The fall of a truly iconic Welsh rugby club, how it happened and what it's like there now after shock decision; It's news that saddened many in Welsh rugby but they plan on rising from the rubble.
In the Welsh Rugby Union's official history, Fields of Praise, the authors Dai Smith and Gareth Williams use the book's final knockings to describe the game in Wales as it used to be.
Running through the richness and variety on offer to supporters 40 or so years ago, they begin the penultimate paragraph thus: "Welsh rugby is a rainy night at the end of the Llynfi Valley watching Maesteg drive forward on their table-top ground."
What can be said?
Maesteg are still playing on their table-top ground, but these days their circumstances are vastly diminished. Three weeks ago, amid an acute shortage of players -- 20 left and just five turned up for training at certain points of the summer --the club took the decision to self-demote, requesting that they be allowed to drop down from Division One West Central to Division Three East Central C.The Welsh Rugby Union duly agreed, and Maesteg's descent took effect. They are now in similar territory to Sylvester Stallone and Michael Rooker in the film Cliffhanger, without a lot below them.
The club of Gwyn Evans, Chico Hopkins and Allan Bateman actually did well to start this season at all.
"On my first day back there were six players here, two of whom were moving on," says head coach Paul Clapham, who returned to take over the coaching reins last month.
"So we've basically had to build from nothing."
"ARE YOU PLAYING?"
The sun is shining on the afternoon WalesOnline visit. It is the first day of the season and Ferndale provide the opposition at Llynfi Road. The wonder is what type of side Maesteg will field. Inauspiciously, after I climb the path that leads up to the old ground, a man notices my bag and asks if I'm playing.
But certain things are timeless.
In his autobiography, There and Back Again, Allan Bateman describes Maesteg as the most hospitable club he played for. A lot has changed since The Clamp featured in black and amber, but not the bit about Maesteg and their supporters being hospitable. Within minutes of entering the ground I enter into a conversation with a man I haven't seen for a couple of decades, John Christopher. I ask him where I can get a match-day programme. He responds by handing me his own. "Won't you need it?" I ask. "Don't worry," is the reply.
The club secretary, Darren Farmer, appears and we retreat to a quiet corner of the clubhouse to mull over the downturn of a club who once completed an invincible season in Welsh rugby and who were Merit Table champions in 1978 and 1979.
"It was heartbreaking to see just five or six boys training at times during the summer," he says.
"We tried to bring in others, but the first thing a lot of them would say was 'how much?'.
"We've paid players in the past, but that's over now.
"When we were paying we had pretty good crowds and good backing from Revlon, who had a factory locally, and others.
"But those days are gone and there's been a steady decline since. There's no longer the industry in the town to back the club. In this day and age when many businesses are struggling, it's a lot more difficult for them to say 'here's 50 grand a year' or whatever it would be."
Maesteg have in many ways been caught in a perfect storm of dwindling sponsorship, declining crowds and players opting to migrate or return to clubs who in the past would not have been able to match the Old Parish's appeal.
Maesteg Harlequins, Maesteg Celtic and Nantyffyllon are the others in the market for local talent. Quins, once the weakest of the quartet, have surged to prominence, winning repeated promotions to the point where they are now sampling life in the Championship.
Celtic are in Division One West Central and Nanty are in the section below.
HOW THE ROT SET IN
Some on social media claim Maesteg have been the architects of their own downfall by importing players instead of having faith in homegrown talent.
What does Farmer say to that charge?
"Well, we paid players in the past and that's probably where the rot started," he says.
"But we haven't been paying for a number of years, not least because we haven't been able to afford to.
"We did reach a point where we were bringing in boys from outside Maesteg, because over the years it became harder to attract local players. A few seasons ago we were calling around other clubs in the valley, but what we were getting back was: 'Nobody wants to play for you'.
"I don't know why that was the message.
"Perhaps the issue comes down to our not having grown our own players over a number of years."
Farmer continues: "I suppose you could say we've been complacent in that we probably sat back and expected what's happened over the years to continue, namely that we would be at the top of the pyramid in the Llynfi Valley and players would want to come and play for us.
