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Rugby Matters: I remember the magic of those midweek matches

ROB BAXTER can always be relied on for an honest soundbite and I cheered aloud at the TV last week when he spoke about how excited he and his players were at the forthcoming prospect of some old-fashioned midweek rugby.

His players were achingly fit and gagging for action after over five months out, Chiefs are blessed with a big squad and what a great – and very different – test of a team and club to ‘go again’ in a big competitive game just a few days after their latest game. Bring it on.

Such views are frowned upon a little these days and the RPA rushed out their playing minutes protocol this week but Baxter, cutting edge in many ways, is also a little old school as well. He took part in the last ever midweek ‘friendly’ between Gloucester and Pontypool as a replacement in 1995 although those mighty clashes were the least friendly games imaginable until the combatants compared war wounds in the bar afterwards.

Back then Baxter will have left the family farm in Devon soon after an early lunch to arrive at Kingsholm and after the obligatory post-match beers it will have been the early hours before he got home. Forty winks and it was time to milk the cows.

Regular midweek rugby could be good for your mental health. By Monday morning all the post-match inquests and recriminations from Saturday were over, instead of obsessing and over- analysing what had just happened you were busy planning for a new game and challenge on Tuesday or Wednesday night. And then when the midweek game was over thoughts automatically turned to Saturday. 

Physically it also had its plusses. Very few midweek games, if any, for Pontypool would even come close to Ray Prosser’s Monday night fitness sessions that the players were spared by playing in midweek.

I have Pontypool’s fixture list for their record-breaking 1983-84 season – that’s when they lost just two of their 50 games – and there are no fewer than 18 midweek games and many of them are gala occasions. Newport home and away, Swansea, Llanelli, Bristol and Tigers at home, Cardiff and Gloucester away. Feisty local derbies – Cross Keys, Newbridge, Ebbw Vale and Tredegar – also tended to be scheduled for midweek.

Of course you would never think of replicating that Pooler season but the modern generation are not snowflakes or shirkers. They don’t really mind a stack of hard work and playing matches in quick succession. They don’t need mollycoddling, they are young, unbelievably fit and invincible. The look of frustration and almost embarrassment from some when they are hauled off after 50 minutes – their ‘week’s’ work done – is acute.

I sense many are envious of the old days, many would love the drama and romance of midweek rugby under the shadowy floodlights. Late beery coach journeys home with a singsong en route. A midweek lay-in the next morning. Rugby teams enjoy that feeling of being on tour, a band of brothers going from one gig to another in short order.

Those midweek games back in Wales in the 80s were very different and atmospheric. As a reporter you would arrive perhaps two hours early, and the ground would be deserted, not even a groundsman in sight. The pitch would be freshly marked, the corner flags were in place and there would always be an ambulance parked up close to the changing rooms but that was it. Otherwise it was the Marie Celeste.

You needed to dress for all weathers. Down in the ‘lowlands’ of Newport and Cardiff we might have enjoyed a springlike day and blithely set off for a night game in distant Tredegar or Ebbw Vale only to drive straight back into raging winter, with roadside snowdrifts and iron-hard frosty pitches to contend with.

The arrival of the burger vans was always the first sign of life. Like locomotives getting up steam they would start noisily boiling cisterns of water and heating up hot plates and before long the heavenly smell of bacon, cheeseburgers and chips cued the arrival of the first fans. Cross Keys had the best burgers, particularly the van behind their rickety wooden ‘grandstand’ while Bridgend was quality as well. Some you learned to give a wide berth.

Eventually the players turned up. Eddie Butler would drive in fresh from teaching duties at Cheltenham College and wing Goff Davies – Skeets – was another harassed teacher happy to escape the classroom.

Yawning centre and fireman Roger Bidgood had been on the early shift and was still coming round after an afternoon’s kip while Bobby Windsor had managed to swap shifts down at the steel works and was full of good cheer. Chris ‘Madman’ Huish – a hard core fitness fanatic –would appear in strange looking Rambo gear having probably spent most of the day yomping up in the Black Mountains. He couldn’t get enough.

David Bishop always checked in late because that’s how he liked it, he got nervous hanging around too much. Warming up was standing in front of the three bar electric heater in the changing room. Sometimes goal kicking machine Dr Peter Lewis was even later than Bishop. Lewis, a dapper figure among the Pooler hard cases, would often arrive directly from the operating theatres at the Newport and Gwent Hospital where he had been working his miracles.

A doctor is never off duty as he discovered one dramatic Tuesday night when Pooler were playing Cardiff, one of those crackling midweek fixtures that were impossibly exciting to watch under the murky floodlights. God knows how any full-back ever fielded a high ball. The Pooler fans had massed on the Bank when midway through the first-half a middle aged gentleman was passed down to the touchline having suffered a heart attack.

A call went out on the PA for a doctor and Lewis was jogging back from yet another successful penalty attempt when his ears pricked up. He sprinted over to the touchline, tended to his patient and helped him into the ambulance, before he resumed his customary station at full-back. Cardiff immediately launched a bomb which he dropped. No quarter given, even for NHS heroes.

Stuff happened in those midweek games and some players like Bishop, his big mate Mark Ring at Cardiff, Jonathan Davies at Neath and Bridgend wing Glen Webbe came alive under the floodlights. Midweek games were like bonus matches and they had a licence to show off a little. Hopefully a little of that will now reappear in the modern generation.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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