Since making his debut for Pontypool RFC in September 2012, Clayton Gullis has become one of the more recognisable faces around the Pontypool and Torfaen area. Whether it's walking his British bulldog, Monty, through Pontypool Park, shopping in the local Tesco's or working his day job as a painter and decorator, the 28-year-old local is often stopped by a member of the public to talk all things Pontypool RFC.
In the early years, following the club's unsuccessful court case against the Welsh Rugby Union and demotion to the then newly formed Championship, the conversation would follow a largely familiar pattern. Gullis would be engaged in conversation by locals wanting to know how the club was performing in the league or who they were due to play that weekend. It suggested a level of detachment that has only over the last few years been overcome.
It has been overcome thanks to the recent exploits of the rugby club. Once Peter Jeffreys had stepped in to save the club from near extinction in 2012, he set about rebuilding Pontypool RFC with his son, Ben. The 2012-2013 season saw the club win just seven league games from a possible 26, but the years that followed saw steady and noticeable improvement.
The 2013-2014 season saw the club finish fourth, with the following two campaigns seeing the club finish fifth. The second of those fifth-placed finishes meant the club narrowly missed out on promotion to the Principality Premiership. A top-four finish would have secured the club a spot in an expanded top division. Missing out on promotion also came with the added blow of knowing the club would be unable to challenge for promotion until at least the 2018-2019 season, due to the Welsh Rugby Union deciding to ring fence the Premiership for a three-year period.
Failing to reach the Premiership prompted change at the club, with forwards coach Leighton Jones - son of the late Steve 'Junna' Jones - replacing Louie Tonkin as head coach. Matthew Jones also came on board as a player/coach, with Andrew Quick filling the newly created defence coach role ahead of the 2016-2017 campaign.
It proved a winning formula, with the club dropping just one game on their way to 98 points and the Championship title. The club also enjoyed a memorable run to the quarter-finals of the National Cup by taking the scalps of Llanelli RFC and Cardiff RFC away from home before falling to Cross Keys RFC in the last eight. Gullis played just ten games during the season with a knee reconstruction keeping him on the sidelines for a large portion of the campaign. "The first half of the season was immensely frustrating for me personally,” said Gullis. “I had to slowly work my way back to fitness, but to return in time for the cup game away at Cardiff is something I'll always remember. To come on as a first-half replacement, score and play a part in us winning at the Arms Park was an awesome feeling.
"The travelling support that evening was like nothing I'd experienced. It was a signifier that the town was starting to fully engage with the club again."
Gullis, who has started every Pontypool game since returning from that knee reconstruction - a run of 31 games - says there was a frustration in the squad that the club did not complete an unbeaten 2016-2017 league season. A 30-22 defeat away to Cardiff Met ended the club's 100% league record with just three games of the league season left to play.
Despite not achieving what they desired, the squad went into the 2017-2018 campaign with a new confidence and belief. Rhys Dyer and Gareth Rusby-Davies brought their playing careers to an end and joined Jones' backroom staff as momentum continued to build.
The club finally achieved its objective of a perfect league season on April 21st, beating Narberth 27-20 in the last league game of the season. Gullis, who had by this point developed into one of the team's key performers, scored 18 tries in 25 appearances acrossleague and cup, as the club became the first side in the six-year history of the National Championship to end a season unbeaten.
"We were determined to go one step further than the year before and record an unbeaten league season. We knew it would not be easy and tried to take things one step at a time. To beat Cardiff Met so comprehensively away after what had happened the previous season, was particularly satisfying and we battled hard to get over the line in West Wales against Narberth." said Gullis.
The final whistle at the Lewis-Lloyd Ground prompted celebrations between the squad and supporters, with the Pooler Army once again travelling to support the team in large numbers. It was the final proof for Gullis that the club is once again the centre of the community.
"I love interacting with our supporters. As a local lad, it was always my ambition to play for Pontypool RFC. As a youngster I would attend mid-week games with my dad, David, and still vividly remember attending Pontypool versus Fiji at the Park in 2002."
"So for me to now be stopped and the conversation be about how much they have enjoyed watching the team over the last few seasons, is something I get a lot from." said Gullis.
If you would like to watch Clayton Gullis and the rest of the squad in action during a vitally important 2018-2019 campaign, season tickets can be purchased here → http://bit.ly/2LMwpY5.