"But the pyramid has been turned upside down.
"Maesteg Quins have risen through the divisions. We lost players to them and they have built really well. They have boys who went to school together and they've been central to what the Quins have done.
"That's the way it goes.
"That's what league rugby brought in.
"It's OK people saying it was better when there was no league rugby, but we wouldn't have had the competition we've enjoyed over the years.
"The era of 18 clubs at the top of the pyramid wasn't sustainable.
"That's why we went to leagues.
"It has given clubs chances to compete at a higher level."
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LESSONS FOR WELSH RUGBY
Maesteg are not alone in finding life difficult in modern-day Welsh rugby, but their plight has shocked many because it doesn't seem so long ago that they were a force in the game, drawing with the Maori in 1982 and finishing third in the Welsh Championship four seasons later, beating Neath and doubling Pontypool when both were immensely powerful.
After the club made public their plans to regroup, former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore was among those to sympathise, saying via Twitter: "I used to use my experiences playing away at Maesteg as inspiration before England v Wales games -- sad news." Phil Davies and Rupert Moon also sent good wishes.
The certainty is that as the season unfolds others will hit problems. Only last week Glais were appealing for players ahead of their game with Bridgend Sports. When the match took place, the Swansea village club lost 101-0.
Farmer says: "It is worrying for Welsh rugby generally rather than just Maesteg, because the number of boys playing the game these days seems to be getting smaller in Wales.
"Also, 20 or 30 years ago, we'd have thousands of people watching us on a Saturday afternoon or under lights in midweek.
"Now there's a lot more things for people to do.
"And that applies to kids as well. They have a load more leisure options."
A DECADE TO FORGET
It is hard to remember a decade like it in the club's history.
In 2011, they lost 149-14 to Cwmllynfell, starting the match with 14 players and ending it down to 10. They brought in Richard Webster as coach -- "an outstanding guy", according to Farmer -- and the ex-Swansea, Wales and Lions flanker performed minor miracles before eventually departing.
His struggles to raise teams became legendary.
At one point he told The Guardian: "I asked this prop to sit on the bench because we didn't have a substitute. The prop says: 'What do I get?' I said: 'The pleasure of my company'. And then, jokingly, I said: 'I'll buy you a Chinese. A double Chinese'. He's a big fat bloke and so he said: 'All right'. One of my other players then texted to say he'd be late because his kid had fallen off a scooter. And then we got a youth-team boy who turned up without boots. I told him: 'You'll have to wear the boots of whoever comes off -- whatever their size'. He hid away in the changing room.
"After the game, at seven o'clock, the big fat prop phoned me. He said: 'Where are you? You said you'd buy me a double Chinese'. The kid was waiting for me outside the Chinese. And he hadn't even come off the bench during the match. I'd asked him: 'Do you want to go out there?' And he said: 'Nah, not really'."
Two past players who featured for the Old Parish in their pomp, Gwyn Evans and Leighton O'Connor, are in attendance for the game with Ferndale.
The pair were the real deal. Cardiff had Terry Holmes and Gareth Davies, Bridgend had Gerald Williams and Gary Pearce and Swansea had Brynmor Williams and David Richards. For Maesteg, O'Connor and Evans were half-backs of stellar quality as well.
Wales and Lions man Evans became a byword for loyalty, staying with his hometown club when he could have left for pretty much any other Welsh side of his choosing. Watching Neil Jenkins destroy the Old Parish with a prodigious exhibition of kicking out of hand and off the tee in the early 1990s, Peter Williams, Maesteg's coach at the time, said: "He reminded me of Gwyn Evans. I can pay him no higher compliment." The former rugby writer John Billot described Evans as Maesteg's "guiding genius", and in 1982 the Maesteg Comprehensive School product was Welsh rugby's player of the year.
The man himself still looks trim enough to nip over the railings and play himself.
Instead, he looks on as the action unfolds.
"It's sad," he says, "but it's partly down to the way rugby is structured. We had protection back in the old days, but things change and you simply have to try to make the best of it.
