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‘Dancing in the rain’ which the Gale brings

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By Jonathan Twigg

SINCE the turn of the new Millennium, Narberth RFC has been one of the premier club sides in South West Wales.

They currently sit in second place behind Pontypool in the WRU Championship table, a division in which they have remained since the WRU national leagues inception in the mid 1990’s.

The coaching guru in charge of the current Otters side is Sean Gale, a former Scarlet’s player whose commitment is recognised by all associated to the Pembrokeshire club. Commitment is part of Sean’s DNA, where any former work colleagues at the West Wales Fire Brigade testify.

The Fire Brigade have a long association to rugby in the West Wales area, with many players with Scarlet’s and its predecessor Llanelli RFC finding themselves on a career pathway with the ‘Brigade’.  Gale served for 32 years in the noble profession after Ronnie King opened the door of opportunity and is unsurprising that the ‘vow of allegiance’ he showed to his career, has been visible at the Lewis Lloyd Ground for a decade.

A man of few words whose compassionate tone rings clearly and when heard instantly captures the attention of those present. Never a raised intonation and the positives not the negatives proffered; a blueprint which fellow coaches Liam Gadd and Lloyd Phillips follow.

Sean was a graduate from Graig comprehensive school in the heart of Llanelli and had an instantly recognisable name to live up to. His dad Norman, revered in the Town as a front row hard man, captain of both his home town club and Country where he won 25 caps in a period when Wales were a team to mix it with the best.

Sean has recently crept quietly beyond the half century in terms of age, still living in Llanelli and committing to travelling three times a week to Narberth for training and games from his home in Swiss Valley. Married to Elizabeth for over 25 years he recognized her unstinting support of his rugby journey, alongside his mother Ann. Norman passed away in 2005 and it’s now his son Nick who shares his dad’s rugby memories alongside daughter Hannah.

Returning to the squad after a six month injury Nick plays under his dad’s stewardship, being a strike runner from the back three as opposed to his dad’s likeness for packing down in the front three.

“Living and breathing rugby is something I’m used to” Nick warmly stated with a beaming smile.  “Dad, never had a hair out of place and no stone unturned. He wants the best for me as a son and as a player with Narberth. I’ve come to understand when I need to listen and occasionally speak on a rugby matters! Dad cares; about his family, friends and colleagues, including the players in the squad and this is repaid tenfold from those of us lucky enough to be in the inner sanctum.”

The front row is not a place for the faint hearted where camaraderie exists well beyond the 80 minutes of battle. “I enjoyed my tussles with Mike Griffiths immensely” chuckled Sean.

Mike, the Cardiff prop, formally with Bridgend won 35 Welsh caps but Sean added: “I had the utmost respect for him. He was a tough person to scrummage against, but he did it fairly and without prejudice. I also played alongside the icons of Welsh rugby, current National assistant coach Rob Howley and British Lion winger Ieuan Evans before I hung up my boots for the final time in Llanelli colours in1999. That final game was against Romania, twelve years after my debut against Pontardulais.”

Memories are important and Sean recounted with pride when he played against the All Blacks in 1997, a game lost by over 80 points; he narrated his efforts of scoring two tries against Namibia highlighting such achievements come only from hard work. Sean was always seen as a good trainer, where his rugged stature came to the fore in games as a strong ball carrying prop; a try scorer!

“I managed 10 tries in one season for Bridgend which is a record for a prop” and one which he still shares with Whitland born prop Meredydd James.

Sean won seven secondary schools caps as a second row, with a stand out victory in 1985 when an unbeaten All Blacks schools side toured the Principality under Graham Henry.

He also played for the Wales Under 20’s and Under 21’s and made the ‘A’ team squad but never had the opportunity to run out on the pitch.

He clocked up 209 appearances for Llanelli with the final three years as a professional player whilst maintaining his service record with the Brigade, before chalking up 90 games in Bridgend colours and enjoying a ‘final season’ at Heywood Lane, playing for Tenby United in 2002-03.

Sean has qualities which any respected person, let alone a coach would hope to have associated to him.

He is honest and hardworking whilst continuing to maintain a drive to achieve more.  His family heritage is a cornerstone of his life and this shines through in his commitment to rugby.

Now a level 3 coach he worked with the Scarlet’s Academy for three seasons after starting out with Tumble where he was a player/coach before becoming forwards coach with Llanelli, Swalec champions in 2005.

