Written exclusively for the website in 2000 by Tony Poole of "The South Wales Evening Post"
THE rise of the game in Port Talbot was down to tin workers in the town and Aberavon's informative years owed everything to proprietor Sir Sidney H Byass. Players from Aberavon, Cwmavon and Taibach made up the first team that played Neath in the New Street area of Aberavon in 1876. The new club was called Afan and the first reported game was against Bridgend on November 4 1978, with Afan winning by one goal and three tries to nil. Reports are thin on the ground after that and one of the rare sightings stated that Afan lost to Llanelli in March 1880. Four years later Afan entered the South Wales Challenge Cup only to lose 44-0 against Swansea. But difficulties were beginning to arise during the mid 1880's - with regard ground facilities - and the old Afan club was forced to close. However, the game began to flourish in Taibach and it wasn't long before the Aberavon Red Rovers emerged. And when Aberavon RFC was reformed in 1887, playing matches at the Mansel Works, they had players on hand from the Red Rovers. Their first game was against Penygraig and it ended 0-0. Even in these pioneering times, fixtures were a problem and some of the major clubs refused to accept Aberavon on to their fixture lists. Neath, Bridgend and the powerful Llwynpia side eventually obliged and in 1888 the club won WRU status. Neath were defeated in 1890 and the following year a substantial victory was recorded over Cardiff - and Swansea were also beaten. Strength was being built, culminating in Dan Jones becoming the first of 48 Aberavon players to be capped by Wales.
At the turn of the century the Mansel Field was absorbed into the emerging Port Talbot Steelworks and Alf Brice and Johnny (Bala) Jones also won Welsh caps. George Vickery, who made his Aberavon debut in 1900, was capped by England five years later. But his son Walter, who died in April 2000, went on to win four Welsh caps - a rare feat indeed for father and son to win caps for different countries. Aberavon twice moved grounds during the opening decade of the twentieth century because the Daycock's Field was taken over by the steelworks. A site leased from the Margam Estate was their next home - the Central Athletic Ground - and a loan from Sir Sidney H Byass, allied to hard work from committeemen, meant that the pitch was soon brought in to use. But the most memorable deed in the run up to the First World War was the winning of the last Welsh Challenge Cup before war broke out. In 1913/14, following a string of superb results, Aberavon beat Blaina in the cup final on May 2 1914 at Bridgend, 10-0. Lord Gray then proclaimed: "The lights are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them light again in our lifetime." The ground was used as allotments for the war effort. And when the carnage eventually stopped in 1918, and the lights came on again, Aberavon were on the verge of a golden era, arguably the finest in the club's proud history.
The Talbot Athletic Ground was officially opened on December 3, 1921 by Sir Sidney H Byass and local dignitaries - and Neath were beaten 8-3. However, during the 1922/23 season, Aberavon experienced fixture confusion, with both Exeter and Guys Hospital due on the same day! But Aberavon played Exeter in the morning and following a light lunch, Guys Hospital were also defeated in the afternoon. Can any other club boast two wins on the same day? The golden era was unfolding and the Welsh Club Championship was won for four successive seasons (1923/24 - 1926/27) and during the 1925/26 campaign the club boasted eight internationals - D Hunt Davies, Willie J Hopkins, Willie James, Lew Jenkins, Bryn Phillips, Bob Randell, Charlie Rowlands and Evan Williams. Johnny Ring was a legendary wing during this era and his scoring deeds will never be beaten. In 1919/20 he crossed 38 times, 41 followed the following year in 1920/21 he bagged 46 and his points tally that year amounted to 165. After World War Two, John Collins went close to beating Ring's all-time best of 125 - but he finished three short. Ring won just one Welsh cap, against England at Twickenham in 1921. Wales lost 17-3; Ring was dropped and he decided to turn professional with Wigan soon afterwards. At this juncture the first Evening Post (Swansea) reporter to be attached to the side - Bill Taylor - dubbed Aberavon the Wizards of the West for some outstanding performances, notably a 10-9 victory at Newport on November 22, 1924. After World War Two, the club became known as just the Wizards and the official club emblem became the wizard. Incidentally, Bill was the first Evening Post reporter attached to the club, followed by John Dolan and Norman Denby - and now myself (Tony Poole). It is indeed an honour for me to find myself in such distinguished company. However, the end of the Twenties and the start of the Thirties saw a downturn in fortunes - fine players were still around but their successes paled against the golden era of the mid-Twenties. Some players were coming to the end of their careers, but Arthur Bassett was the find of the 1933/34 campaign. In his first season as a Wizard, 22 tries flowed and a Welsh cap was just around the corner. The back play during this period was of a high standard and in a King George V Jubilee match - between Wales and The Rest - the entire Aberavon back division was selected. It comprised: Tommy Owen James, Arthur Bassett, Randall Lewis, Jack Thomas and Alan Edwards. However, one of the most talked about matches between the two world wars was Aberavon's clash with Cardiff at the Arms Park on April 25, 1938. There had been bad blood between the clubs - following an abrasive 1933 clash - and the clubs decided to cool things by cancelling fixtures. And in a spectacular capital city showdown, Aberavon triumphed 16-6 with Walter Vickery scoring a memorable try from inside his own half. But with the war clouds again building momentum, the 1939/40 campaign was only a few weeks old when war brought it to a premature end. The Talbot Athletic Ground was turned into a barrage balloon site and it wasn't until Christmas 1945 that it was suitable for rugby again.
