The rugby team whose fate hangs on the crumbling future of Port Talbot’s steelworks
Lewis Smith Local Democracy Reporter
A popular rugby team based near the town of Port Talbot say they are facing their biggest challenge in generations, after the announcement of thousands of job losses at the local steelworks site.
The Aberavon Harlequins have been based at the heart of the community for around 130 years, producing players such as current rugby league star Regan Grace, and hosting a number of community events and activities that benefit residents year-round.
However, after Indian steel giant Tata announced they would be dismantling the town’s two giant blast furnaces in 2024 to make way for an electric arc furnace, resulting in loss of almost 3,000 local jobs, many fear sports clubs such as this could struggle to keep their heads above water in the coming years.
Local county borough councillor for Aberavon, Andrew Dacey is vice chairman of the club, and says like many others he is concerned that the closure of the plant will have devastating impacts on all aspects of life in the area, including those of local sports teams.
He said: “This closure could gut the town in a big style, and its not just the direct 2,800 jobs but the wider supply chain, where a lot of the boys who are members at this club are involved.
“For starters there will be less money in the area, which means the club will probably suffer because people will have less money in their pockets to come down for a beer, and a lot of our rugby sponsors who are small, local businesses connected with the works would be hit as well.
“They fund games and that sustains us with the small grant you get from the Welsh Rugby Union to keep rugby going here. It doesn’t help us improve the situation but it helps us keep our heads above water.
“The facilities are well used througout the year, with the rugby team, both men’s and women’s darts teams, bingo nights, and games for the fighting Irish rugby league and mixed ability teams in the summer.
“With this announcement we worry that we cold be struggling for sponsors, bar takings, and even players in the future if they have to move further afield to work. Once all three of them start to suffer then I fear for the club, and that would be a big community asset gone.”
Largest steel making site in the UK
The Port Talbot steelworks is currently the largest steel making site in the UK, employing around 4,000 people, as well as supporting the economy with a supply chain of jobs and wages that bleed through into local businesses.
Its importance simply can’t be understated to this area of south west Wales, with everyone who lives in or around the town knowing someone who has worked at the site, and almost everyone from supply chain businesses to local shops and cafe’s expected to feel the impact of any future closure.
The current Aberavon Harlequins squad is understood to feature around 14 players who work either directly for the steel works or in other roles connected to the site.
One of these is Josh Pugh, 33, who has been told his job at the steel works will be one of the many cut. Despite having played for Aberavon since a junior he says he fears that moving further afield in search of work could hinder him and others from playing and training regularly.
He said: “It’s going to affect everyone in the area. All rugby teams and football teams, because with the steel works gone everyone is going to have to ship out of Port Talbot to look for jobs. If you’re working away you might not be able to make it to the training sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so even though we have a strong squad here at the moment we do fear the numbers could drop.”
Glenn Williams of Port Talbot is a supporter and former player for the Quins who has also previously worked in the Port Talbot Steel works. He said: “Aberavon Harlequins is a great club, with a cracking atmosphere and a close group of tight knit boys, many of whom work in or around the steel works – so of course those players could be affected if they have to move away to get jobs elsewhere.
“What you find is a lot of the clubs around the Port Talbot area are sponsored by contractors of the steel works as well, and without those a lot might not be able to thrive as they have been in the past, so I think it is a worry for both people and clubs in the area at the moment.”
Mark Gregory, chairman at Aberavon Harlequins, added: “The club was always the centre of life for a lot of people in the community when I was growing up, and for me being involved again now shows nothing has changed.
“This decision from Tata will certainly have a big impact on us as a club, particularly on the commercial front. Funding is already difficult to get, and we need more money as it is with a leaky roof and floodlights that only work at about 75% preventing us from playing at night. The problem is a lot of avenues for funding are already being cut so with everything that’s happening there will be some big challenges ahead.”
“Go where the work is..”
Just minutes away at Welsh Championship club, Tata Steel RFC, secretary Mark Williams said while very few players at the club actually work at the steelworks at the moment, it could still leave them looking for new facilities if it were to close.
He said: “Obviously if the steel works were to go under there’s a possibility that the sports and social club would close and we’d probably have to look for a new facility to play rugby. We only have one or two boys working there in terms of players at the moment so we wouldn’t be impacted in that sense, but other teams in the area might be hit harder as people will have to support their families and go where the work is.”
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.