Last night came the news that the Scarlets and Ospreys will in all likelihood merge. Wales’ two most successful rugby regions will be broken down into one. It’s understandable that the Welsh Rugby Union might feel that there should be a team to represent Gwent, which has the largest amount of clubs feeding into of any of the regions. It’s also understandable that the Union feel that there must be a team to represent the capital city. However, you can apply that same logic to Wales’ second city and most successful region. So where does that leave the Scarlets, the most recent Welsh winners of the Pro 14 and the only team in the league that’s not city based?
Many people have mocked the empty seats in Parc y Sgarlets. I’ve heard it called Parc yr Empty far more times than I would like. It’s a stadium that’s seldom filled, except for glory nights in European rugby, and ironically, derbies with the Ospreys.
It’s the support base and the area that it represents that makes it unique. Critics say that the Scarlets have never been a region, that they are a standalone club. The Ospreys make a lot of noise about the fact that they are the one true region, which only adds to the rivalry between the two clubs. But there has always been a pathway in deepest West Wales. Players have come up through the ranks of their local teams before graduating to play for the Scarlets since long before the days of regional rugby.
The Scarlets are my only connection to the town, and I know the same is true for many others. I was brought up in Carmarthen, like the club’s current captain Ken Owens.
Ken exemplifies all that is good about the region. He is a down to earth, hardworking player. He is fiercely passionate, and represents the club and it’s wider culture wherever he goes whilst playing for Wales and the Lions.
It’s this culture that I am most afraid of being lost. The Welsh language and the culture that surrounds it is seldom seen at the highest level. The UK Parliament claims to represent us all, yet Welsh cannot be spoken there. I remember trying to persuade the former Welsh Language Officer at my last job to support the Scarlets on the basis that they were the only region with a Welsh language policy. The WRU is certainly not bothered about the language — it communicates solely in English, and the majority of its web content is English only. When the last two lines of the anthem ring out in the Millennium Stadium (“O long may the old language live on,” and by the way, I can never call it the Principality Stadium), I always wonder whether the WRU has a moment of cognitive dissonance.
Brought up a Scarlet
My Dad was alienated long before I was. As children, my brother and I were directed into the pub’s play area on a Saturday afternoon whilst my Dad talked rugby. We would walk over to Stradey Park amidst a sea of red. The stadium’s move to Pemberton and Friday night kick offs put an end to that. Big business moved with it to the industrial estate, and the town centre is no longer what it once was.
Much of West Wales voted Brexit, and it’s not hard to see why. Llanelli is / was a steel town, hence the singing of ‘Sosban Fach’ (or ‘Little saucepan’) in the stands. The Scarlets bring so much to an area that has seen a chronic lack of investment.
I can only speak for myself, and I know that many people will feel very different. The town’s people have watched it’s team beat the best teams in the world, and if this is lost it will hit the town hard. Although the rest of Wales is sick of hearing about it, I can’t recommend this documentary about how Llanelli beat the All Blacks highly enough. It relays the town’s unique relationship with the sport perfectly.
For me though, it won’t the be the representation of an area that determines whether I will continue to support it. It will be its culture, and whether it still reverberates through the club.
‘Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, ry’n ni yma o hyd’
(‘We are still here, in spite of everyone and everything’)