Fat in the Fire: Billo Rees and the Amman Valley derby.
The Amman Valley derby was by nature a brutal bloody affair, stoked to boiling point by simmering feuds, ancient enmity and bellies filled to bursting with sour booze and bitter hatred.
The rugby fields of south Wales in early years of the 20th century were no place for the faint-hearted. These were the dancefloors and strutting pens of their day where young men sent underground at 14 were able to display their brain, their brawn and their talent; arenas where a man would find his place in life and battle for individual acclaim and recognition. Where reputations were made and hearts won; where stars were forged and faded.
Contests between the valley’s two premier sides – Amman United and Ammanford – were a major event for both communities which hundreds flocked to witness. Where the anger and frustrations of a six-day week of ten hour shifts spent toiling at the coal-face spilled into violence on and off the field. The meeting of the sides on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, proved no different.
One of the largest crowds ever witnessed converged on Cwmaman Park, on the border of the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman – and where the sportsmen of both joined forces for the greater good in the form of United, was further swelled as hundreds made the five-mile eastward journey from Ammanford in buses, charabancs and on foot in beer-fuelled expectation.
With the sporting season already drawing to a close, the fixture was to be the third and final meeting between the sides during the 1920/21 campaign and the expectation amid even the most ardent of the visiting faithful was of a comfortable home victory: Without question, it was United who possessed superior guile, skill and strength. There seemed little doubt that they would claim victory over the visitors from the bustling little town just along the valley road.
United, or The Amman as they were known, had crushed the visitors underfoot when the two sides met at Cwmaman Park early in the season and the odds were firmly stacked in their favour once again. Ammanford had claimed an unlikely draw when the old rivals had come together on their own patch just a few weeks earlier, but the result was seen by all as nothing more than a mere blip – a lucky result on home turf. This latest fixture would restore the natural order and Ammanford and their fans would be sent whimpering back down the valley with eyes blackened, teeth chipped and tails firmly fixed between their legs.
There was however one chink of light in the Amman’s armour on that cold February afternoon, and it came in the form of the club’s finest talent. William ‘Billo’ Rees was the valley’s stand-out player of his generation. At outside-half he was a master in the role of lynchpin between the Amman’s battling, bruising all-powerful front eight and their athletic, marauding backs.
On a rugby field with oval ball in hand, Billo was a visionary, fleet of foot and mind, capable of dictating play and controlling possession from the centre of the park. Through Billo Rees the Amman played their game and outscored all comers.
Billo’s prowess had not gone unnoticed further up the Welsh rugby pyramid. In the years to come he would move north and pocket the silver pieces on offer playing Rugby League in northern England, but even while he was still immersed in the union code of south Wales his fame had spread far beyond the confines of the Amman Valley.
On the day Ammanford and their masses rolled up at Cwmaman Park, Billo Rees had been selected to play for Swansea at the highest level of the Welsh amateur game.
These were the days – at least officially – before a penny changed hands in the principality for pulling on a jersey on a Saturday afternoon.
Though financial reward was not on offer – at least none that any would admit, still the major clubs were able to entice the shining lights from lower down the food-chain. For smaller clubs like Ammanford and the Amman, seeing one of their own link arms with the nation’s best brought its own prestige.
The permit that was requested by Swansea though, was for once not met with favour amongst all Amman fans, and a controversy raged amongst the home support. The shortsighted labelled him Judas, claiming he was turning his back on his own for personal gain and that though illegal, money was surely behind it.
When Ammanford arrived at Cwmaman Park and their followers swelled the pubs of Garnant and Glanamman and set the tills ringing with their weekly wage, there was – for once – real hope. Small hope indeed, but without Billo Rees to orchestrate their superior forces, the Amman’s Achilles Heel had been exposed.
