Newport was the place to be if you like your end of season drama hot and heartfelt. Robin Davey takes stock after three of the city’s teams all avoided the chop.
Harri Houdini, a Hungarian-American notorious for his amazing escape acts, must surely have visited Newport during his lifetime, for Wales’ third city has just completed a hat-trick worthy of the man himself – all in the space of a week.
Firstly, came Newport County’s sensational survival as a Football League club, courtesy of an 89th minute winner.
Three days later came the dramatic vote which meant Newport RFC and Newport Gwent Dragons (soon to be named just Dragons) would continue to play at Rodney Parade.
And, finally, Newport qualified for the final of the Premiership Tier Two play-off, once more courtesy of a last minute score.
The County’s escape act would have made Houdini himself proud. They were 11 points behind at the foot of League Two with 12 games left when local boy Mike Flynn took over in the manager’s hot seat.
They hauled themselves off the bottom, climbing two places and needing a win against Notts County in the final game of the season to secure their league survival.
With time running out the scores were level and it looked desperate, but up popped defender Mark O’Brien with a last minute winner which sent the capacity 7,500 crowd into raptures, the club’s FL survival secure.
Their rugby counterparts clinched their play-off spot a week later in equally dramatic fashion. Newport were 17-7 down against Llanelli when the recovery began, but it wasn’t until replacement prop Matt Prosser scored a last minute try that they clinched qualification for the final against Neath.
In between the on-field triumphs came one of a different kind off the field which meant that all three teams can continue to play at Rodney Parade until 2020 at least when the RSA runs out.
The vote for a Welsh Rugby Union takeover of Rodney Parade with the place bankrupt, virtually falling down in places and with a pitch that was a disgrace, was just as dramatic in a different way.
Giving the WRU plan the go-ahead required a stiff 75% majority from Newport RFC shareholders, many of whom were opposed to the deal, claiming the Union were acquiring the ground on the cheap when they didn’t want to sell at all, and there were no guarantees about their playing future.
It was another touch and go situation for weeks, several meetings were held with some hostile questioning of Dragons and Newport chief executive Stuart Davies and WRU CEO Martyn Phillips.
Literature was circulated with dire warnings of the consequences of failure – the receivers being called in, Rodney Parade sold, the Dragons and Newport having no home and the ground becoming a building site.
But on the night the yes vote triumphed with an 81% majority and players, officials and staff breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The takeover doesn’t officially kick in until July 1, but plans will definitely be in place to set up a new board to run the Dragons, a management company to do likewise at Newport and a Desso-type pitch to replace the existing apology for one.
The WRU are spending £5m on the purchase of the ground, major improvements and pitch, hoping the sale of land known as the cabbage patch at the top end will recoup some of the money.
They will provide stability off the field and also help on the coaching front. But the playing budget will remain the same – it has to under the terms of the RSA – which will still leave the Dragons’ playing budget way behind their rivals.
They have precious few members of the Wales squad so cannot command anything like the same revenue while a number of their rivals have benefactors, too.
That source has dried up for the Dragons with octogenarians Tony Brown and Martyn Hazell no longer putting money in, though they have generously decided to claim very little of the near £5m they are owed back now there’s been a yes vote.
A ‘no’ vote and they would have called their loans in, fearful their millions would have ended up in the pockets of property developers with Newport unable to sustain Rodney Parade and forced to sell.
But a hopeful sign remains, apart from the survival of region and club, for the time being at least.
For Phillips has admitted they are talking to a potential investor for the Dragons and meetings have been held.
Academy players and some senior ones returning to Wales on a dual contract might also be ‘guided’ towards the Dragons while the arrival of Gavin Henson will virtually do the marketing employees’ work for them.
So, after a dismal season all round there are finally some chinks of light as we go into the summer break.
It’s all hands on deck for next season though, for Houdini might not oversee another rescue.