"There are four really good clubs in the valley, but, for me, Maesteg should be the one that the three others feed to.
"They have the facilities.
"If we were able to get the four clubs in the valley working in a coherent way to get one decent side, we'd have a very good team at Maesteg.
"But, of course, not everyone will think that way."
Wales B international O'Connor coached Maesteg twice after retiring as a player. The occasion against Ferndale is especially notable for him as his sons Luke, a full-back, and Lloyd, a scrum-half, are playing.
"It's an emotional day," he says as Lloyd flings out a pass.
"But it's a great opportunity for the boys to play for Maesteg.
"Nowadays, clubs do their own thing rather than look to help the one side, which is fair enough because they all want success. Perhaps Maesteg have been left behind.
"But they're a great club, on and off the field, and I loved every minute that I played for them. We worked hard on the field and played hard off it. That's the way it was in those days. Let's hope they get back to those days again."
The bad news for the club is that it's a long road back. The good news is they have a plan, based on exploiting their under-16s and youth teams. "It's the way forward," says Farmer.
"There's no miracle solution, but the will is there for the club to start climbing again.
"I have sat down with the youngsters and told them they are the future of this club.
"Last season was our 140th year and, yes, it's great to have all that history to look back on. Unfortunately, history isn't going to help us in the here and now or in the future.
"The good old days are not going to keep the club going for the next 140 years. So a hard decision had to be taken and, hopefully, with a steady flow of youth boys coming through we can build and those players perhaps will be the first team in a generation to call this club their club.
"That is critical, a potential game-changer.
"There will be opportunities for local boys in senior rugby with Maesteg.
"We are viewing this as a new beginning."
One youngster, centre Jack Ketcher, quite looked the part against Ferndale, breaking the defence on several occasions and showing speed and footwork that suggested he could have a bright future.
There was also a strong ball-carrying effort from No. 8 Iestyn Jeffery, while seasoned tight-head prop Stephen Tremlett, who had come out of retirement to help his local club, gave Maesteg a decisive advantage in the scrums, with lock Kevin Baldwin also prominent.
Watching a match that spans 110 minutes is the club's evergreen press officer, Dennis Thomas, who fires out a stat whenever asked for one.
The genial Clapham applauds as his side secure a 24-12 bonus-point win. He has performed the rugby equivalent of turning water into wine over the past fortnight, assembling a side from nowhere to gain a win, along the way converting an outside half to hooker and a flanker to loose-head prop just to get a team on the field.
But it is all over for the day and the 150-or so spectators soon drift away, either to the clubhouse bar or further afield.
An emptiness fills the main seating area.
Once, a true test of a journalist's mettle would be to try to send over running copy from that same stand at Llynfi Road. The ear-splitting noise after a try made it well-nigh impossible to hear the copytaker on the other end of the line. For those involved, stress could reach fighter-pilot levels.
Today, anyone attempting to ring out would have had no such problem.
But the crowd isn't a bad one for a club operating in one of the league's basement divisions.
While WalesOnline are chatting to Clapham a fan interrupts to shake the coach by the hand, saying: "Congratulations, Paul -- and all in barely two weeks. Imagine what we can do in three weeks."
There is life in the Old Parish yet.
But, very definitely, what has happened to them is a warning to other clubs.
Nothing is guaranteed.
The old certainties are long gone.
Credit: Adrian White
Maesteg's Llynfi Road ground ahead of the new season
Credit: Adrian White
Maesteg RFC secretary Darren Farmer
Credit: Adrian White
Maesteg coach Paul Clapham with his new team
Credit: Adrian White
Ex-Maesteg RFC fly-half Gwyn Evans
Credit: Adrian White
Former Maesteg scrum-half Leighton O'Connor, watching his sons play for the Old Parish. Copyright [c] 2018 Adrian White
Credit: Adrian White
Credit: Adrian White
Maesteg RFC coach Paul Clapham addresses the club's players
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|Publication:||Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Sep 6, 2018|
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