Value of the Premiership

Value of the Premiership

Those who have doubted the value and importance of Welsh Premiership rugby to the regional and national game should think again in the light of recent events on the international scene writes Huw S Thomas

Man of the Match in the Wales v Ireland game and equally outstanding in the Welsh win at Murrayfield was former Llandovery prop Wyn Jones who spent years learning his trade in the tough world of the Premiership before turning professional with the Scarlets.

Known ln the Llandovery locality by the name “Wyn Clynmawr” –  from the farm outside the town which has been in family hands for generations – Jones has been turning in storming displays for region and country.

And he puts much of his success at the top level of the game down to his experience in the Premiership.

Wyn Jones remembers one game in particular that summed up his front row apprenticeship.

 

“One of the last games I played for the Drovers was a quarter final tie in front of a big crowd at Eugene Cross Park.”

 

“The Ebbw pack was the best in the league with hard, tough, rough experienced players from 1 to 8 – Ross Jones, Matthew Williams, Rob Sevenoaks, Damien Hudd, Ashley Sweet, Rhys Clarke, Cameron Regan and Ronny Kynes.”

 

“If you didn’t stand up to them, they would run all over you and their close range line out was a huge part of their success but we matched them toe to toe in set and loose.”

 

“That was as hard a game as I have ever played at any level and a wonderful learning curve for me – despite being sent off right at the end for maul infringements.”

 

 

“That whole Cup campaign was a huge test for us and for me in particular as we came up two other very strong packs in Cardiff in the first round and then Pontypridd in the semi-final at neutral St Helen’s.”

 

“In the semi final game against Pontypridd at St Helen’s, we cause a huge shock by beating the hot favourites for the Cup 25-16”

“Ponty – with fly half Ceri Sweeney back from his stay at Exeter Chiefs – were virtually winning everything at the semi-pro level and we had to put every ounce of energy and effort over 80 minutes to get the better of them.”

“My last game for the club couldn’t have been better stage managed as it was against out fierce rivals Carmarthen Quins – Kieran (Hardy) and Ryan (Elias) were in their squad – and in the Welsh Cup Final, too, at the Principality Stadium”

“I scored one of the tries in our 25-18 win before moving full time to the Scarlets and it was a brilliant end to a long and happy association with my home town club which had a dedicated and knowledgeable committee under President Phil Davies and Chairman Handel Davies.”.

“It’s true to say that such full on games prepared me well for the physicality of the professional and even international scene.”

 

“And we were always encouraged by the Llandovery coaching team to be far more than scrummagers but to run, handle and off load to produce a style of rugby that was a joy to be part of.”

 

“I’ve naturally had to work on my fitness and bulk up ready for confrontations with big men and adapt to the speed of the game but the professional has time on his hands to do this.”

 

“There is a huge amount of raw talent in the Premiership, ready to step up a gear if only given the chance”

 

As a former first class hooker with Swansea, Euros Evans must take praise for his work with Jones as must veteran Llandovery prop Andrew Jones – a Barbarian – who played 577 games for the club in a wonderful 22 year career and who was always at hand to give his young prop advice and counsel on all front row matters.

“Cantona  (aka Andrew Jones) was a specialist loose head and made me scrummage against him in training and talked me through all the tricks of his long lasting trade.”

“Emyr Phillips and Dorian Williams also gave me invaluable help in aspects of forward play.”

Now widely recognised as  hard scrummaging, mobile, ball carrying forward, excelling at turnovers the loose head prop, the 28 year old is already being touted a British Lion by no less a figure as Sir Ian McGeechan.

Wyn Jones’s story casts the Premiership in a fine light but also highlights fault lines in the Welsh set up-  is the identification of talent good enough?

Not deemed good enough to get into the Scarlets Academy or age group U16 and U18 teams, Jones learned his trade via the Junior Drovers set up at Church Bank before getting into the Youth team when a pupil at Llandovery’s Ysgol Pantycelyn.

His natural strength – befitting a farmer used to manhandling stubborn sheep and rams – allied to powerful bursts in the loose and charging runs soon saw him come to the attention of the senior coaches at Church Bank.

The young farmer made his Drovers debut in 2011 as a 19 year old when studying for a degree in Agriculure at Aberystwyth Univerity and went on to play 90 club appearances in Premiership, Tovali Cup, Swalec Cup and British and Irish Cup games with additional games for local feeder Ammanford in his early days.

The highlight of the 2016 season for both Jones and the Drovers was the win over local rivals Carmarthen Quins in the final of the Swalec Cup in Cardiff on May 1, 2016, the prop scoring one of the three Llandovery tries.