He joined Narberth in 2006 following an invitation from then Director of Rugby Jonathan Dodds after they worked together at the Scarlets Academy and with the Wales amateur side.

Coaching was always something he strove to do following a lifetimes involvement nurtured in the early days from the family pub, a stone’s throw from Stradey Park. Frequenting the hostelry on a regular basis were Llanelli greats like Stuart Gallacher and Ray Gravell.

“Dad coached the Scarlets, so it was a natural progression for me to stay in the game as a coach once I finished playing because it means so much to me; it’s in my heart and soul” said Nick.

Sean’s mantra as a coach is to build his teams around a strong forward platform, never taking a backward step to an opponent, before then trying to play an expansive style.

He remains ambitious for Narberth as he fondly recounts: “I was impressed by the warmth of the welcome I received; it’s a very friendly club but importantly for me one which remains driven to be successful.”

He is focused in his approach and philosophy, determined to keep Narberth in the top two of the National Championship.

Doing so will be no mean feat as it is increasingly difficult with Premiership clubs able to cherry pick the best players, which is part of the player pathway in the Scarlet’s region.

Sean said he would be interested in developing his coaching career and with a raised eyebrow and a killer grin Sean recalled the time he was ‘hoodwinked’ into believing the then Llanelli maestro Gareth Jenkins was offering him a role back with the Scarlets. “I enjoyed setting the training programme after that faux pas by Adrian Killa”, he said.

Sean remains committed to Narberth as he explained his eagerness for the national leagues to remain as the current structure is under review by the WRU.

“One thing that frustrates me as a coach is the imposed Autumn break which happens for the international period in November.

“I find this hard because we go a month without competitive fixtures to keep my players at their top of the game. I have had memories which are significant in my life story and I hope those under my wing today build their own storyboard, which they can do if we all work together to get the right environment.”

Narberth as a club are equally as ambitious and are watching the debate on the restructuring of the national leagues with the same interest as Sean.

“We want to finish as high as possible every season; the result in every game is important, but not as important as the enjoyment the game brings” pointed out Rob ‘Basher’ Lewis, the clubs hardworking administrator. “Narberth have the right man in Sean at present and we can see the professionalism and passion he brings being embedded in the Club.”

Narberth hope the winds of change doesn’t occur, yet Sean’s strengths include his man-management of players and the rapport he has with the committee and supporters.

“He is currently irreplaceable as that skill set is difficult to replicate. As a club we need a figurehead to ensure our development plan is delivered” said Rob. Narberth have the foresight to hopefully enhance the playing facilities with a 4G surface and build on the senior team’s success so it emanates through the youth and junior sections.

They have a trademark association with brand names in the County and are in discussions with new partners to help them build their dreams.

Clearly Narberth can manage the ‘here and now’ as they have a structure off the field to accommodate a match day experience to rival a professional club.

There are no Otters burying their heads underground as they strive to improve each year, sharpening their teeth ready for the next challenge whilst, fully embracing the ‘gale’ in which they find themselves.

“We are not waiting for the gale to pass us by” said Basher “but we are dancing in the rain he brings.”

News

Wales v Scotland postponed

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WALES’ Six Nations match at home to Scotland on Saturday has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The two other Six Nation fixtures had already been postponed and no date has been confirmed to complete the 2020 Championship.

The Welsh Rugby Union had insisted earlier on Friday the game would “go ahead as planned”.

A WRU statement read: “The Welsh Rugby Union has maintained an open dialogue with, and continued to seek advice and direction from, the National Assembly for Wales and other stakeholders, including the Six Nations, on this fast-moving issue.

“Whilst medical advice remains consistent, we have decided that it is in the best interests of supporters, players and staff to fall in line with recent measures taken across the UK and global sports industries.

“The WRU would like to thank all parties for their counsel on the subject and will make further announcements with respect to rescheduling the fixture in the coming days.

“Every effort has been made to stage this game and we appreciate that individuals will have been inconvenienced. Given the fluid and unprecedented nature of this issue a postponement became the only viable option.”

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News

Domestic football at all levels in Wales suspended

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THE FOOTBALL Association of Wales has today (13 March) taken the decision to suspend domestic football at all levels in Wales with immediate effect until April 4 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The intention at this time will be to resume the football schedule depending on the medical advice and conditions from the relevant authorities at that time.

The FAW is fully aware of the impact this will have on the domestic game but the health and safety of all fans, players, volunteers and stakeholders are of paramount importance.