As the drinkers, home and away alike, weaved their way with ale-stretched bellies and whisky on their breath through the crisp afternoon towards the park, tempers flared. Old rivalries from pub, pitch and pithead stirred and jostled amongst the crowds of barging shoulders, pointed elbows and on occasion, flailing fists. Along the way, Police Sergeant Thomas Richards and Constable David Thomas did what they could to uphold order, through mere visible presence more than interventionist hands-on policing.
When the groups of supporters finally arrived at the ground, a whispered rumour found its voice and began to spread like a wildfire. Cheers erupted amongst the home faithful and ripped with burning fury through the visiting ranks.
As impossible to believe as it seemed, the word was being spread that Billo Rees had turned down the request from Swansea and instead opted to spend that Saturday with the Amman.
He had chosen to turn his back on greatness – or at least decided to delay it – to crush the bitterest rivals of his community under foot and boot.
Rees had rejected the chance to tread upon the greater stage of the field at St Helens and opted instead to ensure his home side smashed the hearts of Ammanford in what seemed a petty, bitter, spiteful choice.
The decision, to the travelling fans at least, seemed like a betrayal of the very notion of true sportsmanship. That the Amman had persuaded their shining light to reject the dreams to which all those who followed the amateur game aspired was utterly beyond redemption.
The anger swelled around Cwmaman Park like a torrent and shoves and pushes spilled over into punches, kicks and fights. “The fat was properly in the fire,” reported Sentinel, the Amman Valley Chronicle’s rugby correspondent.
For the players of Ammanford, the Billo Rees controversy brought far greater, more immediate problems.
They knew that whatever the bitter atmosphere amongst the crowds pressed tight and 30 deep around the touchlines, they would have to face him and somehow suppress him.
To a man, they all knew without a doubt, that Billo’s talent far surpassed their own, his speed of thought, his vision and awareness of the field around him would leave them floundering in the mud as it had so many times while the Amman raced out of sight to yet another victory.
They knew also that such was his guile, agility and understanding that they would be lucky to ever find themselves within an arm’s reach of him. The genius that was Billo Rees was simply head and shoulders above them all and far too good for any to ever lay an off-the-ball punch, let alone a legal tackle, on him.
And so instead they opted for a different approach.
As they tied their bootlaces and pulled on their jerseys, Ammanford came up with a plan. A plan so unpredicted and unlikely, that none in the Amman’s ranks could see it coming.
While every team the Amman had ever faced would through their men in ever greater more desperate numbers in the direction of Billo Rees, the Ammanford skipper ordered his team to do precisely the opposite. They would all but ignore the genius Rees and leave him free to wander how and where he wished.
The role of outside-half which Billo had so mastered may well have been the key link in a chain, but just as with chains at the pithead that lowered men underground, there were other links vital to the greater cause.
The Amman’s muscular, unstoppable front-eight pack would claim every ball in scrum or ruck and feed it out to scrum-half Joe Griffiths. Griffiths’ single purpose was to ensure he offered up clean ball to Rees, who would linger ten yards clear of the forwards’ melee. From such a point of freedom Billo was able to release his rampaging backs and leave the Ammanford rearguard chasing ghosts.
The Ammanford tactic would be to focus all their attentions on Griffiths – an excellent player in his own right – but far short of the standard of Rees and without the physique and mental ingenuity of his three-quarter line partner.
Ammanford targeted Griffiths with brutal an unerring accuracy. They simply battered him into the ground. Two, three, often four men at a time would converge on him before he was able even to scoop up the ball up from the back of the scrum. Ammanford crushed him under a melee of flying bodies, flailing arms and heavy, studded boots.
The tactic sent the home fans apoplectic and fights broke out along the sidelines. The mood both on the field and off turned ugly, but with Billo Rees enjoying barely a single touch of the ball all afternoon, Ammanford claimed a historic and infamous 10-8 victory.
The mood all along the Amman Valley spat and fizzed throughout the remainder of the afternoon and long into the night. Threats were uttered, fists flew, and the pubs and police struggled to maintain order. The fat was most certainly in the fire.