Maesteg were the first visitors while later in the season 19,000 spectators saw Aberavon lose 17-4 against a New Zealand Forces side. Following the ravages of war, Aberavon were slow to recover. They lost Trevor Lloyd to Maesteg and he went on to win both Welsh and British Lions honours. New players like Ross Richards, Len Cunningham, Cliff David, John Collins and Cliff Ashton were breaking through and the dynamic Bryn Thomas (Bryn Bat and Ball, Uncle Bryn), became the first unofficial club coach - and his methods were ahead of their time! Scrum-half Onllwyn Brace, fresh out of schools rugby, thrived in Aberavon colours and won Oxford blues in both 1955 and 1956. He paired up with Cliff Ashton at Aberavon, but Brace switched to Newport and the next time they played to together was in the Welsh side against Ireland in 1961. Tony O'Connor came into the side in 1957/58 and three years later won the first of five Welsh caps - but a bigger achievement lay in wait. O'Connor became the first Wizard to win British Lions honours, touring South Africa in 1962. And the scene was set for Aberavon to win the unofficial Western Mail Championship for the only time in 1960/61 under the leadership of Rory O'Connor. It's worth mentioning the main performers who made it possible- Miah McGrath, Rhys Loveluck, Len Cunningham, Billy Hullin, Douglas Hayes, John Bamsey, Kelvin Coslett, Jim Evans, Cyril Jones, Cliff Ashton, Alan Bamsey, Derek Jones, Tony O'Connor, Dennis Perry, Phil Morgan, John Collins, Brian Jones, Peter Jones, David Thomas and Ken Thomas. Aberavon played 48 games, 40 were won and four drawn with 738 points scored and just 191 against. They crossed for 155 tries and conceded 30. Kelvin Coslett set a new club points scoring record on 188 (34 penalties, 43 conversions) while Ken Thomas went over for 26 tries, six more than David Thomas, with Brian Jones getting 20. The following year the season was split by a cold snap and having played well in part one, the Wizards were frozen out when the ice melted. But the progressive Floodlight Alliance, which thrilled fans through its entertainment value, was lifted in 1965/66. Rory O'Connor and Peter Jones, two great flankers, were eventually replaced by Omri Jones (Om the Bomb). He struck fear into a succession of Welsh club fly-halves but the championship side was being dismantled by retirements, a lot caused by injuries.
The Swinging Sixties somehow left Aberavon behind, but locks of the stature of Billy Mainwaring and Maxie Wiltshire came into the side along with forceful flankers like Mike Nicholas and Bobby Wanbon. Behind the scrum Paul Wheeler made the No 15 shirt his own property while Ian Hall and Francis Reynolds were polished midfield operators. Sandfields Comprehensive schoolboy Allan Martin was making a name for himself on the youth scene and when he came into the Aberavon side, he became the side's regular goal kicker. The reintroduction of the Welsh Challenge Cup in 1971 saw wing Dennis Curling go over for seven tries against Nantymoel to equal Johnny Ring's record which had stood alone since 1921. Rugby League clubs left Aberavon's cupboard distinctly bare at this juncture with Wanbon, Nicholas, Reynolds, Robert Fleahy, Ray Wilkins and Curling all signing on the dotted line. The 1971/72 cup semi-final against Llanelli at St Helen's was lost when inspirational hooker Morton Howells damaged an elbow. However, Tumble boy Howells twice took the Wizards to the National Stadium in 1974 and 1975 only to lose on both occasions against the Scarlets. The highlight of the 1975/76 campaign was a unique four wins over Neath - and this proved the final occasion for the old rivals to meet four times in a season.
