Dry beer taps and empty chairs in the Leigh Halfpenny rugby club bar

There is silence now where once there was chatter and cheers and the ringing of the till.

Chairs are stacked against a wall, the television unplugged, the beer taps covered in towels. The doors, which should be opening early, remain locked.

This is clubhouse rugby in the age of Covid.

For the grass roots game in Wales, the start of the Six Nations championship is the high point of the calendar.

It’s a time when hope and optimism combine with a drop or two of the hard stuff in a heady mix of patriotic fervour.

On days like these, the money put behind the bar helps sustain cash-strapped clubs – and the beer prompts the occasional delusion in an over lubricated player to insist he could have played for his country had he had the breaks.

Gorseinon RFC is like any other club, except instead of deluded amateurs, two of its former players will be playing for Wales in their opening game against Ireland on Sunday – and it may well have been three if it weren’t for injury.

But like pubs and clubs all over the country, it will be tumbleweed time instead of the hustle and bustle which would normally characterise the Six Nations.

Normally at a premium when Wales play, chairs and tables remain empty
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

“We normally have to turn people away,” said club president Andrew Gazzi.

“The Six Nations is what it is all about, and people are excited about the the first game of the championship in particular, but we are limited for the numbers we can allow in. 

“If kick-off is 2.30pm, we would open the club around 12 so people can come in early, have a snack and secure somewhere to sit. I have to book a seat!

“You might have some of the younger kids playing outside while the game is on, but that is what it is like – we are a community club.

“It’s good for club funds too, because of all the money that is spent at the bar.

“And we could do with that this year, after the past 12 months we’ve had”.

It’s a long time since the pitch has been used – but at least the grass can restore itself
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

Like everyone else, the 60-year-old scrum half who still turns out a few times a season for the second XV has no choice but to watch the game on Sunday from home.

Like everywhere else, the absence of games over the last year has been tough on the club.

Instead of the welcome boost to the club kitty from money spent over the bar on match days, it has had to rely on grants, from the WRU and from the government, to help keep it going.

And while every player is itching to pull the club’s red and white jersey on once again, the Six Nations will provide succor for rugby deprived fans, denied even the chance to watch professional, regional rugby.

The enforced abstinence has raised concerns other than pecuniary.

“I am concerned about that we could lose a generation of players to Covid,” said Andrew.

“We have around 300 juniors on our books, and they were allowed back to train for a few weeks earlier in lockdown, but it seems a long time ago.

“The younger ones play the game and enjoy it, but the older ones start to take it a bit more seriously when they get to comprehensive school age.

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He added: “Boys that age get into it and they are missing it, all they can do is watch the games.

“We have a generation which may go away and play other sports.

“We are looking at what we can do to bring them back when we are finally allowed.

“We are looking at suspending membership subs for them. They don’t pay much, but with 300 of them it would usually bring in three or four thousand for us.

“So even though times are hard financially because of Covid, that is something we are considering to encourage them to come back.

“We are lucky because of the hard work of the community club; most of the coaches are former players and we have volunteers, so our only real costs are the bar staff.

“You have to have the junior sides, because that is how you bring the players through”.

Sadly, the changing rooms have never been cleaner
(Image: WalesOnline/Gayle Marsh)

Bringing players through is something Gorseinon do spectacularly – and the club’s Leigh Halfpenny Pavilion is an obvious clue to how successful they have been.

Wales’ full back spent his formative years at Gorseinon, as did team mate and fly-half Dan Biggar.

Ross Moriarty, who would surely have been a contender for the opening clash against the Irish were it not for having undergone ankle surgery a few weeks ago, is another to have come through their ranks.

“It’s not really about bragging rights, but I think we are the proudest club in Wales at the moment”, said Andrew.

“They are frequently here. Leigh often does a bit of kicking practice on the pitches. Dan isn’t here so much now because he plays in England, but all three of them are very good to the club.

“If ever we ask something from them, they will be there”.

In normal times, the roof would be raised at Gorseinon RFC for local boys Dan and Leigh when they run out on Sunday for Wales
(Image: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency)

It will be another year yet before the inimitable Six Nations match day atmosphere will return to the Leigh Halfpenny Pavilion and to Gorseinon RFC.

Until then, dust gathers on the framed jerseys and photos of former players on its walls, and beers will be fetched from fridges at home instead of barrels beneath the bar.

“At least the pitches are having a bit of rest” reflects Andrew.

“But I’d much rather the juniors were out there improving. I’d much prefer they were being played on”.  

WalesOnline – Swansea