By Peter Jackson
Only four club teams have ever beaten the All Blacks and the greatest of those victories happened 54 years ago on Monday in Newport.
Swansea were the first in 1935, Llanelli the last in 1972 with Cardiff almost exactly between them in 1953. Epic occasions all three but any history student worth his liniment oil will understand why Newport’s tops the lot because theirs came against the mightiest of All Black touring teams, the one led by Sir Wilson Whineray during the winter of 1963-4.
A pilgrim strolling into Rodney Parade to pay homage to an occasion that reverberated around the rugby world will find no evidence that the game ever took place. No memorial boards, no plaques, no photographs, not even one of John ‘Dick’ Uzzell’s drop-goal wobbling on a low trajectory out of the gloom and over the bar.
The walls have been stripped bare, in the old clubhouse and upstairs in what used to be the Bill Everson-Vincent Griffiths museum. They are bare, too, in various hospitality suites around the ground named after David Watkins and Roy Burnett, both international fly-halves, and in the Bisley in honour of the club’s first benefactor, the unstinting Tony Brown.
The furniture re-arranging happened after the Welsh Rugby Union bought Rodney Parade lock, stock and barrel last May to save the then Newport Gwent Dragons going out of business.
In their subsequent rebranding, Newport and Gwent have been dropped from the title. Newport RFC still play their Welsh Premier Division matches at Rodney Parade but feel strangers in the 15½-acre site they first leased in 1895 and bought for £7,026 in 1922.
No wonder some feel their history is being trashed. “Of course it is,” says former Wales captain Brian Price, Newport skipper in 1963 who will be 80 tomorrow. “It’s a very, very sad situation and quite a lot of us are angry about it.
“The WRU had said they would find a place in the Bisley Suite to display some memorabilia. I haven’t seen any sign of that. The WRU seem quite prepared to put it all to one side. It’s pretty dreadful as far as Newport RFC is concerned. We are nothing in their eyes.
“If it hadn’t been for Newport RFC where would the place be? Rodney Parade is well-known throughout the rugby world and yet the rugby club has no say whatsoever. Our history should be lauded, not ignored.”
A few days ago the club’s former players’ association were driven to consider their future after being forced to cancel a number of reunions at the stadium. They will try again on February 17. As Price says: “Normally we’d have met a number of times by then.”
At their most historic reunion, four years ago on the golden anniversary of the All Black victory, the Lord Mayor of Newport presented citations to the surviving players, then 13, giving each the freedom of the city. Brian Jones was one of them, the only post-war Welsh player to appear in winning club teams against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
“When the WRU took over ownership, Newport RFC no longer owned any of the buildings and the WRU could not accept responsibility for the safe keeping of the memorabilia,” said Jones, now acting for Newport in an ambassadorial role. “The club decided they would collect it, store it in a safe place and keep it in the hope that one day some of it can be put back on display.
“In the Bisley Suite, the main Dragons’ hospitality area, there used to be a glass cabinet full of the 1963 game, an oil painting of the drop goal, team photograph, programme and so on.
“Once the WRU took over they said they were shutting the clubhouse down. Newport is one of the great clubs of world rugby with an illustrious history and yet we have nowhere to display it.
“One hundred and twenty five years’ history counts for nothing.”
Jones, whose career with Newport stretches back over 64 years as player, coach, chairman, secretary and now ambassador, added: “There are priceless pieces like the leather-bound testimonial to Arthur Gould (Wales’ prototype superstar) and the Springbok head which the club won when they beat South Africa in 1912.
“The Union said there would be a facility afforded to display some memorabilia in the Education Suite, which is where the Newport players have their after-match meal.”
Kevin Jarvis, one of Newport RFC’s four directors, said: “We have a huge collection and it will be a difficult job working out what we can display. There are a lot of empty cabinets. It’s hugely disappointing but we have too many other issues which we are trying to sort out.”
Talks between Newport and the WRU are on-going, not least on how the club copes with a projected loss of £100,000 in bar takings because they can no longer afford to open one.
At least they can put a price on that, however daunting, unlike many of the artefacts now in cold storage.
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