Tony Clarke may hail from and have played all of his rugby in the Rhondda, but he has a special place in his heart for Gwent rugby and Pontypool RFC in particular.
In the years since his playing days came to an end, Clarke has been heavily involved with teams in the Gwent area.
He has twice been team manager at Pontypool RFC and also enjoyed stints at Newbridge RFC, Cwmbran RFC and Pontypool Schools under-15s, fulfilling the same role. These roles were followed by a spell as a community ambassador for the Dragons, but, by his own admission, Clarke has never felt more at home than when he is part of the set-up at Pontypool Park.
Much of Clarke's time at Pontypool Park was spent as team manager in tandem with legendary head coach, the late Steve 'Junna' Jones. Clarke and Jones were close friends and now, with Clarke serving as the club's Community Outreach Coordinator, he is once again working with a Jones, Steve's son and current head coach, Leighton.
"Having been involved with the previous five regimes, it's been a breath of fresh air to be involved with Peter, Ben and Leighton," said Clarke. "I'm really thankful to be able to contribute to this great club once again and to be involved in an environment where everyone helps each other.
"The future is bright for not only Pontypool RFC, but all clubs and schools in the Torfaen area."
Clarke has been the club's Community Outreach Coordinator since the summer of 2017, after being approached by Jones to head up a new initiative. Pooler’s talismanic head coach initially looked for Clarke to lead a programme that would provide the junior sections of local clubs with the chance to train at Pontypool Park on the same evening as the seniors and to also play in a curtain raiser game before a senior home match.
The game would then be followed by the chance for children to act as flag bearers and form a guard of honour for the senior teams entering the field, with a complimentary meal and the chance to watch the game as part of the matchday experience.
The initial idea quickly developed, with local schools being added to the programme. That led to the creation of the ‘Pontypool RFC Cup’ with the Jeffreys family, on behalf of the club, agreeing to sponsor a cup, bowl and plate competition.
It was decided that Year Eight school sides within Torfaen would contest the first year of the competition, with the finals taking place at Pontypool Park. The winners were presented with their trophy by Pooler’s chief executive officer, Ben Jeffreys, and similar competitions for the youth sections of local rugby clubs are set to be held throughout next season.
Clarke and the club originally aimed to have 200 children pass through the system during the first season, however, that figure was eventually dwarfed with 958 children, from a combined total of sixteen schools and clubs, taking part.
Clarke, who has a level two coaching qualification with the Welsh Rugby Union, tailors training sessions to the age group that is present on any given evening and is assisted by two members of Pontypool RFC's squad.
Before the training session, children are given a short talk on the history of the club. They are also given the chance to see the official team shirts hanging up in the changing room and have their picture taken with the squad.
"This isn't the start of an academy or youth system at the club," said Clarke. "We want to boost and promote interest in not only Pontypool RFC, but also the other clubs in the area.
"We want to build an affiliation towards Pontypool RFC. The club rugby scene in Wales has an aging audience and we want to hopefully help create a new generation of fans, as well as players.
"After all my years of working in senior rugby, I wanted to get involved at youth level to help facilitate the younger generation’s progression through the ranks. You see too many kids not actively involved in sport at the moment and hopefully this initiative will help kids stay involved with rugby for longer," said Clarke.
Clarke and the club are now actively looking for potential sponsors to help the programme grow.
Any interested parties should contact Tony Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org.