On the 24th October 2008 the last game of rugby was played at Stradey Park, Llanelli. One hundred and twenty-nine years of history had come to an end in front of a packed stadium. The game, against Bristol in the EDF Energy Cup, came in a distant second place as people reminisced about old times and favourite players. Ian Smith, from the National Museum of Wales, was there to capture the scenes of emotion for future generations in words and pictures. This is the story of that night.
The 24th October 2008 at six fifteen found us travelling along the coast road towards Llanelli. We'd just passed the 'wigwam' roundabout and the sun was low in the sky, fingers of light breaking through the clouds and jumping off the sea to the west.
We were on our way to Stradey.....for the last time.
A scarlet army was heading to the old ground. No, not just a ground. Stradey Park was more than just a ground. A meeting place; a special place full of memories of heroic deeds; a modern day arena where gladiators battled every weekend; a place of mourning where we had all congregated to say farewell to one of Wales' favourite sons; a place that filled people's lives, and in death, even a final resting place for some who had their ashes scattered on the turf.
It's strange how a place can grab and hold onto your very soul. You've gone there as a child with your mam or dad. Grown up there with your friends. Taken your children and grandchildren there, where strangers, who become friends, laugh, sing and shout and cry together.
Smells of the wet turf, the spilt beer, the burger and onions, the rain damp anoraks and woolly hats. The wall of noise; those gabbling, rattled out conversations; the singing, the hooters and the loud tannoy that no-one understands. Blurred vision on windswept evenings, squinting into floodlit pools of green. The squashed up crowd, pushing and shoving for a better 'look' and yet comforting for the warmth provided by its nearness on freezing winter afternoons.
The hiraeth that swells inside, it makes no sense. You couldn't possibly describe it to somebody who doesn't feel it.
People battled their way to the beer tent, the queue worse than any scrum. Everyone knows that you can't possibly enjoy a game without a can in your hand. Like a talisman or a baby's comfort blanket, the tighter you grip it the better your team plays!
We were inside Stradey now, the dazzling floodlights creating daylight out of night, making colours vibrant and clean. A sea of red lapping against an island of green. The stewards in their bright banana skins standing guard against a careless footprint that might soil that precious turf.
Then the ceremony began. A procession of well loved names were duly applauded and cheered as we remembered past battles. As our memories were jogged, conversations sprang up about days and friends long gone.
Suddenly the tannoy crackled, and then the tension crackled, reached out and touched us. The youngsters lined up by the tunnel, flags waving; smiles as wide as Cefn Sidan sands, on blissful, shiny faces. Brave Bristol players, tonight's opponents, were announced and took to the pitch. Amid playful jeering and cat calls they formed a huddle in the centre and wondered what they'd let themselves in for.
Quietly at first it started, we could hardly hear it, with all the deafening noise. As it rose up and got going we all joined in 'Yma o hyd' an anthem fit for Stradey, and the whole of Wales. The huge flamethrowers lit up the faces in the stands and the team charged out to ear-splitting screams.
And Bristol huddled in the centre and wondered what they'd let themselves in for.
Rugby took second place that night, although we were all mighty glad the Scarlets won the very last game there. By half-time the contest was really over and we all looked forward to the sweet voice of Caryl Parry Jones who sang 'West is Best' during the interval. Again, emotional levels were ratcheted up and as the second half got under way most of the 'spectators' were reminiscing and telling their favourite Stradey story.
Forty minutes flew by in seconds. The teams shook hands and Bristol sportingly stayed on the pitch for the grand finale – now having an idea of what they'd let themselves in for.
Not one but two great choirs took to the field, Cor Meibion Llanelli and the Scarlets Choir sang Sospan Fach and Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. By now we were all shuddering wrecks, our chests and heads fit to burst with pride. The singing ended, not a dry eye in the place and amid the talk of the future at Parc y Sgarlets the floodlights were dimmed and turned low. The people close by went quiet, their thoughts secret, no doubt reliving their fondest memories of Stradey.
Some folk started leave, but their exit was cut short by the tannoy loudly announcing that the fireworks were about to start!
They stared with some 'fizzers' on the pitch, bright white soon giving way to loud scarlet explosions that filled the cold night air. Thunderclaps maybe to exorcise any Stradey ghosts?
They were bursting all around now, every child's upturned face glowing red in the reflection. As the din and glow grew faint, the choirs made their way off the pitch to heartfelt applause. The team came next; they marched around Stradey saluting the faithful fans, our very own Captain Scarlet, Simon Easterby with child in arms.
It all came to end. Nobody wanted to leave really, but in our hearts we knew that time moves on and in a hundred or so years Parc y Sgarlets would hold just as many memories as this grand old girl had done.