Nothing was won during Centenary season, 1976/77, with Aberavon life member Hywel Thomas made president of the Welsh Rugby Union. But three players were recognised by the British Lions for the 1977 tour to New Zealand - fly-half John Bevan, prop Clive Williams and lock Allan Martin. Martin also went to South Africa with the Lions three years later. John Bevan, who won four Welsh caps, went on become Welsh coach, but he sadly died in 1986. The Wizards had their moments during the Eighties on the back of class players like scrum-halves Clive Shell and Raymond Giles, fly-half Mike Lewis, hooker Billy James (the only Aberavon player to captain Wales), lock Adrian Owen, wing Les Keen and flanker Richie Davies - but the trophy cabinet remained empty. Mike Lewis broke Allan Martin's club points record, which had stood on 285 points since 1973/74, with the new level set at 306. During the same season wing Keen scored his 100th try for the club and he finished up on 101. During the season Glamorgan cricketer Hugh Morris appeared for Aberavon and scored 13 points on his debut against Abertillery. But the Wizards failed to return to the National Stadium for another cup final and discipline was to prove costly in 1987/88. Five players were sent off during the season and as a punishment, Aberavon started the following campaign a fortnight late. But 19 players had departed the Talbot Athletic Ground and when visiting Newbridge were faced on September 17, 1988, the side in the main was made up of permit players. And in a season where just 14 games were won, the Wizards gained a staggering 21-11 win over the Western Samoan tourists. In many ways the club has never come to terms with the walk out of those 19 players.
The ball game changed when leagues were introduced in 1990/91 and when professionalism was announced in 1995. Against the odds, Aberavon reached their eighth and final cup semi-final against Bridgend at Stradey Park, Llanelli on April 7, 1990 and only lost 12-6. The cup run was built around a strong pack of forwards and the ability of centres Kevin George and John Jardine to prise open tight defences. Two years earlier (1988) a milestone was reached that is unlikely to be repeated - utility forward Tim Fauvel became the 48th and no doubt final Aberavon player ever to be capped by Wales. League rugby has been little short of disastrous for this famous old club and the only highs were provided in the second division. 1991/92 proved a promotion year (behind South Wales Police); the second division championship was won in 1994/95 under Brian Shenton and repeated two years later under Cornishman Colin Laity. However, Aberavon weren't promoted thanks to the WRU moving the goal posts at the 11th hour. But in 1997/88 the reverse was true when Aberavon were runners-up to Caerphilly. But when Cardiff and Swansea fled the Welsh scene at the start of the 1998/99 season, the Wizards were promoted at the 11th hour and expected to produce magic just four days before the start of the season. Valiant attempts were made to survive, but they came to nothing and for 1999/2000 they were back in the second tier. In between it has been a similar case of the Wizards mixing it with big boys but failing to survive. As the Millennium drew to an end, it looked as if the sands of time were running out for the Wizards, who had lost their first five league games of the 1999/2000 season, and were languishing at the wrong end of the first division table. Chris O'Callaghan was brought in as coach during November and the former Aberavon and Bridgend back row man, who won a Cambridge Blue in 1978, has halted a slide towards the second division backwaters.
It seems at best that Aberavon can now only become a successful semi-professional side and the days when they could take on the best in Wales are over. But they are still a great club and it goes almost without saying that no mention of Aberavon should pass without mentioning Evelyn Mainwaring - Welsh rugby's first lady. She has become synonymous with the club since her son Billy played for the club during the Sixties and Seventies and won six Welsh caps between 1967-68. The esteem in which she is held in the Welsh game was obvious in January 1999 when a celebration dinner in her honour proved a complete sell out with 700 guests packing into the Afan Lido. Welsh comedian Colin Price summed it up nicely: "Only two other Welsh personalities could have filled the hall - Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones!" Evelyn Mainwaring, a remarkable lady, long may she reign over our Aberavon family.