Sports

The ‘terrible’ TV programme that sparked £4million investment in a Welsh rugby club to help change a town’s troubled image

As he surveys the transformed surroundings at The Wern, Sir Stan Thomas’ thoughts go back to where it all began.

“About six years ago, there was a TV programme about Merthyr called Skint ,” he explains.

“It really, really upset me because what it portrayed was about a dozen people who were drinkers and taking drugs.

“It wasn’t widespread. It wasn’t right through the whole community, far from it.

“It was one little patch of Merthyr, but here we were being called one of the worst towns in the whole of the UK.

“I thought, ‘well, let’s try and prove them wrong’.

“It was a question of how can I help. I thought the best thing for me to do was look at the opportunities through sport and see if I can encourage young kids to come and participate.

“It didn’t matter which sport, but I could pick on rugby because I’m an ex-Merthyr rugby player and start there.”

That plan culminated in what we see today, with the club’s home at The Wern having changed out of all recognition, with an impressive new clubhouse and gym to go along with the artificial pitch.

It’s an ambitious project which is the latest example of the financial backing the multi-millionaire Thomas has pumped into the club.

“Up until about 2007, our clubhouse was up at the ground on the opposite side of the road,” he recalls.

“When I was living in Jersey, I was approached by the committee who said they had to vacate the premises because it was owned by the council and they wanted to build houses there. They asked if I could buy another building for them.

“So I bought the old RAFA club for them in 2008. That was aright, that building, but it wasn’t fit for purpose and we always wanted to go back to The Wern.

“So I decided to invest up here and develop what we’ve done.”

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Thomas has also invested heavily in the on-field operation over the last few years, helping secure three Premiership titles and the Welsh Cup.

So, is he willing to say just how much money he has put into the club in total?

“I think if I told you, my wife would go up the wall!” he replies.

“It’s big money, more than £4million.”

Any regrets about that?

“None at all. Far from it,” he insists.

“We had a lot of success because of what I invested in and it’s encouraged children to come up here and participate.

“Where we used to have 30 or 40 children playing, now we have got over 200.

“That’s happened over a period of four to five years.

“By having the facilities we have got here, we are bringing all these children up.

“You have got hundreds of them training and running about and getting some exercise.

“I just want to see the town back to a situation which I saw in the 1950s and ’60s where everybody seemed to be fit and strong.

“People couldn’t spell ‘cocaine’ back then. They thought that was just for having your teeth out.

“There was no such thing as drugs in Merthyr in my day.

“I want to try and put that terrible TV programme behind us, so we will see Merthyr in a different light altogether.

“That’s what it’s all about for me, trying to do something for my hometown.

“I am one person who has done something for my community and I would love to see other wealthy individuals doing the same for their towns.”



Sir Stan Thomas (right), with (left to second right) Merthyr RFC chairman Justin Griffiths, WRU chairman Rob Butcher and WRU chief executive Steve Phillips on the balcony of the new clubhouse at The Wern

Reflecting on the new facilities at The Wern, he said: “It’s important to note it’s now called Merthyr Rugby and Community Club, not just Merthyr Rugby Club.

“We have got 1,400 people living in Ynysfach, which is the area, and they have got one shop up there.

“I went up to the ground last Saturday, the first day of opening since lockdown, and there were a number of people there who I hadn’t seen before.

“They said ‘we live locally and we can’t believe what we’ve got here now, we will become members right away’.

“We are getting people that are excited by Merthyr RFC and the facilities we have got here, with the new clubhouse and the wonderful, fully-equipped gym.

“We also have plans for a second pitch which we are hoping to develop before the end of this coming season for a second team and a women’s team.”

Thomas – the brother of Cardiff Blues president Peter – also has big ambitions for the Premiership.

He feels the 12-team semi-professional league needs enhanced resources to enable it to play a key role in the Welsh game.

Funding from the WRU will be down to £50,000 per club from next season and Thomas believes that is way short of what is required.

“The A licence, which requires us to meet certain criteria, is costing us £130,000 a year,” he said.

“We can’t afford it. The 12 clubs in the Premiership should have a minimum of £300,000 each.

“We are only getting £50,000 next season, that’s £600,000 in total. We need £3.5m.

“Let’s at least have the A licence paid for. That would cost 12 times £130,000, which is £1.56m.

“Only a few years ago, we were getting around that. There were 16 clubs getting £96,000 each.

“I don’t feel we will get the best out of the Premiership if we aren’t able to give the players the right coaching and medical support.

“If the clubs haven’t got the money for the A licence, they are going to cut the money to the players and they won’t play.

“Boys that have been having £15,000 a year aren’t going to play for £4,000.

“It is going to destroy the Premiership and if there is no Premiership, there is no pathway to the regions.

“To my mind, it was a stupid move dropping our money and putting the Championship up from £8,000 to £16,000, when they are amateur sides.

“There was a conscious effort by the previous administration to downgrade the Premiership. There is no doubt about that.



Sir Stan Thomas in front of the bar inside one of the rooms in the new Merthyr RFC clubhouse

“If the WRU paid the A licence money, the clubs would be united and grateful and give great support to the Union.

“I have spoken to Rob Butcher [chairman] and Steve Phillips [chief executive] at the WRU and they were listening. They were very supportive.”

Thomas believes the Premiership should be the stepping stone to the professional game in Wales, rather than the regional A teams which have played in the Celtic Cup.

“I don’t get the sense of the A teams,” he said. “They play half a dozen games and then what do they do?

“These Academy players are averaging about eight games a season. They should be playing regular rugby in the Premiership to give them game-time.

“This is what the boys want. They want to play rugby, they don’t just want to be training and sitting watching a game of rugby. That is no good to them.

“If I had my way, I wouldn’t have Academies. I would have them all playing in the Premiership.

“If you look at someone like Wyn Jones. He has come through from Llandovery and now he’s a British Lion.

“You can name no end of players who have come through the system of playing for a club and getting better and then up to the next league. That’s the way they come through. They don’t just jump into a region.”

WRU chief executive Steve Phillips was at the official launch of the new facilities at The Wern and gave his thoughts.

“Hats off to Stan. It’s remarkable what he has done.

“Fair play, in terms of a give-back to the community, it doesn’t get any better than this, does it? It’s exceptional.”

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