17.1.2003 Gwyn Jones, The Western Mail
[icWales] LAST weekend I had the arduous task of travelling to Athlone in the heartland of Ireland, in order to commentate on S4C's live match between Connacht and Pontypridd.
It's a tough life; having to fly to Dublin, talk about rugby, stay in a hotel and fly back the next day. But it is a price I am willing to pay!
It was ironic - with both teams fighting for survival in the new professional era - that it was a throwback to the good old days. Not a throwback in terms of the standard of rugby - because the game was as good as anything we have seen all season - but for everything else surrounding the game. Athlone is a town of about 25,000 inhabitants and they welcomed their Welsh visitors with warmth that only the Irish possess. When I asked what was the last major sporting event to be held there they said it was Inter Milan's European Cup visit 30 years ago.
It's not often Ponty and Inter are heard in the same sentence.
After the gripping match everyone in the crowd made their way to the clubhouse, purely to warm up of course, and once the players had finished their meals it was time for the speeches. The presidents of Connacht and Pontypridd rose to address the players and spectators, followed by a brief word from both captains.
I cannot remember the last time I heard a captain of a professional club say a few words at the end of a match. It still exists at junior levels but the occasions where the club captain would be called upon to say a few words have all but disappeared.
Professional clubs don't go on tours as this costs money, neither do they play touring sides with the frequency they used to. Gone are the centenary matches and professional clubs now enter the Welsh Cup at such a late stage that the romance has vanished.
Despite the lack of practice, Ponty's Mefin Davies did a sterling job. He even remembered to include the obligatory - "I'd like to thank the women for the spread" - line, before ending with a few words in Welsh.
Pontypridd had taken part in a great game of rugby, they were in one of the friendliest places you could imagine and if Lynn Howells had given the boys an opportunity to taste the local culture until midnight, who could have blamed him?
On the plane home from Dublin the next day, all the Ponty boys were sat together at the back. You could sense the team spirit and unity and they are clearly a team in every respect.
Unfortunately their captain was the last to get on the aircraft and he eventually made his way down the aisle to the tune of, "Why was he born so beautiful." It was at this point that I began to question the merit or even the possibility of Ponty merging with Cardiff, as was originally so heavily touted. They are so different.
I'm not saying that Cardiff don't have team spirit because they do, they are just very different. For example, we travelled with Cardiff after they had beaten Edinburgh in the quarter-finals of the Celtic League. They had demonstrated great resolve to record a memorable victory and they all sat together at the front end of the plane chatting among themselves.
I am not saying that because the Cardiff players sit at the front of the plane and the Ponty players sit at the back that the sides shouldn't merge. But we are asking clubs with very different cultures and identities to blend as one. And yet it is partly because of the culture and identity that sides like Ponty are so strong.
THE other example was the planned merger of Swansea and Llanelli. Llanelli have managed to establish an excellent work ethic at Stradey Park where, on the whole, the players are fit and eager to train with their coaches.
Swansea, meanwhile, have appointed a captain who a few months ago was threatened with expulsion if he did not lose weight, and they recently dropped star players because they failed to attend training.
The merger of clubs is about more than where the team plays and what colour the shirt is. It will require the coming together of distinct identities. It seems like a large price to pay for an uncertain future. But I cannot see how else Wales can be fiscally responsible and produce sides capable of competing at the highest level.
I have great sympathy for Ponty who have had to fight for recognition - and after all they have achieved they could still end up merging with Cardiff. I had even more sympathy for the Ponty players who were members of the Welsh squad as they left Cardiff International Airport on Sunday. They were heading to the team headquarters for a pool recovery session followed by four hours of video analysis. Professionalism has a lot to answer for.
Play Off Final
Total votes 154
Ponty ar ben eu digon - pencampwyr dwbwl Cymru. Pwy oedd yn serennu yn y gem fawr yn erbyn Llanelli? Ponty on top of the world - double champions of Welsh rugby. Who starred in the big win over Llanelli?