Ebbw Vale’s Ashton Gate heartbreak

Wales Rugby
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Ebbw Vale RFC’s only national cup final came twenty years ago this month. 23rd May 1998. With the brand new Millennium stadium (now Principality) being built the final was moved across the border to Bristol’s Ashton Gate.

Ten supporters buses ran from Eugene Cross Park to Ashton Gate, many more leaving the local area. It wasn’t a smooth ride, the usual butterflies and fingernails bitten by supporters, Bristol city centre traffic jams only adding to the drama.

Ebbw’s day in the big city

Armed with homemade suits, flags and banners the day truly began when Ebbw tanked Gwent rivals Newport at Sardis Road in the semi-finals. The biggest of victories boosting morale in the Ebbw camp as they headed into the final. Gareth Bisp, who made the 21 man squad for the final looked back at the season.

”We had beaten Newport heavily at the start of the season so we went into the semi final with plenty of confidence. With a full squad and no injuries we played a perfect game attacking Newport from all angles. Josh Taumalolo and Byron Hayward were the stars of the day. Mark Jones at eight and Richie Collins were outstanding also. This was a huge marker to put down prior to the final. Just what we needed to play the Scarlets.”

The mood in East Wales was of full support for the Steelmen. The preparation to any major cup final can often be the decider. Ebbw made sure it certainly wouldn’t cost them, Bisp telling the story of just how exciting the weeks around the big day were for the team. ”For several players this was to be their very first Welsh Cup final but we all knew we had the strength and ability to beat the might of the Scarlets. The week before we had to play Llanelli in the league so it was a sticky time but we came through that. We decided to stay the night before in a hotel in Bristol and the Scarlets traveled up on the Saturday morning. I don’t think that had a bearing on the result and I’m glad we did that because we were all together for the day before and rooming together. We made the most of the occasion and had a chance to train at Aston Gate on the Friday afternoon. Its was great for lots of reasons, the Welsh public were behind us and gave us lots of support which is a great motivator.”

Coming off the Sardis Road turf he felt as if he’d done enough to secure a spot in the final squad. Recalling his battle with Welsh international scrum half Dai Llewellyn, Gareth had realised it would be a struggle to nail down the starting jersey, but was honoured enough to be part of the historic team. ”To make the bench was a dream for me. The only down side was it wasn’t to be played at the then the Arms Park, but Aston Gate wasn’t a bad replacement. We were told during training on the Tuesday in the team room at the club that we were selected – the only player to be disappointed would be Jason Strange — he had to step aside for the ever reliable Jonathan Hawker. There wasn’t much between both players so it must have been a tough choice to make.”

The ”We’re all off to Bristol” chant after a hat-trick and 2 tries from Josh Taumalolo against Newport in the semi final set them on their way.

TV camera’s aboard

Travelling up the day before allowed S4C’s TV camera’s to jump aboard the Ebbw team coach to interview the players, allowing them to relax into the final ahead of the day.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon on the day of the game and with traffic stalled around the stadium, many minibuses and coaches stopped short on their journey to let supporters run to the ground. With kick-off delayed, supporters managed to get to their seats in time for the biggest day in their clubs history.

For those who managed to get to Bristol early, they had the added pleasure of cheering on the Ebbw Vale team coach as it made the short trip from hotel to stadium. ”Travelling into the ground there was one pub with hundreds of Ebbw fans outside and they stopped the bus for us all to shake a few hands etc – Great feeling. There was a tremendous atmosphere in the ground a great Ebbw following for sure.”

The roars of ‘Ebbw! Ebbw!’ is unforgettable to those on the coach that day.

Ashton Gate heartbreak to be delayed

Due to the number of supporters delayed in traffic the game was delayed by 30 minutes. Not ideal for the players involved for both sides, but Ebbw passed the time with some jovial stand up courtesy of Mark Jones.

”For me Wales international Mark Jones was a player that everyone looked up to. He was a fantastic player and always looked after the players around him. The hardest and most passionate rugby player I have ever seen and played with. He’d always pick the right time to bring out the one liners. We were warming up at Aston gate, 30 minutes from kick off and an announcement came through to us that the kick off was to be delayed by 30 minutes due to supporters stuck in traffic coming to the ground. We had to return to the changing room and were all unsure of how to deal with the situation. Having gone back in we all sat down silent.

Jonesy, known to the boys as Scooby, rose to his feet, took all his kit off and started striding back and forth with just a pink jock strap on and all his strapping on that almost covered the whole of his body. Breathing heavily he came out with “just imagine boys you come in from work and the Mrs is cooking chicken and chips BUT THE CHIPS ARE NOT F*****G READY”.

The room erupted with laughter and broke the silence – a great moment that will live with me for ever. He was my hero and players like him are missed hugely in the game today.”

