MATCH REPORT – CHAMPIONSHIP TITLE No.9 – 1988/89

Our secretary Mike Price continues his series examining Neath’s Welsh title wins with Part 9 – season 1988/89.

 After winning their ninth Welsh championship in 1986/87, 1987/88 was considered something of a failure by the demanding Blacks. Finishing second to the Pontypool of David Bishop and Mark Ring whom they beat in the Cup semi-final and then losing the final to Llanelli in the final was never good enough for Neath.

1988/89 was Neath’s chance to make amends and they did so in style romping to the championship Cup double and helping themselves to world record points and tries tallies on the way.

Team Manager Brian Thomas departed for work duties in Yugoslavia so more pressure was thrust upon the willing shoulders of Ron Waldron, Glen Ball and David Shaw and hooker Kevin Phillips was a truly inspiring on-field lieutenant – a super side honed to super fitness played some super rugby.

The season’s deeds have been splendidly covered by Rod Rees (“The Trail to Triumph”) and Bernard Lewis (“Neath, Neath, Neath”) – and I commend their works to anyone who wants the full story of an epic season. Suffice to say that Neath racked up the points and enjoyed some huge victories over their traditional rivals in 1988/89.

Among them were : Newbridge 73-3 (H), Pontypool 67-18 (H), Penarth 66-8 (H), Greystones 66-19 (H), Maesteg 64-nil (H), Cross Keys 60-10 (A), Newport 54-7 (H), Ebbw Vale 58-3 (H), Ebbw Vale 50-nil (A), Richmond 50-4 (H), Bridgend 49-nil (H), Cardiff 49-10 (H), Sale 48-17 (H), London Welsh 48-15 (H), Aberavon 42-6 (H), Coventry 42-9 (A), Glamorgan Wanderers 38-nil (A) Cup, Cambridge University 38-6 (H), Aberavon 34-10 (A), Pontypridd 34-15 (A), Wasps 34-6 (A), Pontypool 33-9 (A), Newport 33-16 (A), Maesteg 32-6 (A). Glamorgan Wanderers 27-13 (A), Swansea 26-6 (H) and Bridgend 22-3 (A).

1,917 points and 345 tries were scored; some of the margins are frightening even today – and remember tries were only worth 4 points then. However, perhaps most impressive of all was the 22-19 midweek win over Toulouse at The Gnoll in October.

Llanelli chased Neath hard and it was not until April 24th that the championship was won – an overcast Tuesday evening and Waterton Cross, the home of South Wales Police, was the rather unlikely venue.

The well-appointed Police ground with its large concrete stand was a wide field with a good playing surface and it regularly attracted squad sessions for the national side. But it was a rather under-used facility and certainly not used to coping with the massive Neath support which journeyed east after work. Home treasurer David Richards, a Neath man, was the busiest man in Welsh rugby that night as he willingly relieved the All Blacks’ hordes of their silver ! But the real silver (ware) went to the Blacks !

The ground had never seen such a crowd and, under the heading “CHAMPION SHOW – NEATH SEAL TITLE !”, this was how Malcolm Lewis of the “Western Mail” described the action :-

S.W. Police 4pts Neath 31 pts 

 NEATH are the new “Western Mail” champions – and now prepare for a May 6 Schweppes Cup final against Llanelli, a mouth-watering showdown with the Merit Table title-winners.

 Kevin Phillips’ team clinched the coveted consistency crown last night with a game in hand, to add the final touch of spice to the repeat Cup final against the Scarlets.

 Despite a slow start, the Welsh All Blacks ensured both will be chasing a double in front of an anticipated 50,000-strong Arms Park crowd as they secured a second championship in three seasons, their fourth in 42 years.

 But it was anything but a stroll in the park for the club who have set new world record marks of 1,849 points and 331 tries – the latter ultimately being increased by five on this occasion.

 The Police, battered by Pontypridd on Saturday, put up a tremendous battle for an hour before Neath belatedly got their customary dynamic game going.

 The home side, with scrum-half David Harrett and centre Dene Jones responding to the example of their forwards, tackled like demons and Neath, finding space at a premium, got bogged down in midfield.

 Nevertheless, the end result was the victory Neath required to put the “Western Mail” title out of Llanelli’s reach. Now both the All Blacks and the Scarlets can concentrate on Cup preparations.

 The first half was certainly not a memorable affair, despite the early promise provided by Jeremy Pugh’s first try after less than three minutes.

 Wing Chris Higgs breached the defence with a magical weaving run and unselfishly fed the supporting prop.

 Police lock Nick Jones almost forced his way over as the home forwards took the game to Neath though they could make no impression with a tapped penalty move.

But, under the watchful eye of next season’s coach Gerald Williams, they did profit when centre Phil Young intercepted and sent wing Mark Brinkworth over.

Mark Jones, in particular, was required for extensive defensive duties as the Police refused to be over-awed by a side who have swept numerous opponents before them during a remarkable season.

 And it was not until the 47th minute that Neath regained the lead, lock Paul Jackson plunging over from a line out and Paul Thorburn bringing up his 300 points for the season with the conversion.

The Wales captain and full back increased their advantage when Chris Bridges was the victim  of a high tackle, his penalty putting Neath 10 points clear and sparking a final quarter onslaught.

 Police No.8 Martyn Morris burst away on a threatening run but Neath stormed back through their forwards, supplemented by Bridges, for Pugh to claim his second try.

 Second row Jackson emulated his front row colleague as persistent Neath pressure told before centre Colin Laity broke his pack’s try-scoring dominance minutes later, Thorburn converting both.

South Wales Police : try – M. Brinkworth

Neath : tries – J. Pugh (2), P. Jackson (2), C. Laity; cons (4), pen – Paul Thorburn.

 NEATH – Paul Thorburn; Chris Higgs, Jason Ball, Colin Laity, Steve Powell; Paul Williams, Chris Bridges; David Joseph, Kevin Phillips (captain), Jeremy Pugh; Paul Jackson, Gareth Llewellyn; Phil Pugh, Mark Jones, Lyn Jones

Coach Ron Waldron was in no doubt that the title was attributable to the squad whose teamwork was of the highest order and was really like nothing seen before in Wales. Again, the side’s impressive depth is underlined by those not playing on the night the title was won including internationals Allan Bateman, Alan Edmunds, Brian Williams, John Davies, Huw Richards, Rowland Phillips and David Pickering.

Neath were proud champions for the ninth time. And the Cup ? Well, that was won too – a close thing 14-13 in front of a world record 58,000 crowd against Llanelli. So the double was Neath’s and the Welsh All Blacks were set up nicely to take on the other All Blacks, the world champions of New Zealand, the following season.

MP