Gareth Jenkins from the Scarlets had been keeping on eye on him in Premiership games and realised that here was a late developing talent who would prosper in the professional game

His outstanding play and well taken try convinced the powers that be at Parc Y Scarlets that here was indeed someone who could go all the way to the top.

Llandovery coach Euros Evans echoed his club’s thoughts.

“We were sorry to see Wyn go but our role and duty is to prepare players to make the step into regional rugby and hopefully beyond.”

“Playing against older more experienced props is how young props learn. Every game you are learning not only from your opponent but from your team mates, working together to solve problems.”

 

“ Wyn learnt quickly and at young age he was one of the best props in the Premiership and when he was at this level he was ready to transition to the pro game. “

 

“Not only does the Premiership help develop their playing skills, it also helps them understand the importance of a team culture, the role they play within a team, develop  resilience and help them understand the importance of winning games, these skills are essential in the professional game.”

 

“He learned his trade in the hard world of uncompromising Premiership forward play, in the cold and wet, facing props who might have played a few hundred Premiership games and who would find weaknesses in young props as a matter of satisfaction and pride.”

“I remember the year we won the Cup. Wyn had a great game against the renowned Ebbw Vale pack when he gave us a solid scrum and was a key part in stopping their famous driving line out.”

 

And another player who had a sound apprenticeship in the Premiership with Carmarthen Quins was scrum half Kieran Hardy  –  who was influential when he came on for Gareth Davies in the last half hour against Scotland.

Every Premiership club has prepared many a young player for the professional game including current Welsh players.

Scrum half Kieran Hardy, James Davies and hooker Ryan Elias learned their early trade with Carmarthen Quins.

Hardy turned out 55 times in his three year stay at the Quins and after a short period at Jersey Reds where he partnered Callum Sheedy, got a Scarlets contract in 2008 and a first cap in November 2020.

Ryan Elias played 44 times in the Premiership from 2013 onwards and was capped three years later after he had secured a professional contract with the Scarlets, following in the footsteps of fellow Bro Myrddin pupil Ken Owens.

James Davies is the only Welshman to win a silver medal at the Olympics, being part of the GB VII squad that finished up to Fiji in the 1996 Games in Rio.

But he had been long shining in the Premiership for many years, the best flanker in the league with his exceptional work at the breakdown, speed around the park and footballing skills.

Between 2011 and 2015 he scored 65 points in 59 appearances for the Quins, then moved to the Scarlets from where he was capped against Italy in 2018.

Every Premiership club has prepared many a young player for the professional game including current Welsh players.

Scrum half Kieran Hardy, James Davies and hooker Ryan Elias learned their early trade with Carmarthen Quins.

Hardy turned out 55 times in his three year stay at the Quins and after a short period at Jersey Reds where he partnered Callum Sheedy, got a Scarlets contract in 2008 and a first cap in November 2020.

Ryan Elias played 44 times in the Premiership from 2013 onwards and was capped three years later after he had secured a professional contract with the Scarlets, following in the footsteps of fellow Bro Myrddin pupil Ken Owens.

James Davies is the only Welshman to win a silver medal at the Olympics, being part of the GB VII squad that finished up to Fiji in the 1996 Games in rio.

But he had been long shining in the Premiership for many years, the best flanker in the league with his exceptional work at the breakdown , speed around the park and footballing skills.

Between 2011 and 2015 he scored 65 points in 59 appearances for the Quins, then moved to the Scarlets from where he was capped against Italy in 2018.

Each of the Premiership teams can boast of similar successes but Llandovery ‘s list of those given chances with the club to go on to better things makes impressive reading.

Top of the list is Emyr Phillips who played 130 times for the club, mentoring fellow farmer Wyn Jones on the way before moving to the Scarlets from where he gained three Welsh caps.

And if we go a little further back, we can see how successful were stints at the club for future internationals.

Coaches Iestyn Thomas, Rob Appleyard, Lyndon Lewis and Euros Evans moulded many a good player into a better one.

Future internationals Dafydd Jones, Tal Selley, Mark Jones, Adam Warren, Sam Parry, Rhodri Williams all testify to the importance of their formative Church Bank years.

42 times capped back row Jones came via Aberaeron made 31 appearances for the Drovers – 22 in one season in the pre-Premiership National League Division One.

Four times capped hooker Sam Parry played 17 times all in one season ( 2010-2011), wing Tal Selley – one of only three Welsh players to play for the four different Welsh regions – turned out 30 times and Adam Warren made 53 appearances in scoring 105 points.

