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Page last updated at 08:51 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 09:51 UK

Heaven and hell of Stradey Park

Norman Lewis
by Norman Lewis

Journalist Norman Lewis has covered rugby in Wales for more than 50 years and much of that time was spent in cramped Stradey Park press boxes.

The men in Scarlet have always been special to him and in a farewell tribute to all that Stradey Park has been to thousands of followers he recalls his favourite memorable moments and personalities.

Phil Bennett in his pomp at fly-half at Stradey Park
Phil Bennett in full flight at fly-half at Stradey Park

It's the place where Albert Jenkins was crowned the prince of centres... the place where Lewis Jones showed the precocious talent which stamped him as the wunderkind of the age... where Barry John first strode his stuff... and the place where Phil Bennett was king of all he surveyed for 15 years.

It's also the place dubbed the venue from hell by more than one trembling visitor... and the place where Carwyn James took the fledgling art of rugby coaching to an altogether new plane.

It's been like that, a true field of dreams, for more than a century yet - the credit crunch permitting - could soon become home to 450 families.

In future, unsuspecting children will play in back gardens over the hallowed spot where Roy Bergiers scored the try which helped stun Ian Kirkpatrick's mighty All Blacks, and the location where in 1970 Alan Richards crossed for what locals hailed the try of the century in an epic match against South Africa which the relieved tourists shaded 10-9.

My memories stretch back 60 years to when a schoolboy ticket could be purchased for tuppence

Since 1879 Stradey Park has been home to the Scarlets of first Llanelly and then Llanelli, the magnet which has drawn many of rugby's greatest players to try their luck on the pitch's "classic slopes" in front of watchers who knew what they wanted and had little truck for anything second rate.

Yet Stradey Park has outlived its usefulness, according to the unsentimental accountants who pull the strings in the still uncertain era of the professional game. The sell-by date is nigh, the bulldozers are poised.

Soon the whole shooting match will uproot to the other end of town, to a spanking new home more in tune, or so they say, with the revenue demands of a game which operates way above its means.

The faithful, who are as one-eyed as any as they peer at the rest of what rugby has to offer through scarlet-tinted spectacles, will take their memories with them. I shall certainly take mine.

Lewis Jones
Lewis Jones was the wonder kid of his age

My memories stretch back 60 years to when a schoolboy ticket could be purchased for tuppence, and with it came the privilege of standing on the tanner bank among the wrinkled, flat-capped veterans who were unanimous in their belief that things had never been the same since Albert Jenkins retired.

If Jenkins - the man said to like his beer, and lots of it, before a match - was half as good a player as his devotees claimed he was then I had cause to curse my luck in those austere, immediate post-war years for being born too late.

Jenkins seemed to youthful eyes a mystical figure imbued with powers the rest could only dream about.

Huw Llywelyn Davies

But soon I felt compensated. If had missed out on the Jenkins era, I was blessed at being in place to witness the coming and blossoming of the Lewis Jones reign. It was brief, too brief, before rugby league snapped up the boy from Gorseinon. But it certainly was glorious.

Here was the 18-year-old boy who scored a try on his international debut, at Twickenham of all places, and at full-back, too, in those dark-age times when full-backs were not supposed to do that sort of thing. But Jones was clearly very different, and more than happy to break the mould.

It is memories like that, of Jones the Magician in his unfettered pomp, which remain strongest as the final roll-call of the Stradey Park greats is taken. He remains the most complete rugby player it has been my good fortune to witness at first-hand.

Those who hail a new beginning in the swish surroundings of Parc y Scarlets - all 23m worth of it - will count themselves lucky if they see his like. I wish them well in the search.

see also
Stradey Park - the bare facts
20 Oct 08 |  Scarlets
Thomas' Stradey heartbreak
20 Oct 08 |  Scarlets
BBC Sport Wales coverage
23 Mar 08 |  Wales
Magners Celtic League
11 Apr 07 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup
11 Apr 07 |  Rugby Union
Anglo-Welsh Cup
11 Apr 07 |  Rugby Union

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