C. Lloyd were also ruled out so it was a raw Neath side which took the field against the tourists.
Neath captain Dr. J.L.G. (Gwyn) Thomas, schoolboy international and decorated war-hero, and centre Vernon Hill, Royal Flying Corps officer and ex-P.O.W., had experienced rugby with the Barbarians.
Hiddlestone (who had joined Neath from Llanelly in January) had appeared in unofficial war-time internationals but the forwards, largely local, were a young lot although Ambrose Baker had just earned his Welsh cap with Vernon Hill a reserve.
So it was that the famous invitational Barbarians paid their first-ever visit to The Gnoll – and what a game it proved to be !
After a forward rush, Bert Thomas got a try for Neath (3-nil) but W.M. David scored for the Ba-Ba’s and the conversion by Albertin put the visitors in front (3-5).
Tries by future WRU secretary Eric Evans (6-3) and Arthur Hopkins (9-3) saw Neath lead but a try and a conversion by C.J. Steyn put the visitors in front for the first time (9-10).
Amidst growing tension, the crowd was silent when Neath’s goal-kicking forward Will Powell, restored to the ranks and very much a player for the big occasion, stepped up to land a penalty and give Neath a momentous 12-10 victory.
The teams were :-
NEATH – J.L.G. Thomas (captain); David Harris, Glyn Morgan, R.I.V. Hill, Eric Evans; T.H. Francis, Levi Phillips; W.E. Thomas, Arthur Hopkins, Will Powell, David Hiddlestone, Ambrose Baker, George Watkins, Jack Thomas, C. Bannister
BARBARIANS – D.M. Houston (London Scottish); A.M M’Gregor (Pontypridd), A.M. David (Old Alleynians), P.K. Albertin (Guy’s Hospital), C.L. Steyn (Guy’s Hospital); A.T. Young (Blackheath), J.C. Seager (Blackheath); H.L.G. Hughes (Blackheath, captain), E.F. Turner (London Scottish), P.H.X. Gwynne (Blackheath), D.D. Morton (Lansdowne), F.le S. Stone (Blackheath), V. Grenning (Blackheath), R.S. Hellier (Old Alleynians), W.J. Jenkins (Cardiff)
The underdogs had proved their pedigree ! And the victory was the undoubted highlight of Neath’s season which still had another 8 games to run in April.
Neath played the Barbarians on three Easter Tuesdays in all, winning the first two and drawing the third, before the Ba-Ba’s settled on Newport to round off their holidays.
Some say it was because in the third game Will Powell charged down a conversion – not regarded as sporting by some although well within the laws !
More probably, that was only an excuse. The likelihood is that it did not make travelling sense for the Ba-Ba’s to head west from their HQ at the Esplanade Hotel in Penarth before returning home, generally east, again.
Newport made the homeward trip and – given the Ba-Ba’s lack of success at The Gnoll – the rugby a whole lot easier.
The Black and Ambers therefore became the Ba-Ba’s traditional final destination on their Easter tours and they re-visited The Gnoll but once – in Neath’s centenary year when they finally won ! MP