Madden try causes Ashton Gate heartbreak

With the game finely balanced entering the very latter stages of the game it was a try from Llanelli prop Martyn Madden that would ultimately win the Scarlets their 10th crown.

Bisp never managed to get on the field, only to run on as the referee blew up for full time. ”We should have changed the game plan towards the end but the Madden try was a killer blow – nobody including Martyn expected to score in the corner like he did at such a vital time.  The boys were gutted but we all praised each other for getting there in the first place.”

Gareth didn’t have to dwell on the defeat for too long, as luck happened ”My best mate had booked a stag trip to Ibiza back the previous November to fly out of Bristol on the night of the final, obviously not knowing that we were to reach Ashton Gate on that day. Timing was perfect. We were flying at 10pm so i could go to the game, have food with the boys and the travel ten minutes up the road to the airport and go away for a week with the boys. The after match function was good – very special feeling being waited on and signing autographs etc.”

Lenny Woodard, star of the semi’s

Following his hat-trick against Newport in the semi-final, the Ebbw winger was in an expectant mood. ”We had beaten Cardiff and Swansea in the cup and all other sides at home. We had taken Newport apart after a difficult opening spell. We had beaten Llanelli in the league twice and I genuinely believe we would win.”

Top try scorer for Ebbw in the 1997-98 season, Woodard was always going to be a shoe-in for the starting 11 jersey. He was a vital part of the cup run alongside fellow back’s Josh Taumalolo, John Funnell, Alun Harries, Jon Hawker, Byron Hayward and Dad Llewellyn. A formidable back-line by today’s standards.

”We knew the magnitude of the game for Ebbw. The game itself was not how I expected it to be. It felt very high intensity. It was buoyant, it was a huge opportunity. A number of us had also been picked to tour South Africa with Wales’ senior squad and we were virtually injury free.”

It was perfect preparation in almost every aspect for Ebbw and he feels Ebbw should have won that day. Boosted with Ebbw staying in Bristol overnight and getting a chance to train and get used to the pitch. ”With Llanelli possibly entering into the unknown We should have won. I think we were the better side but Llanelli had down their homework on us and cut out running game down.”

Both sides had a huge defensive effort throughout the match and that resulted in the only try of the game being the winning score.

Ebbw’s TV stardom

Throughout the season, in the league and cup, Ebbw Vale had featured heavily on TV and it was a special occasion for many of the players, some of whom had not played under the camera’s and prying eyes of a wider audience before.

Being on TV became a culture at Ebbw Vale. ‘It had become part of the norm. Personally I thrived on the televised games and the occasion and if anything struggled in the smaller games.’

The game at Ashton Gate certainly wasn’t a small one and Woodard had a good game. He couldn’t get his name on the scoresheet, but Ebbw’s backs had left such an impression on those watching on that full back Josh Taumalolo became the first losing player to win a man of the match award in the final.

The ‘Tongan embassy‘ would be proud.

Sitting in the dressing room before hand, with kick-off delayed inevitably it is, once again, Scooby who gets the room laughing. ”It was like having your tea in the oven, but it’s not quite ready, he said. The team had great characters throughout and that helped us on and off the field.”

The game was played at a ferocious pace. Ramped up by the crowd. ”It was amazing and we could sense it. Both sides contributed to it.”

Playing with internationals ”Made us an effective team”

Any team to make the cup final is a solid unit. Ebbw’s team was starlit with big names from Wales to Tonga. ”The central axis of six, seven, eight, nine and 10 made the side. Internationals in those positions made us an effective team.”

The feeling and notion that Ebbw were the ultimate underdogs also made the players fight that much harder. ”The run up televised huge underdogs against Cardiff and Swansea.”

Despite Ashton Gate heartbreak there was light at the end of the tunnel

Ebbw fans were so disconsolate that they ended up climbing aboard the Llanelli supporters coach before realizing they were on the wrong bus as the fans started their journey home.

Disappointment embedded into the hearts of the valleys fans, but pride in the team was the overwhelming feeling from them and it’s something they talk about to this day.

Despite the gut wrenching loss in the dying minutes at Ashton Gate there was better to come for Ebbw, who had qualified for the European Cup the following season. This would see the small steel town play against European giants Toulouse, Ulster and Edinburgh.

There would only be one victory, against Toulouse at home. Arriving back at Ebbw was devastating. Although we felt we could use this as a foundation and had qualified for the European Cup. Three months later, the side was decimated and I think a lot of the specialness of the team died then.”

Ebbw Vale 12-19 Llanelli

For those wanting to watch the Ashton Gate heartbreak over, follow the link.

Photograph’s used with the permission and thanks of Lee Whybrow, in memory of stalwart Ebbw ‘bank’ season ticket holder Mr. Brian Whybrow, who passed away aged 80 earlier this year and David Richards.