Growing up in Glynneath Aaron Bramwell dreamed of captaining his beloved Neath.
Bramwell, who describes himself as “Neath through and through”, first played for the Welsh All Blacks as a 17-year-old and returned for a third stint at The Gnoll this summer aged 32.
He has since assumed the captaincy at the famous old club, but has done so amid increasingly trying circumstances that have helped turn his life’s ambition into a waking nightmare.
Neath are rock bottom of the Welsh Premiership, with just one win from 13 matches, but relegation is far from their primary concern. Players, those that remain, are into their third month without pay as one of the most iconic names in club rugby teeters on the brink.
“I’m a Neath boy, I’ve had nine seasons there and obviously being captain as well I don’t want to walk away,” Bramwell told RugbyPass.
“I supported Neath as a young boy. I’m passionate about the club and I want to be there to hopefully see the club get back to where it belongs.
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“It has been a massive part of my life as a player and it’s just gut-wrenching really that it’s gone the way it has.”
Neath were plunged into trouble not long after Bramwell returned. Owner Mike Cuddy, a former chief executive at the Ospreys, has claimed to have put £500,000 into the club since assuming sole control in 2015.
However once his company, the Cuddy Group, went into administration in July following a period of ill-health, that money dried up. Unpaid wages have unsurprisingly led players – branded “expensive” and “underperforming” by Cuddy – to look elsewhere and of the 32 registered ahead of the season only 13 are still at The Gnoll.
Bramwell bears no animosity towards those who have decided to move on. “It is the boys’ livelihood. Some boys they rely on that money,” he said. “You can’t really blame them for going.”
Last Thursday a winding up petition being presented against Neath Rugby Limited by finance company Jardine Norton was dismissed by Judge Andrew Keyser QC as it was “entirely unclear” who a debt of £31,734 was owed to.
That ruling provided little comfort for supporters as it effectively allowed Cuddy to retain control that he seemed unwilling to relinquish.
On Friday, though, he issued a statement to WalesOnline in which he hinted that he could be ready to walk away and hand control either to a supporter-led consortium or private investors. Later that day he was one of around 350 people who watched a Neath team supplemented heavily by permit players from the fifth tier of the Welsh league pyramid lose 69-12 to Llanelli at The Gnoll.
In his statement Cuddy admitted he needed the “continued passionate support from volunteers and supporters”, but on Saturday the Neath Rugby Voluntary Operational Team – the group that was effectively running the club – stepped aside.
Earlier in the day head coach Simon King, who had been appointed when Lyn Jones departed for Russia in August, quit saying it was impossible to continue without “appropriate support staff”.
It is difficult to see where Neath go from here. “We aren’t led to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel at the moment,” Bramwell admitted.
“It’s unthinkable really, because I’ve got young children myself who I obviously take down to the Neath games and stuff and they’re passionate about the club as well.
“There’s a young boy who comes to support us all the time, Logan, and the kid is devastated. It just means so much to people.
“At the moment the boys are like ‘It is what it is, we’ve got to keep going’. But, no, this week now is the nail-bitter about what we’re going to do going forward. Because we haven’t had any real answers and we’ve kept on going and kept on going.”
Things may well get worse for Neath, who were forced to postpone their trip to Bedwas earlier this month, before they get better. But hope could be on the horizon.
Although the Neath Rugby Voluntary Operational Team has ceased its hands-on support for the club because it is “unanimous that it can no longer work with Mr Cuddy” it has not walked away completely.
Cuddy had informed the team that he planned to bring in a new group of volunteers to assist him in running the club, and although that has not transpired in full the two parties remain in contact.
It was the volunteer group that informed Neath’s owner that he would need to find a health and safety officer for Friday’s match to go ahead. Opponents Llanelli ultimately brought one with them.
Graham Jones, the operational team’s spokesperson, wrote to Cuddy on Saturday to outline what needed to be addressed in the volunteers’ absence. If things work out the way that the group hopes, it may soon have a bigger say in the running of the club.
According to Jones, a consortium of local investors is ready to take control if Cuddy walks away. It would also hope to avoid responsibility for club debt estimated at over £100,000.
“We are determined to move away from a single owner to a model which has a consortium of investors,” Jones told RugbyPass.
“The model we are trying to develop is one where a number of smaller investors work together and that investment will partly be in cash and funding, and partly be in terms of providing services and assistance.
“It’s a much more sustainable model and we would expect to see a small board of directors and then an operational team based on volunteers to run the club day to day.”
Investors behind the consortium are unwilling to reveal themselves until talks are at an advanced stage, but Jones accepts it would be easier for the group to assume control of the Welsh All Blacks were the club to be wound up.
If suggestions that Cuddy was handed a second writ on Friday prove true then that would become a very real possibility once more.
For now, Cuddy remains in situ but Jones is confident the storied club he first watched against the other All Blacks 55 years ago can be saved.
“If we go into the Championship so be it, but provided that there is a new company and good, honest new people in place (people) will continue to support the club,” he said.
“And if it takes three or four years to establish and relaunch, that is more important than immediate success.
“Supporters are also conscious that the club is 147 years old, so in 2021 we celebrate our 150th anniversary and it is far more important for the people of Neath that the club still exists playing rugby than any short-term problems that we’re having at the moment.”
He added: “What’s keeping us supporters going at the moment is a wish and a hope and a strong belief that within months, hopefully, weeks better still, that there will be a change of ownership.”
Captain Bramwell doesn’t pretend to know what to say when opposition coaches ask how he and his side – one that includes an ex-All Black, Regan King – are coping with the current situation. But like Jones he does believe that something positive can come out of adversity in Neath.
“The 12 or 13 boys, we’ve stuck together and it’s brilliant to see,” Bramwell said.
“Boys get offered to go elsewhere but they’ve stuck it out. It’s a huge credit to them and I think that’s a big statement for the club in itself. That people want to play for Neath, that there are people that want to play for Neath because they are such a massive club.”
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