Pages

Showing posts with label Jack Rhapps. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Rhapps. Show all posts

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

When the Balloon Almost Went Up in Tonypandy - 'The Great Northern Union Scandal'

By 1907 the owners of the Mid Rhondda Athletic Fields had a problem - money or more precisely the lack of it. They desperately needed a regular income stream to maintain and improve the ground. The Annual Horse Shows and Bank Holiday Galas and Sporting Events were always well attended but did not provide sufficient revenue for a whole year. Mid-Rhondda already had two excellent rugby teams in Llwynypia and Penygraig who regularly provided members of the Welsh team including the legendary Willie Llewellyn. Although Ton Pentre were proving remarkably successful, soccer was still viewed as a sport played in North Wales and discounted. What to do?


Scandalous storm clouds are gathering over the union game but for the committee of the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Grounds a silver lining will soon follow. Allegations of professionalism involving Aberdare and Treorchy see Welsh international Dai 'Tarw' Jones, member of the victorious Welsh team that beat the All Blacks in 1905, become the most high profile casualty. Refusing to give evidence to the WRU he, and several others, are permanently banned from the amateur game. Merthyr Alexandria escape with just a warning because they have already indicated they are about to leave the Union and embrace the Northern Union code. Suspending their players would only encourage them to defect to the Northern Union which is now perceived as a very real threat.


An interesting development has seen a disillusioned Ebbw Vale already switch codes citing, “. . .bogus amateurism in the Monmouthshire League."  They are swiftly joined by the newly formed Merthyr RLFC. In their first season (1907-08) in the Northern League Merthyr finish 23rd and Ebbw Vale 26th out of 27. Banished from Union Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones is recruited by Merthyr. On 1st January 1908 he is selected to play for the newly formed Wales Northern Union team against New Zealand at the Athletic Ground in Aberdare. Dai becomes the second dual code international following in the footsteps of “the Lion of Salford”, the former Penygraig forward Jack Rhapps.  

It is New Year’s Day on a near frozen pitch and the test against the New Zealand All Golds is a tight and tense affair. At half time New Zealand lead 8-3. Wales fight back hard in the second half and with time running out the crowd of 20,000 are sent into raptures when Dai scores what must be the winning try. New Zealand however have one last chance to salvage the game. With the line at his mercy Dick Wynard drops a pass and a try goes begging. Shades of 1905. Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones has become the scourge of New Zealand in both codes. Black or Gold it’s all the same to Dai. To this day he remains the only Welsh rugby international to have been on a winning Welsh side against New Zealand in both codes. 

Buoyed by the commercial success of the encounter the Northern Union look to another area they consider sympathetic towards the professional game. The new Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground is viewed as the perfect venue to host the first ever encounter between Wales and England under Northern Union rules. For the Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground committee, it must feel like manna from heaven. The opportunity to ensure a sound financial future for the ground appears to have dropped into their lap. They eagerly embrace the opportunity. The treatment meted out to Rhondda clubs, and Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones in particular, following the ‘professionalism’ scandal has soured Rhondda clubs’ relationship with the WRU. Reporting on the build up to the big game the Rhondda Leader suggest:

“Great interest is being evinced in the forthcoming international (Northern Union) football match between England and Wales which will be played on the above grounds (Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground) on Easter Monday next. This is the first match under Northern Union rules to be played in the Rhondda Valley, and no doubt will influence to a great extent the action of certain people who have a leaning towards professionalism.
In Treherbert, it is stated, a syndicate has already been formed to run a professional team, and it is anticipated that a few matches will take place during the present month; whilst rumour is busy with other clubs in the Valley. If professionalism gets a foothold in the Rhondda the Welsh Union will have no one to blame but themselves, as the Rhondda has been practically neglected by the Union for many years.”


The Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground 1973 before the Stand was demolished.
(Picture copyright Keith Jones)


The Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground committee enthusiastically set about preparing for the anticipated huge crowd that will attend the game, sparing no expense to ensure the day is a success. Such is the level of interest railway companies schedule special excursion trains from all parts of South Wales. The presence of Dai ‘Tarw’ Jones in the Welsh line up is of itself a massive attraction. Dai is not just a local but a national hero. 

The day arrives. Before kick-off an informal meeting takes place between Northern Union officials and representatives of Welsh, or soon to be Welsh clubs, who have indicated a desire to become involved in the professional game. The Rhondda Leader reports Mr. Platt, the general secretary of the Northern Union, as declaring that provided suitable grounds could be obtained teams would be formed at Penygraig, Treherbert, Maesteg, Pontypridd and very probably Pontypool. There is the distinct possibility that the Welsh Rugby Union is about to face a challenge from the Northern Union in its own back yard. This could prove to be a seminal moment for the game of rugby in Wales. On 20th April an estimated crowd of 12,000 watch the game which Wales win 36 - 18.

The game exceeds expectations and the crowds depart delighted at what they have witnessed. The Western Mail writes, “. . . if first impressions count for ought, then the big majority of Rhondda Valley spectators who made their initial acquaintance with NU football must acclaim the game as played under the new regime with positive delight.” The Mid Rhondda Social and Athletic Club committee take the plaudits. You can almost hear hands being rubbed together in glee. Wheels are immediately set in motion. Within weeks the Mid Rhondda Northern Union Football Club is formed and admittance to the Northern Union secured on 30th June 1908 where they join Ebbw Vale and Merthyr. 

In true entrepreneurial fashion, prior to the announcement of the formation of a Northern Union side to play at Mid-Rhondda, the committee organise the ‘Fourth Annual Grand Professional Sports Gala and Carnival’. With some justification, Tonypandy now prides itself as being ‘the metropolis of the valleys’ (Rhondda Leader). The committee are keen to showcase the facilities on offer to prospective fans of the newly formed club. The event will include a Horse Show, ‘which promises to eclipse any event of its kind hitherto held in Wales’, and for good measure, Timbering, Shoeing and Ambulance competitions. Huge stands have been erected around three sides of the show ring to accommodate the 8,000 to 10,000 anticipated spectators at one shilling per head. The covered stands will of course be extra. The massive sum of £200 in prize money is on offer for the various sporting activities and 300 entries have been received. But the ‘piece de resistance’ is worthy of P.T. Barnum as the Rhondda Leader reveals:

“The committee have engaged at great expense Mr. Victor Swanton of Pontypool, the great Welsh aeronaut, who will make a grand balloon ascent and parachute descent on both days of the sports. A very large crowd is anticipated to witness this unique event. Mr. Swanton will be on the grounds on Friday afternoon next, when he will make preparations for his ballooning operations. . . On the Whit-Monday, a grand street carnival will start from near Trinity Chapel at 12 noon, headed by the Dinas Silver Band, which will be in attendance during the sports.”
Mr Swanton’s much anticipated balloon ascent does not go to plan. Instead of witnessing a unique event the spectators are called to the intrepid aeronaut’s aid as the balloon veers sideways instead of upwards. Sweeping towards the south-west it strikes the high fencing on the steep banking and the violent impact dashes Swanton against the sides. Some of the crowd rush forward and catch the guide ropes bringing the balloon to the middle of the field where the shaken and embarrassed aeronaut clambers out. It was decided not to make another ascent that evening. In retrospect, the balloon fiasco foreshadows the fortunes of the newly formed Mid-Rhondda Northern Club.

If you believe the 'Mid' should remain a community resource and not be considered for housing development please sign the petition to show your support.
The 'Mid' is left of centre.