Real success is not only measured by results from match to match or even season to season. Newport Rugby Club has had many successful seasons but when one looks at what this club has achieved and contributed both to the game in Wales and world-wide they will see that it can rightfully claim to be one of the most famous rugby clubs in the world.
The official formation of Newport Rugby Club has long been considered as being in 1874 but some form of hybrid rugby or football in the town pre-dates this, with 15 players each side and including punt kicks and touch downs. An advertisement was placed in the Monmouthshire Merlin of 9th November 1867 entitled 'NEWPORT FOOTBALL CLUB' and announcing 'Gentlemen desirous of joining this newly formed club, will please send their names, by letter, to Mr. H. G. Lloyd, Bank Chambers, Newport. Entrance Fee, 2s. 6d. A committee is about to be appointed, to form and adopt the necessary rules, to which all members must strictly adhere.' The Merlin observing 'Football will be a very pleasant addition to the sports which are generally enjoyed during the winter month. The first match is to take place on the Marshes, on Thursday next, the 14th. inst.. at 2.30p.m., between 15 of the Abergavenny Football Club and 15 gentlemen of Newport. It is intended to play scratch matches every Thursday after noon on the Marshes.'
The Merlin of 30th November 1867 reported the game as follows:-
'The first match of the season in this county was played at Abergavenny on Saturday, the 23rd inst., between 15 of the Abergavenny Club and 16 of the Newport Club. Play commenced about 2.45 p.m., the Abergavenny captain having won the toss for choice of goals, elected to kick slightly down hill, and the Newport captain kicked off the ball. For the first fifteen minutes the Newport Club had the best of the game, but then the superior skill and condition of the Abergavenny men began to tell, and notwithstanding the plucky play displayed by their opponents, succeeded in keeping the ball near to the Newport goal for some forty minutes. Occasionally a sharp rush of the Newport men would carry the ball toward their adversaries' goal, but failing to follow it well up, it was soon again in the same dangerous proximity to the Newport goal. After several rushes and retreats on both sides, the Abergavenny men made a most determined rally to carry the ball through the adversaries' goal, but it was well met, and the ball driven back into the centre of the ground. After about an hour's play, a clever kick by E. G. Davies secured the first and only goal for the Abergavenny Club. The sides then changed their respective goals, and after about fifteen minutes nearly equal play, during which E. G. Davies made the best run down of the day, and nearly succeeded in kicking a second goal for the Abergavenny Club, no side was called. On the Abergavenny side may be mentioned the plucky forward play of Abbott Walford and E. G. Davies, and the clever back play of Roshier, while on the Newport side the determined forward play of Vernon, Lloyd, and Evans, also the splendid punt kicks of Justice is worthy of notice. Although defeated, the Newportonians were not disgraced, and no doubt with more practice will be able to hold their own better in the return match, which takes place soon after Christmas at Newport. The sides were as follows :—Abergavenny Club, R. B. Gabb (captain), E. G. Davies, J. T. Roshier, J. B Walford, J. Wilson, Hon. G. A. Gilford, R. Millett, W. D. Abbott, M. F. Carmichael, W. Cubitt, T. Watkins, J. Goodwin, A. Goodwin, J. E. Price, J. P. Williams. Newport Club:- A. F. Justice (captain), C. Blake, J. Evans, C. Davis, J. Ward, H. Ruscoe, — Vernon, — Seys. C. Lyne, T. Lane, H. G. Lloyd, J. Gould, B. Graham, E. Morgan, substitute.'