The FAW will continue to monitor this situation on a day-by-day basis and will continue to provide updates when appropriate.

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Sport

Walking rugby is a game for all ages and abilities

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WALKING RUGBY has taken off throughout Wales in the last 12 months and is benefitting participants in more ways than one.

The participants – male and female of all ages and abilities including one man who lost his sight 13 years ago – talk of clear benefits to their physical health and crucially, their mental health through being involved in the groups.

The number of Walking Rugby groups in Wales grew organically from two in December 2018 to 16 just twelve months later and new groups are starting up all the time.

A range of organisations from rugby clubs to charities, Health Boards and third sector bodies are seeing the benefit of the inclusive rugby format and engaging more than 300 participants on a weekly basis.
The Aneurin Bevan Mental Health unit has worked with the Dragons Community team to set up a team of their own, training weekly at Rodney Parade.

Kevin Hale, Community Support Worker for the Aneurin Bevan Health Board Forensic Psychiatry Service, who set up the Dragons NHS Walking Rugby team said, “From a mental health point of view it’s been priceless, the social benefits, in particular, are tremendous. Many of the players were very shy at the start and quite withdrawn but confidence levels and communication skills have grown massively and they have told us Walking Rugby has helped them in other areas of their lives.

“It started off as a means to get some of our service users active and also to have some social time afterwards to discuss any issues they’re having. It’s gone from strength to strength and we’ve opened up the opportunity so that anyone can join us at Rodney Parade on a Tuesday afternoon.

Christian Hyde now plays for the Dragons NHS team despite having lost his sight through diabetes.
“I played rugby from the age of 8 to 26. After losing my sight, I had to stop playing – and refereeing. You really miss being part of a rugby environment so being back involved in the game is huge for me and something I never thought I’d do.

“I’m already involved with the visually impaired rugby at Cardiff Blues but being a Dragons supporter, I’m thrilled to be able to train at Rodney Parade and to be involved in matches again like the recent festival. To have ten teams turn up shows the enjoyment we’re all having.”

Anne Jackson plays for Pontyclun Walking Rugby. She said “I’m the only woman at the club at the moment and we could do with more. It really is for everyone. It’s wonderful. It keeps you active – I’ve got fitter since playing Walking Rugby. We train twice a week on a Monday evening and Wednesday morning. We laugh most of the time, we all get on very well.”

Former Wales full-back and Cross Keys coach Morgan Stoddart coaches the Cambrian Walking Rugby group in the Rhondda. He said, “We regularly get 15 or 16 players at our twice-weekly training sessions, we had 12 teams at recent Walking Rugby festivals in Treorchy and Cambrian so it’s gaining popularity all the time.

“Quite a few of the players played rugby in their youth and others haven’t played much sport at all throughout their lives. One lady, Frances Jones, is a regular player and still going strong at 84!

“They enjoy the exercise and also the friendship and camaraderie they gain from it. I enjoy it too, it’s a real change from competitive league rugby as it’s so open to male and female players of all ages and abilities.”
While the format is fully inclusive to all ages, genders and abilities, its main appeal is to Wales’ older and socially isolated population. With more than 877 000 people over 60 in Wales (just under 30% of the population), and that figure set to rise to over one million by 2030*, social isolation and mental health issues are a real issue.

The Welsh Government Strategy for Older People in Wales (2013-2023): Living Longer, Ageing Well, states that loneliness is a real health risk – ‘the same as smoking and twice that of obesity.. that staying physically active protects mental and physical health and that older people say that if they are able to participate in social and leisure activities, they are more likely to say they feel well.’

Based on this evidence, it is no surprise that some GPs are now referring patients to Walking Rugby for the physical and social benefits it brings.

Greg Woods, WRU Enterprise Manager said: “Anyone can play Walking Rugby, whether you’re a lapsed rugby player or new to the game. It’s a social, enjoyable activity with obvious physical and mental health benefits. There is clearly a growing demand for more Walking Rugby opportunities around Wales and we are working with the current groups and a wide range of other partners to not only cater for that demand but provide support to the volunteers running the clubs and work with others to set up new outlets.”

WRU Community Director Geraint John added: “It’s exciting to see the growth of Walking Rugby and to think of its future benefits to the health and well-being of the people of Wales – both the current or recent rugby-playing population and those who could join the rugby family through the Walking Rugby format”.

If you want to start a walking rugby club, get in touch for advice and support participation@wru.wales

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