After winning the Welsh championship in 1966/67 and the inaugural WRU Cup in 1971/72, Neath endured a long barren period. However, the “Thomas Revolution” had seen fortunes turned around with a Cup Final appearance in 1983/84 and the gradual team development process continued and saw Neath slowly gather impressive strength.
Neath had won the Welsh championship in 1946/47 and in 1966/67 so those who believe in coincidences – or fate ? – might have considered The Gnoll to be the predestined home for the 1986/87 title.
Brian Thomas, aided and abetted by coaches Ron Waldron and Glen Ball, team secretary David Shaw and fitness coaches Alan Roper and John Williams had Neath primed for the assault. Total rugby was the aim; but it was not an easy passage – it never is !
Inspired by the “electric atmosphere” of The Gnoll, the Blacks looked likely winners from the start as they won 13 of their first 14 games, losing only at Newport, and they were playing some truly inspirational, rousing rugby football – compelling, concentrated forward assault backed up by adventurous running behind from some splendidly inventive and gifted individuals. It was down to teamwork but who will ever forget those Jonathan Davies tries against Bridgend then Bath ?
Welsh opponents fell in Neath;s path but, despite that fantastic 26-9 win over Bath at the end of November, English clubs – and referees ! – were sometimes a problem as Neath lost at Blackheath, Orrell, Moseley and Waterloo.
Neath had no such trouble with Welsh clubs and their only other loss was to Maesteg. The Welsh All Blacks steam-rollered their way over their Welsh rivals and, going into Easter, only Newport could deprive Neath of the title – and then only if the All Blacks faltered on their difficult run-in of mighty Leicester (A), Aberavon (H) and Cardiff (A).
But there was never any danger that the Blacks might take their eyes off the prize.
Leicester, with Bath the leading English club of the period, regarded their Welford Road ground as a citadel and when they led 9-7 at half-time Neath had it all to do. Two dropped goals by Les Cusworth and a penalty by Dusty Hare to one by Colin Laity saw the Tigers lead but scrum-half Mark Douglas caught Hare behind his line and Rowland Phillips pounced for a try.
In the second-half, Carl Bridgewater grabbed Neath’s second try which Laity converted and Neath were well on top when Alan Edmunds and Paul Jackson set up a third for prop Jeremy Pugh to give the Blacks a very well deserved victory.
Then it was over to “Grandstand” for the news from Rodney Parade that Newport had lost to Moseley. Calculators were consulted but disbelieving Neath supporters waited until Easter Monday morning when the “Western Mail” led with “NEATH ARE CHAMPIONS” and preparations could begin for a grand party that afternoon when Aberavon travelled to The Gnoll.
Let John Billot take up the tale under the heading “Champion Display by Neath” :-
Neath 48 pts Aberavon 10 pts
JONATHAN DAVIES laid out his dazzling stall of running wares with a thrilling display in this superb home vivtory over Aberavon. Probably the Wizards have never known such a defeat at the hands of their neighbours.
It was in the nature of a celebration. The Gnoll team took the field in front of some 8,000 fans to a roar of acclaim as the loud speaker announcement gave confirmation that as well as being Merit Table champions, Neath had clinched the Western Mail club title.
It has been a great season for them despite injuries and the loss of key players to the Welsh team and they put together a mini-epic to bring the curtain down on their last home game.
When they won the title 20 years ago, it was primarily through the efforts of a scourging pack led by the legendary Brian Thomas. This time Neath have proved a more complete team with skill of the highest quality among their runners.
Jonathan Davies, the most dynamic attacker in club rugby in Britain, is disappointed he did not accomplish more on the international stage but his contribution for his club has been comprehensive.
In front of him yesterday he enjoyed the presence of a pack that nevere really lost momentum for all that the Wizards hit them with a forceful offensive midway through the first half. That stubborn foray by the visitors enabled them to draw level at 6-6 after 30 minutes. It was too much to hope it would last.
The match was decided during a devastating five minutes of Neath onslaught shortly before half-time in which they piled up a further 16 points. From 6-6 it became 22-6. Aberavon were beyond rescue.
Here we saw the new champions in their most expansive mood. Their forwards surged as a black wave to wash over the ball and the crumbling defence and with swift passing, swerving and enterprise produced three tries. Many better teams than Aberavon would have foundered in similar manner.
It was all about momentum as Neath drove and wedged, pulling in the Wizards’ cover then releasing for Mark Douglas to swing his backs free with room to select their options almost at leisure. At the end of it all there were nine tries to show and eight of them by the backs.
The always-excellent Rowland Phillips was continually the arrow-head of thrilling thrusts. No.8 Mark Jones charged and laid the ball back expertly for the following fast ruck; and Lyn Jones yet again disproved the theory held by some that he is purely a destroyer and was there repeatedly to keep the surge on.
The same applied to the second row pair of Paul Jackson and Steve Dando, while hooker Mike Richards never fails to set an example with regard to the shortest distance being a straight line and heaven help anyone who is in the way.
The most spectacular run by a forward however was Jackson’s long dash out of defence when the Wizards ‘ pressure was at its peak. He raised a threatening siege and after that Aberavon were never the same. “Stonewall” Jackson had out-smarted them.
Without Ray Giles, always capable of total defiance behind battered forwards, the Wizards could not assemble in sufficient numbers to block all Neath’s scoring routes.
Once Jonathan Davies was obstructed after he punted on. It looked as if it would be a penalty try but he recovered so swiftly that he raced in pursuit of the ball and touched down first in the goal area.
That was the outside-half’s second try and launched the scoring blitz that blew the Wizards apart inside five minutes. Colin Laity who had converted the first try added the goal points again to make it 12-6 after Mike Lewis had equalised with a penalty goal and a drop-shot.
A forward surge and centre Richard Griffiths surged through for a try. From the re-start, it was yet another Neath attack as Elgan Rees swerved away with all his old artistry to dart clean through, Laity goaled that one as well.
Jonathan Davies broke through from halfway to race for his third try and then it was Richard Griffths again slipping a tackle to score and Laity converted.
Next, Mike Richards dashed over from the front of a lineout and Elgan Rees was put away for his second try from halfway by Jonathan Davies on the loop. Laity converted that and the third try by Richard Griffiths.
John O’Callaghan’s long reach earned him a full stretch try right at the end after the Wizards had unleashed their backs to set up a pressure position but Neath had done enough to prove themselves undisputed champions.
NEATH -Jonathan Griffiths; Elgan Rees, Richard Griffiths, Colin Laity, Steve Powell; Jonathan Davies (capt), Mark Douglas; David Joseph, Mike Richards, Steve Dando, Paul Jackson; Rowland Phillips, 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. Perhaps the side’s impressive depth is best borne out by the fact that eight men who had been or would be capped by Wales – Paul Thorburn, Brian Williams, Kevin Phillips, Stuart Evans, Huw Richards, Barry Clegg, Martyn Morris and Phil Pugh – missed the Aberavon game.
So, after 20 years, Neath were proudly back at the top of the final championship table. It was the eighth time they had borne the crown and the final table read :-
That summer Paul Thorburn, Jonathan Davies, Kevin Phillips, Stuart Evans and Huw Richards would create history in the first Rugby World Cup when Wales, courtesy of a last-gasp Thorburn conversion, beat Australia and clinched a best-ever third place.
It was the first triumph of Neath’s “Golden Era” and the Welsh All Blacks would not have to wait too long for their ninth title !