The return match was played in February 1868 and was again reported in the Merlin of 29th February concluding with disappointment at the level of support:-
'The return match between Newport and Abergavenny was played at Newport on Saturday, the 15th. instant. Play commenced about three o'clock, the Newport captain, Mr. A. Justice, having won choice of goal, the Newportonians derived considerable assistance from kicking with the wind which was blowing very strong throughout the game. The Newport team in this match was decidedly the stronger, and throughout the whole of the first game the ball was kept in dangerous proximity to the Abergavenny goal, and only once did the Abergavenny men succeed in obliging the Newport side to touch the ball behind their own goal. After some attempts had been made by the Newportonians to kick a goal, at exactly one hour and three minutes after play commenced Mr. A. Justice secured the first and only goal for his side, by a. really splendid long punt. After ten minutes for refreshment the two sides changed goals, and after 35 minutes equal play, during which an attempt to kick a goal was made by both sides, time was called. The respective sides have each obtained a victory over the other, and the deciding match is to be played at Abergavenny, on Saturday, the 7th of March. In a match in which every player played well it would be invidious to mention names. We therefore refrain from doing so. Although the day was fine there were but very few spectators, especially of the fair sex. In this game, as in cricket, the inhabitants of Newport display but very little interest, and are generally conspicuous by their absence.'
What progress was made between 1868 and 1874 we can only wonder at but the arrival of brewer Thomas Phillips from Northampton in Newport, in 1874, with his family and a rugby ball, led to a meeting at Dock Road Brewery in September founding the present day club. Originally trying, but failing, to obtain Association Football games, they reverted to the oval ball and played their first game, a draw, against Glamorgan Rugby Football Club on 5th April 1875. Within 5 years they had 4 invincible seasons, played the first ever Anglo-Welsh club match with Blackheath and also had time to play the first ever electric light match at Newport in 1879 and they were to be one of the pioneers of floodlit rugby in Wales in the 1960's.
In 1880 they were founder members of the Welsh Rugby Union and provided the first ever Honorary Secretary Mr. R. Mullock who served from 1880 to 1892. Later they were to provide 3 Presidents.
Newport had phenomenal success on the field and in the 10 years that the South Wales Challenge Cup was run in the 1870's and 1880's Newport won it 5 times and were runners up on 2 occasions. Newport's success on the field meant they were often called upon to supply players to the Welsh team. Four Newport players played in Wales first ever match vs. England at Blackheath in 1881. Even the first ever Welsh captain James Bevan had played for Newport (and Cambridge University) that season. A Newport player, T. Baker-Jones, scored Wales first ever try against Ireland in 1882. In 1892-93 Newport provided 9 players including captain Arthur Gould to help Wales beat Scotland 9 v 0. Newport have in fact provided 20 different players as captain of the Welsh team and have also provided captains for England, Ireland, Canada, Fiji and Czech Republic.
Newport became one of rugby's leading clubs and produced star players season after season. Early names include Tom Baker-Jones, Arthur Boucher, Tom Graham, James Hannan, Wallace Watts etc. And then there was Arthur 'Monkey' Gould who was certainly rugby's first super-star. He dominated the game in the latter part of the 19th century and one of his records - most tries in a season - still stands to this day. Arthur scored 37 tries in only 24 games in 1892-93. The record has stood for an incredible 113 years.
At the start of the 20th century, touring sides from the southern hemisphere became regular visitors to Rodney Parade, Newport and in 1912 Newport became the first ever club side to beat Bill Millar's South African team and were presented with a Springbok head which stands proudly in Newport's trophy room today. This was the era of Walter Martin, J. E. C. Partridge, Reg Plummer, Reg Skrimshire, Tom Smythe, Tommy Vile etc. Skrimshire was Newport's first ever British Lion in 1903 and since that time they have provided a total of 31 players on overseas Lions tours. In 1910 Dr. Tom Smythe was selected to captain the Lions to South Africa along with 6 fellow Newport players. In 1966 Newport's current chairman David Watkins captained the Lions in 2 tests in Australia / New Zealand.
