AHEAD of Penarth RFC's Past Players Reunion on November 17, Chris Thau takes a look back at 'Penarth - The Phoenix of Welsh rugby!'
THE Penarth battle for survival in the aftermath of the Great War was somewhat replicated by the drive to retain the club's most valuable asset, its first class fixture list immediately after the end of the Second World War, twenty-five years later.
Not unexpectedly, Penarth's 60th anniversary in 1940 passed unnoticed amid the unfolding drama of the War. During the early months of the War in the autumn of 1939, Penarth went on playing for a short while, but no further match was recorded after January 1, 1940. Those in the forces, like most sportsmen in the British Army, 'played the game' whenever and wherever had the opportunity.
There has been hardly any record of their rugby exploits throughout the vast expanse of the front, though some of them lived to tell the story. Wing-forward Herbert George Norman ' the oldest member of the club - who turned up for his Royal Engineers Battalion and regimental teams during his commando training at Chatham, was one of those.
"We played quite a bit of rugby, but once I got injured during my commando training, I had to stop playing. Mind you, once I recovered, I started playing again, to keep fit," Norman recalled. The club's highest-profile player during those years was its skipper, Company Sergeant-Major Frank Trott (Penarth and Army), who was selected for the Barbarians against JE Thorneloe's XV at Leicester for one of their wartime fixtures in aid of services charities in 1944.
Although the record books rightly credit RF Trott with his first cap against England on January 17, 1948, when he was already a member of the Cardiff club, it would be fair to recall that he had already played for Wales, while still a member of Penarth in February 1946, which technically makes him the last Penarth player to play for Wales.
The apparent paradox is explained by the reluctance of the Home Unions to award caps for the so-called Victory Internationals, the series of international matches played by the Five Nations and some of the military teams of the Dominions, including the New Zealand Army team, 'The Kiwis', in the immediate aftermath of the War.
Trott, who during his captaincy of Penarth had played in a Wales trial before the War, made his Barbarians debut against JE Thorneloe's XV at Leicester in 1944. In 1945, while still on active duty and nominally the Penarth captain, Trott was summoned again by the Barbarians for the first post-War clash with Leicester, followed by two services international matches against Scotland and England.
RT Gabe, who was reporting the match, noted Trott's contribution in a match thoroughly dominated by the Scots, "Trott gave a good account of himself at full-back. He saved a certain try when he tackled Smith, who appeared to be unstoppable at the time".
The Penarth full-back was retained for the Victory match against England at Twickenham, with Wales winning by the slenderest of margins, 3-0, on February 23; then dropped for the remainder of the series. It took another three years before Trott, by this time 32 and playing for Cardiff, made his official debut for Wales against England. He played in seven Five Nations matches in 1948 and 1949 when, aged 33, he bowed out after the narrow 5-3 defeat at the hands of France in Paris, with Wales finishing last in the Championship table.
Meanwhile on the domestic scene, the way the club officials managed to secure a 30-match fixture list for the first season after the War, which included two unusual opponents, the French Air Force and Cambridge University, must be described as an act of sorcery. Credit must be given to the Committee and secretary Albert E Matthews for this remarkable feat.
Matthews, who had been club secretary for nine long and taxing years, and his new Committee of Dr George Lindsay as Chairman, Bill Strange as Treasurer and AE Jones, Capt W Bartlett, LC Chivers, C Hamilton, W Hatcher, J Hill, HO Jones, C McIver, J O'Brien and H Strange managed to 're-crank the machine after five years of inactivity' virtually straight away after the end of hostilities.
According to Matthews, one of the main problems facing the club during those ration-book days was securing playing kit, as well as refreshments for the team and visitors on match day. This is why the club had to beg for clothes coupons and food points at every opportunity.
The first to visit the Athletic Field were Pontypool, winning comfortably 17-6 on September 22, 1945. Penarth had not yet secured fixtures with Cardiff, Newport or Bridgend, though they had obtained home and away games against most of its leading pre-War opponents, Llanelli, Swansea, Aberavon, Maesteg, Cross Keys, Abertillery, Newbridge, Pontypridd and Lydney.
It appeared that Frank Trott had been re-elected captain at the beginning of the season, but as he was still on army duty, one of the pre-War regulars, back row forward Lindsay Morgan, a police officer, took over as acting skipper. Of the 14 matches played in 1945, Penarth won four, with a fifth, the match against Abertillery drawn 3-all. Overall for the season 1945/46 the Seasiders won seven out of the 28 matches played, with two postponed due to bad weather.
As more former players returned home from the War the Committee decided to organise a dance at the Masonic Hall on January 25 to raise funds for the club, desperately short of playing kit. "New kit is badly needed for the players, but the club lacks coupons. Any sport-lover who can spare the odd coupon should send it to Captain Bartlett, 37 Westbourne Road, and in optimistic anticipation - Thank you!"
Reports that the Honorary Secretary of the Barbarians, HA Haig Smith, had visited Penarth and was seen in the company of Dr Lindsay proved accurate and it became obvious that the re-launch of the Barbarians fixture was on the cards.
During the first post-War season, no less than 76 players appeared for the club, which suggests a fairly unsettled side, however, despite this rather hectic player turnaround, Morgan and his men managed from time to time to produce some outstanding performances that kept Penarth in the news.
The imminent return of Trott was greeted with the rumour that he had been invited to play for the Barbarians during the Easter tour, which proved to be accurate. Indeed, a week later, some time before the end of February, the inevitable happened as the man himself, Richard Frank Trott, turned up in town to meet the Committee.
The Penarth Times reported that Trott 'has come to apologise for not contacting the club sooner'. Now that he was demobbed and had come back and found that the Penarth club had secured a good captain in Lindsay Morgan and also a good full-back in Donovan, he applied for his transfer to the Cardiff club where there was a vacancy.
