Alun Wyn Jones, Jade Jones and Geraint Thomas are all Welsh stars at the very top of their respective sports. But, as Graham Thomas reports, they also have something else in common. Each of them was helped into their sport and nurtured by a grass roots club.
When Alun Wyn Jones lifted the Six Nations trophy to the skies, they raised a glass or two in Bonymaen rugby club.
Nothing unusual in that, you might think, as there were glasses lifted in clubhouse bars and living rooms throughout the country.
But only Bonymaen could toast themselves as the place where it all began, the junior club where the Wales captain learned his rugby skills and gained his early love for the sport that would make him famous.
Everyone has to start somewhere. Every boy and girl in Wales needs a helping hand, a willing volunteer, and a space where they can feel the first rush of adrenaline that sport can bring.
It might be a mini-rugby section as it was for the Ospreys skipper, or a local taekwondo club like the one that first welcomed double Olympic champion Jade Jones through their doors, or perhaps a cycling club like the Maindy Flyers in Cardiff, where a young Geraint Thomas first poked his head over the fence and thought, “I’d like a crack at that.”
You need a healthy growth of sporting grass roots if champions are to be reared, or simply if youngsters are going to have the access and opportunity to stay healthy and have fun.
Bonymaen are still running their U7s training early on Tuesday evenings. Perched on a hillside to the east of Swansea, they have to make being active look instantly exciting if they’re to counter the harsh winds that can whip across Parc Mawr.
“Everyone has to start somewhere and fortunately, Big Al, as he was known in those days, decided to start at Bonymaen,” says Keith Brooks, Jones’s first coach.
“It’s hard to believe but when Alan first turned up, he was a little bit timid and shy. He was a gentle giant, but he also had a sense of fun and he enjoyed playing with the younger boys.”
Bonymaen, Swansea, the Ospreys and eventually Wales and the Lions can all be grateful to Jones’ mum Ann, who was teaching at nearby Cefn Hengeod School and decided to take her son over the road to see what was offer.
Quite a lot, it turned out, just as it was for namesake Jade Jones when she and her grandad Martin Foulkes spotted a poster advertising taekwondo lessons at Flint Pavilion Leisure Centre.
That was back in 2001 when Jade was just eight years old. She was persuaded to try a taster session, loved the energy of the martial art, and soon began to develop her skills in the sport under the watch of coach Martin Williams.
The club offered a Little Ninjas programme for youngsters and the welcome provided to a local girl looking for something to her hook her in proved irresistible. So much so, that Jade has since admitted if she couldn’t make a session there would often be tears.
“She was a very typical eight-year-old,” says Martin. “Her grandad actually introduced her to the sport as I think he wanted to make sure she was on a good path. He wanted to get her doing something that reinforced courtesy and respect.
“When she joined us she was eight and at that level you work your way through the different gradings, but I remember she always performed exceptionally.’
Just as Alun Wyn’s mum – as well as his late father Tim – played a vital supporting role in their son being able to make the most of local opportunity, so it was with Jade and her family.
“When Jade started doing competitions as she got older, her family always took her absolutely everywhere so she could compete,” adds Martin.
“You could tell that she had a real talent. It took about four years for her to get her black belt when she was about 12.”
Sometimes, sport is not quite love at first sight. It can be about trying out various options before finding the ones that fit like a glove and fire the imagination.
Jade Jones had tried athletics before opening the door at the Flint leisure centre that would later be re-named in her honour. Geraint Thomas was a 10-year-old swimmer when he came out of Maindy Leisure Centre and noticed something interesting was going on nextdoor.
It happened to be Maindy Flyers cycling club where head coach Alan Davis could offer a track, a collection of bikes, and a willing organisation of other volunteers and parents.
It was hardly the latest cutting edge technology, but the atmosphere was friendly, coaching and equipment were accessible, and it was enough to fill a small boy’s head with dreams.
Davis, still a regular at the Flyers 20 years later, says: “Geraint had so much talent as a kid that a chimpanzee could have coached him.
“But the important thing was that he was a kid from Whitchurch with a cycling track almost on his doorstep. Without the track and the club being here, it’s to imagine he would ever have become a professional cyclist, never mind a Tour de France winner.
“You need facilities and you need clubs to organise youngsters, so that they all have opportunities to enjoy sport, be healthy, and take it as far as they want to take it.”
In other words, feed the grass roots . . . and watch them grow.