After the Great War, Newport under captain Jack Wetter achieved yet another invincible season in 1922-23 and the years between the Wars saw Vince Griffiths, Jack Morley, Bunner Travers, etc. wear the Newport and Wales colours. After the Second World War a great side developed at Newport in the late 1940's and 1950's. This was the golden era of Roy Burnett, Ken Jones, Bryn Meredith and Malcolm Thomas and crowds in their thousands flocked to watch. The 1950's saw yet another innovation by Newport - the introduction of seven-a-side rugby in Wales. With great exponents of the game in the guise of Brian Jones, Bryn Meredith, Brian Price, and David Watkins, Newport dominated the game winning 9 of the first 14 tournaments and being runners-up in another 3.
30th October 1963 was to prove to be what many have claimed to be not only Newport's greatest achievement on the field but the greatest achievement of any rugby club side in the world. They were the only side to beat the mighty Fifth All Blacks. They had beaten the Wallabies in 1957 and so completed a memorable hat-trick over the 3 great Southern Hemisphere sides.
Success continued in the 1960's for Newport. Keith Jarrett, Brian Price, David Watkins and Stuart Watkins were just a few of the many players who became household names. Newport once again beat the Springboks in 1969, but despite Newport winning the Welsh Cup in 1977, as well as the Sunday Telegraph Welsh and English / Welsh Pennants and the Welsh Merit Table, there were to be some barren years ahead. Many players sort fame and fortune with other clubs as throughout the 1990's Newport struggled to come to terms with professionalism. It was only after the generous support of benefactors that Newport halted their decline in 1999. The crowds came back to watch Newport fight their way back to the top. They were runners-up in the Premier League twice, as well as once again winning the Welsh Cup in 2001. Rodney Parade saw a plethora of international super-stars such as Shane Howarth, Gary Teichmann and Percy Montgomery wearing Black & Amber and there were many memorable European Cup games.
All changed in Welsh rugby with the introduction of five, full-time, professional 'regional' sides in 2003 (later reduced to four with the demise of Bridgend based Celtic Warriors). Many of Newport's players moved seamlessly into the new senior side, fielded by Newport RFC Ltd. through its subsidiary Dragons Rugby Ltd., and soon to be called Newport Gwent Dragons. Fully controlled and 50% owned by Newport RFC (with the other 50% held by the Welsh Rugby Union) the unbroken continuation of top-class professional rugby at Rodney Parade necessitated significant loan-funded investment, with new terracing, all seated grandstand, catering and hospitality facilities at Rodney Parade. As with the other clubs running 'regional' sides, Newport continued to maintain an additional but separate presence at semi-professional development level in the new Welsh Premier league. In its first season of 2003-04 Newport RFC duly set the standard by winning the new Premiership in style losing only 2 matches. But dark clouds were gathering!
The lack of on-field success and the associated drain on financial resources by the fully professional Newport Gwent Dragons led, firstly, to Rodney Parade being offered as security to cover debts and ultimately, following a meeting of Newport RFC shareholders on 9th May 2017, the sale of the historic 140 year old ground to the Welsh Rugby Union. Newport Gwent Dragons also became 100% owned by the Welsh Rugby Union, were renamed simply Dragons, confirming a complete business and legal separation from Newport RFC. Whilst Newport RFC have agreement to continue to play at Rodney Parade for the time being their use of the ground and facilities is severely constrained as compared to when it was owned.
Newport Rugby Club can look back with satisfaction at what they have achieved during their history. Statistics don't tell the full story but when one sees that Newport have won: the Welsh Championship 11 times, South Wales Challenge Cup 5 times, Welsh Cup twice, Snelling Sevens 10 times, beaten South Africa (twice), Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Uruguay, provided 20 Welsh Captains, 31 British Lions, captains of England, Ireland, Canada, Fiji and Czech Republic and over 150 different Welsh internationals then they can justifiably claim to be one of the great rugby clubs of the world.
The challenge for the new Board of Directors and supporters alike is to overcome the trauma of losing Rodney Parade by identifying a role and means of fulfilling it. Not just to survive but to grow and develop Newport Rugby Football Club in a manner that will continue to reflect its magnificent history, albeit as a semi-professional club.