For most of the last year, the fields of Cardiff’s Trelai Park – like those across Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom – have been quiet and desolate.
Now, with Covid-19 restrictions easing, they are back alive with the sights and sounds of grassroots sport. This is the home of Caerau Ely RFC – a thriving club in the heart of the Welsh capital.
Its mini and junior section was started in 2018 by Liam Mackay, 31, a man who was given a second chance in life by rugby and wants to help the next generation use the sport for good.
“I had numerous offences and went to prison in 2012 for an altercation in the city centre,” Mackay said. “I came out of prison on tag. My rugby club at the time Glamorgan Wanderers took me straight back in and I played with my tag on. A lovely guy called Harry Trelawny took me under his wing.
"I used to have to leave training at quarter to seven to make it home for seven before my tag buzzed. Everyone knew I had one, but rugby pulled me out of the revolving door a lot of people go through. A few years later I was a part of the School of Hard Knocks programme – it was amazing.
“My vision when creating Caerau’s mini and juniors club was to create for other people what rugby had given me – a second chance through sport. I was a young offender and wanted to create a place where rugby could be a first chance for people, rather than a second and be proactive rather than an intervention. I’m founder of the minis and juniors at Caerau Ely.
“In September 2018 we had our first training session. We had two balls, a couple of cones, and 12 kids. We started off as a snowflake, now we’re a bit more of an avalanche. Fast forward three years – we’ve missed a year because of the pandemic – and we’ve got nearly 200 children, 20 odd coaches, and a thriving club. I’ve had loads of support from the Welsh Rugby Union, friends and family, and businesses who have helped us out with kit. There are huge barriers to sport in Ely.
“There are a lot of single parent families and money is tight. We’ve started some unique partnerships. We work with the local foodbank who come to the club on Sunday mornings and supply some of the kids with breakfast if they have missed it at home for whatever reason.
“We have a boot bank with about 100 pairs in there. We try to recycle boots so everyone has a pair because we want to take away any barrier to kids playing rugby. Not every child we have is living in poverty, but if we can help the few that are, then we will.
“We live in an area where five of our primary schools are in the top eight in Wales for free school meals and people deprivation. That indicates the sort of demographic we have at our club so we have no choice but to support them by any means necessary.
“My motto for the club is ‘More than rugby’ and that’s what we want here – a one-stop shop where families, kids and coaches can feel part of the community and get involved.”
The cruelties of coronavirus hit grassroots rugby – as well as all sports – hard with little to no activity for a good 15 months. There is a growing and very real concern Welsh rugby participation numbers will have been decimated by Covid-19. In Ely in particular, the pandemic has had a devastating impact. Tragically, it led one father of a junior Caerau Ely player to take his own life.
“We have given the family all our support. It was very sad and we’ve done what we can,” said Mackay who has taken Caerau Ely from strength to strength with the help of Johanna Lovell.
“We are ready to welcome the family back when they are ready and hopefully rugby can be a help or support in some way.”
Caerau Ely has long had senior men’s sides, but it is the emergence of the next generation which has seen the club make the next step in an area where football has long been popular.
Each Sunday morning, more than 200 children can be found on Trelai Park playing rugby.
Ely product Mackay added: “Rugby is certainly not struggling here. There are lots of areas struggling and the pandemic has hit some of Cardiff’s most underappreciated parts even harder.
“It’s been twice as hard for the people who were already struggling in poverty and on the bread line. There are clubs struggling, but I don’t think that’s a new thing. There are more kids playing rugby now than ever. Adult numbers may have dwindled a bit, but there are a lot of reasons for that.
“The UK is struggling economically and people have to work nights or weekends or might not be able to risk getting injured. Putting food on the table is the biggest thing for people.
“I think on the whole the grassroots game is in a healthy and good position. Maybe I say that because I only see my club, but there are some fantastic clubs in Cardiff.”
Caerau Ely’s grassroots development has been boosted by the presence of Welsh Rugby Union hub officer George Tavner. There are also more than 20 volunteer coaches who work at youth level.
“The work these guys are putting in has been absolutely brilliant. The enthusiasm of the kids is superb too,” said Tavner, who previously worked at academy level in English club rugby.
“They’ve all been desperate to get back into training. The challenge is to keep the rugby fun and entertaining, but also safe. The volunteers are giving their time to help coach these young boys and girls and I want to help them too. I’ve only been in post since November as a WRU hub officer in Cardiff West since November. Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed by the support for rugby in the area. Enthusiasm is great, but they also need support on how to coach and keep the kids engaged.
“What we’ve found in the Ely area is while there is a lot of enthusiasm, there hasn’t always been a lot of rugby in this area. I’m trying to go round as many of the primary schools as possible to get them playing rugby. Whatever sport you play when you’re young, for me it’s not about the sport – it’s about the friendships you make and the experiences and values you get from it.
“It’s been a tough year for everyone, but one of the real positives is both kids and adults are now desperate to do things they took for granted in the past like playing rugby and being outside.
“Playing different variations of rugby like touch and tag has really encouraged participation which has been brilliant. We’ve got lots of girls playing in this area.”
Norman Rees, 45, is a volunteer coach who works with Caerau Ely’s Under-9’s side: “George’s enthusiasm rubs off on the rest of the coaches and the players. We are very lucky to have him – it’s fantastic. It’s the best club in the world,” he said.
“I know I’m biased, but we have the community spirit, the backing of the community, and a committee which supports us. I feel lucky to be involved in it.
“People say the grassroots game is dead, but I’d challenge them to come down to our club on a Sunday morning when we have 230 kids from the age of four to 17 playing.
“Our rugby club is thriving. We are trying to do our best for each of the 4,000 kids in Ely. We aren’t even working with 10 per cent of those yet so there is always room for us to grow.
“When the kids come down to us on a Sunday morning it’s a release. We have parents who are NHS carers or have lost their jobs in the pandemic. We’ve all had our part to play in the last year.
“We are doing something positive for the community and so are the kids. They are making an effort and are so proud to represent Caerau Ely.”