The star back to come thought the club before going onto great things has been wing Mark Jones who came from Builth Youth and in season 1998-1999 ran in a record breaking 21 tries in 26 appearances.

To see him haring down the wing with the speed, balance and elegance of a gazelle thrilled home supporters as never before – or perhaps since – and he played 43 times in the white and red shirt before having a glittering career with the Scarlets  and then Wales for whom he scored 13 tries in 47 internationals.

Current Dragons captain Rhodri Williams will be remembered at Church Bank for his darting, sniping runs which saw him 12 tries in 44 appearances before eventually  playing three times at scrum half for Wales.

This sextet all played for Wales but here are a host of others who have graduated from Church Bank into the profesional ranks – the likes of lock Lyndon Bateman (67 games), Simon Emms (23), Rhodri Gomer Davies  (19) and Peter Edwards (106)  whilst many others made impressions at Llandovery when lent out from the Scarlets for reasons of rehabilitation and recovery, urgently needed game time.

The Premiership has also been invaluable in providing opportunities for internationals to recover their form and fitness in a competitive environment  – Lou Reed, Andy Powell, Rob McCusker, Vernon Cooper, Josh Turnbull , Garan Evans, Aisea Havili, Nathan Brew, Tadgh Beirne were all Scarlets who re-found form or favour or new life after short stints at in the Premiership.

As was Canadian Jamie Cudmore who – unrated by the Scarlets –  ended up playing 23 games 2002-2003 in the then National League Fist Division before being voted in France as one of the greatest of all locks in the French Top 14.

Critics of the Premiership – or National One that was – should also realise that regions have made serious errors of judgement in not identifying or nurturing talent in the Premiership.

As an example, two players missed by the Welsh system made huge impacts with Exeter – Phil Dollman and One of Tom O’Flaherty.

Cardiff University student O’Flaherty played for Cardiff towards the end of 2013 and scored four tries in four appearances before a move to Bridgend where he scored 18 tries in 25 appearances in the 2014-15 Premiership season and scoring the match-winning try against Pontypridd in the Swalec Cup Final.

He was not offered a contract by Blue or Ospreys so he spent a season in France in the Top 14 with Montpellier.

On his return to Wales, he had joint registration with Bridgend and the Ospreys but his talent went unrecognised and he only played just a few games of any importance for the Ospreys before joining  Exeter  where he has become a leading light in Premiership and European Cup campaigns.

Centre Phil Dollman played four years with Bedwas in the Premiership under the ever astute eye and coaching of Steve Law who always considered his protégé top regional quality but was underused by the Dragons.

Released, he moved on to Exeter in 2009  where he became a key figure with his ability to play all over the back line, won a Premiership title with the Chiefs and ended up playing nearly250 games for them over 11 seasons.

And let’s not remember that the Premiership/ National One was the learning place of one of the great Welsh players of recent times – James Hook who spent two years at Neath before being offered an Ospreys contract.

The WRU should cherish the Premiership and morally, sportingly and financially support the efforts of the clubs to successfully prepare players – the likes of Wyn Jones – for the international scene.

With coaches the like of Steve Law, Jason Hyatt, Dale McIntosh, Euros Evans, Justin Burnell and Josh Turnbull at the ready, the Union needs to invest in the clubs, coaches and players who will help strengthen the pursuit of excellence in the Welsh game.

HUW S THOMAS  (C) 18/02/2021

 

HUW S THOMAS  (C) 18/02/2021

Wyn Jones – aged 16 – in front row one from the right representing Ysgol Pantycelyn at the Llandovery College Open 7s in 2008

Running out for the Drovers before the semi final clash with Pontypridd in one of his last games for them in 2016

 Good luck banners at Church Bank wishing Wyn a good World Cup in Japan

Value of the Premiership

    

TEAM P W D L PF PA PTS
Cardiff 16 13 0 3 396 243 61
Carmarthen Quins 17 10 3 4 372 278 54
Aberavon 16 11 0 5 371 272 53
Llandovery 16 9 2 5 344 285 48
Pontypridd 18 10 0 8 394 376 47
Merthyr 18 8 0 10 362 374 44
RGC 1404 17 8 1 8 409 381 43
Newport 15 7 0 8 294 278 37
Swansea 17 7 0 10 246 292 35
Llanelli 15 6 0 9 293 412 27
Ebbw Vale 17 4 2 11 283 351 27
Bridgend Ravens 18 3 0 15 271 493 19