Neath ended their longest wait for another Welsh title when Brian Thomas led the Welsh All Blacks to their seventh championship in 1966/67 – and it was one of the tightest finishes of all, the title only being clinched in the last game of the season.
Brian Thomas had been omitted from the 1966 Lions tour to New Zealand – “too vigorous” for some ! – and the Lions’ loss was very much Neath’s gain.
During the summer the team prepared under the watchful and demanding eyes of Norman Biggs and Rees Stephens – “trainers” not coaches then – who were determined that the Blacks would be the fittest team around.
There was an air of confidence that this would finally be Neath’s year and such optimism was soundly based upon the fact that the Neath pack was again among the most feared in these islands and the under-rated back division was the equal of most.
From September, Neath gave evidence of their credentials. All rivals were repelled including nearest challengers Newbridge who were beaten at The Gnoll in midweek in November only for visiting wing Les Hewer to claim he had been bitten – an acrimonious charge which Neath utterly rejected and one which prompted the Neath supporters with their customary “Black humour” to temporarily change their chant from “Neath, Neath, Neath” to “Teeth, Teeth, Teeth” !
The Blacks displayed the hallmark of champions as they enjoyed a 21-match unbeaten run through to December. In a hectic schedule, Neath played some 51 games in all during the campaign and won 42 and drew 2 of them but, having topped the table all year, they suddenly faltered at the end of February, unaccountably losing by 3-24 at London Welsh – the first of 4 defeats in 6 games which spelled trouble.
Into the final month of the season, Neath lost pole position to of all teams Newbridge but the Blacks dug deep, all that fitness work paid dividends as they kept going to the end. Justice was done and in an April Saturday deluge Keith Evans slid over for a try for Neath to beat Newport 3-nil and, at the same time, Newbridge were held to a 3-3 draw by Tredegar !
So it all came down to the last game on Tuesday, April 25, Neath knowing that they had to win at Pontypridd’s verdant Ynysangharad Park. And a grand game ensued ! Ponty had not enjoyed a very good season but they rose to the occasion and realised that depriving Neath of the title would be a feather in their cap.
The two packs tore into each other with a relish and it became a battle of the kickers. Unusually, Grahame Hodgson failed to add to his 275 points garnered that term so it was Neath back rower Alan Butler and home full back Roy Hope (who guested for Neath the following season and later became a first-class referee) who traded penalties.
Three for Butler; two for Hope – but the hero of the hour was Neath scrum-half Martyn Davies whose dropped goal made it 12-6 before home outside-half Freddy Bevan dropped a goal of his own to make it an agonsiing 12-9 to Neath. Brian Thomas exhorted his troops with the command, “Make sure of it, lads” – and make sure of it they did by keeping possession to the end.
Martyn went on to establish the Club’s appearance record but his moment of pure inspiration brought the rarity of a dropped a goal which secured Neath’s first title since 1946/47. His placement of the leather had brought the title back to The Gnoll after 20 years.
Afterwards, Brian Thomas summed it up telling the “Western Mail”, “We are all delighted. It has been a hard season but we have won the championship because of our all-out team effort. The lads have been magnificent.”
Neath were champions of Wales – and champions too of Great Britain as they were awarded the “Daily Telegraph” Anglo-Welsh pennant for the first time as well.
They owed their title to a supremely fit, properly vigorous pack and a committed group of players whose rota system was employed so effectively that they rarely went out of the established squad.
The back division usually featured Graham Hodgson; Howard Rees, Glen Ball, D.B. Davies, Hywel Williams, Keith Evans with either Martyn Davies or David Parker at scrum-half.
Ron Waldron, John Dodd and the rising young farmer Walter Williams were the props, Morlais Williams, still as good as any hooker in the land, was backed up by another emerging star Norman Rees; Brian Thomas was supported by Jeff Pyles and Barrie Davies in the second row while the imperious Dave Morris had super support in the back-row from Randall Davies, Alan Butler and Meirion Prosser.
Above all, the team was superbly motivated, organised and driven by an outstanding captain and thinker in Brian Thomas who led by example from the front and, while his overlooking by both Lions and Wales selectors was controversial, it allowed him to focus firmly on Neath who duly won the honours.
Fitness sessions paid off and the full backing of an energetic committee saw the team emerge from the “Newbridge Incident” to prevail over all.
So, after 20 years, Neath were proudly back at the top of the final championship table – a particularly suitable climax to the career that wonderful hooker Morlais Williams who hung up his boots and signed off in real style after a career encompassing 11 seasons and 330 appearances. The final championship table read :-
With remarkable symmetry, Neath would wait another 20 years until 1986/87 for their next (eighth) championship title.