These are worrying times for the grassroots game in Wales
The future of one of Welsh rugby’s most iconic clubs is in grave doubt amid a wider crisis that has reportedly left around 30 others on the brink of extinction.
Merit Table winners in 1978 and 1979 and invincible in 1949-50, Maesteg RFC today reveal they are in peril as the effects of Covid-19 on sport bite hard.
This is a famous Welsh club that counts Chico Hopkins, Gwyn Evans, Allan Bateman and Mike Hall among their former players.
The outlook is grim for many others, too, with one leading official warning a record number of Welsh clubs are close to folding as the coronavirus pandemic bites.
There is still no sign of a return date for clubs who are desperate to start playing again and begin raising revenue on match-days.
Maesteg, who have dropped down to League 3 West Central B amid an acute shortage of players, are one of the more high-profile clubs in imminent danger.
“It’s heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to think that a club of such history and standing, who’ve stood the test of time for close on a century and a half, might potentially not be here in 12 months’ time,” Maesteg secretary Darren Farmer told Wales Online.
“It hurts to say those words.
“My grandfather was chairman of the club and my grandmother cooked in the kitchen. I have followed Maesteg since I was six and have been on the committee for 15 years.
“But we are experiencing very difficult times. My guess is we are not alone.
“The restrictions that are in place because of Covid-19 have left countless clubs assessing their viability and at Maesteg we have had discussions about opening on a week-to-week basis, putting the club into hibernation, or worse.
“In the short term, do you shut your doors to conserve cash or do you open just to get people in? If you choose the latter option, you end up bleeding money and that can go on for only so long.”
Maesteg may have dropped through the divisions in recent times, but they have a past to compare with most in the Welsh game, with an glittering cast of past players.
Ray ‘Chico’ Hopkins was one of them. He secured his place in Welsh rugby history by coming off the bench for Gareth Edwards to inspire victory over England at Twickenham in 1970. He was named Welsh player of the year that season and featured for the Lions in New Zealand a year on.
Gwyn Evans also toured with the best of British and Irish rugby after taking over from JPR Williams in the Wales side. His preferred position was fly-half and his loyalty to the Old Parish was remarkable, with the local player staying with the club despite much interest from elsewhere.
Alongside him in the Maesteg backline were fellow Lions Hall, who went on to captain Wales, and Bateman, while Gavin Henson acted as a ball-boy during his father Alan’s time as captain.
During their heyday Maesteg were renowned for fielding some of Welsh rugby’s hardest and most durable packs.
After the club dropped through the leagues, former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore sympathised, saying: “I used to use my experiences playing away at Maesteg as inspiration before England v Wales games.”
Former Wales stars Rupert Moon and Phil Davies were among others who sent their best wishes.
Maesteg secretary Farmer said he understood the need for restrictions to head off the risk of coronavirus spreading in the community. But in turn clubs had been left with huge problems.
“It’s a perfect storm in many ways,” he continued.
“A lot of our money comes from people using our function rooms but we can’t have groups of people mixing indoors, so that’s gone as a means of generating income, while we’re not sure how we’ll be affected if Wales games end up behind a TV paywall.
“In July, we asked our supporters if they’d renew their memberships and, to be fair, the response was exceptional. We have also retained some of our sponsorships, but, overall, we are still running at a loss on a week-to-week basis.
“I guess our future depends on whether we get help from the government or the local council.
“We are exploring all avenues, but we are a rugby club and we are not playing rugby, so it’s tough.”
The outlook is grim for many others, too, with Aberavon Quins secretary Stuart Broad, a leading figure in a campaign to rescue struggling clubs, telling The Rugby Paper : “A record number of clubs are folding.
“There are so many clubs teetering on the brink of extinction. Playing numbers have fallen massively in recent years with catastrophic consquences.
Arguing there’s a disconnect between the Welsh Rugby Union’s hierarchy and the community game, at a time of Covid-19 and unprecedented financial challenges, Broad offered up the names of 22 clubs whom he said had become “inactive because they cannot play competitive rugby any longer”.
Another club official is reported as telling the paper: “There’s around 30 clubs who won’t be here in January unless something dramatic happens.”
There are also real fears the absence of rugby because of the pandemic will affect the game in other ways.
“Rugby for players and supporters is often a case of routine,” said Neath RFC secretary Mike Price.
“But with no games being played people are going to lose the habit.
“Some players could have gone a year or so without training or playing by the time we resume and in some cases they may not bother coming back.
“If we lose three or four players from clubs, then those clubs might not be able to stand that, and the same goes for youngsters potentially leaving the game. If we miss out on a whole year’s players, we are storing up problems.”
Price continued: “Supporting a team is very much a continuity thing, but the longer the current situation goes on then the average supporter in the lower leagues may get out of the habit and do other things.