He said he was very proud of his football association with Penarth, where there was always the sporting friendly spirit and if at any time he could render the club any assistance, he would gladly do so. Mr Trott took with him the best wishes of the Committee in his future football career.
Trott wasted no time and appeared for his new club against the Barbarians on April 20, then wearing the Barbarians strip two days later against Swansea. Trott went on playing for Cardiff and Wales and eventually became Cardiff club secretary, the second former Penarth player after Danny Davies to hold the position.
With the Trott saga finally a closed chapter in the post-War history of the club, Penarth could concentrate on the other significant matters at hand: strengthening the team to be able to withstand the rigours of its particularly strong fixture list; get the seconds, the so-called 'Penarth Extras' playing on a regular basis; secure more coupons for new kit and get Cardiff, Bridgend and Newport back on the club's fixture list for the following season. Also there was the significant issue of the approaching match against the Barbarians, the plum fixture on the enviable Penarth list.
On Friday, April 19, Penarth welcomed the Barbarians strengthened by two of the visiting Kiwis, the New Zealand Army tourists, EG Boggs and WA Meates, who both became All Blacks not long afterwards. The visitors also featured in their ranks a highly promising Cambridge Blue, the up-and-coming wing-forward Michael Roland 'Micky' Steele-Bodger, soon to be capped by England and a future Barbarians club President.
By then, the club's regular outside-half, Kevin Slamin, widely praised as one of the finds of the season, had already 'gone North' - one of the many defections that would torment the Penarth club in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the Rugby League was building up for their major offensive in Wales in the early 1950s.
It seemed that Slamin's departure, a few days before the Barbarians match, had unnerved the Committee who launched a brisk recruiting campaign while looking for guest players to strengthen the Penarth side. This was how several new players got drafted in for the Barbarian match, including the burly second-rower Stan Barrett and several guest players of the likes of Eddie R Knapp and C Derek Williams.
It is not known how 26-year-old Eddie Knapp, a former Cambridge Blue and future skipper of Northampton, ended up playing for Penarth in April 1946. A remarkably precocious talent, Knapp who had played for Welsh Schools both in 1937 and 1938, had represented Cardiff and captained Cambridge University before the War.
During the War he joined the Royal Navy and saw action on the Mediterranean and North Sea fronts, while playing for Wales in one of the uncapped wartime internationals against England. After the War, while developing his very successful engineering career, for which he was conferred a CBE, he briefly played for Leicester, after which he joined Northampton, who he captained between 1948-1953.
Unlike Knapp, the circumstances surrounding the appearance for Penarth of 23-year-old Oxford Blue and future Wales wing forward Charles Derek Williams are much clearer, having been explained by the man himself.
"It was the Easter break and simply I came to watch the match when a Penarth official came to me saying that they were a man short and asking me whether I was willing to play for them that day. I did not ask what position and eventually they asked me whether I mind playing at centre, which I said I did not. So I ended playing at centre for Penarth against the Barbarians.
"It was fun, but I got injured in the match to the displeasure of London Welsh who expected me to play for them that weekend. This was my one and only appearance for Penarth. Mind you, I played against them many times afterwards and they were always a difficult side to subdue," recalled Williams who, in addition to Oxford and London Welsh, had a successful career with Cardiff and, briefly, with Neath.
What neither Williams nor Knapp knew was that in fact two Penarth players had been dropped to make room for the guests, a decision that had an immediate effect on the side selected to face Llanelli the following week and, in the long term, was the beginning of the rot that had undermined the club decades later.
As expected, the Barbarians ran riot against an out-of-sorts Penarth, scoring in the process seven tries to one, for a final score line of 27-6. The Penarth team line-up read: J 'Codger' Donovan, Mike Hunt, VE Harrison, C Derek Williams, AC Jones, Eddie R Knapp, George Parsons, Jimmy Gibson, Jimmy Kelleher, Lyn Lloyd, Stan Barrett, Jim Corsi, Bill Tunsich, Herbert Norman and Lindsay Morgan (captain). In addition to those who appeared in the Barbarians game, the club was well-served in this first season by Selsig Davies, Kevin Slamin, JS Williams and AR Sadler.
After the Barbarians game, in the final match of the 1945/46 season Penarth were decimated 44-3 by Llanelli at Stradey, a debacle that led to a decision of the Scarlets Committee to drop the Seasiders from their fixture list. Herbert Norman, who had played wing-forward in the Baa-Baas match the week before, explained the circumstances of the fiasco.
"What happened was that some players got upset by the way they got dropped just before the Barbarians match and did not turn up for the Llanelli fixture. We were several players short when we reached Llanelli and eventually got hammered.
Besides, some of us carried injuries from the Barbarians match and struggled," he said. It was quite clear that in their endeavour to provide the ambitious seaside club with a strong fixture list, the Penarth Committee had actually bitten off more than they could chew.
However, it was the reaction of the players themselves to the decision of the Committee to invite guest players to replace club regulars - the first known case of strike action by the disgruntled players - which led to the debacle at Llanelli. Nevertheless, it was quite clear that the Penarth side of the mid-1940s was nowhere near the standard of the powerful team of the 1930s, though it was obvious that the potential was there.
* The full story of the Penarth battle to retain its First Class status in the aftermath of the Second World War is detailed in the history of the club 131 Years of Seaside Rugby, which will be available at a pre-Christmas discount price of £35 at the Past Players Reunion on November 17 at the clubhouse at the Athletic Field in Lavernock Road.
Over 300 copies have been sold since the launch of the book in April, and the booksellers, Windsor Bookshop, will be on site to help the potential buyers select their copy.