Gleision miner's son: 'Memories of my dad help keep me strong'
THERE is a special kind of team spirit at a rugby club in the Dulais Valley and it is helping one of their own get through the aftermath of the Gleision disaster. CHRIS PEREGRINE reports.
THE rain is coming down, but Alex Jenkins doesn't mind.
He is about to do what he loves best: playing rugby with his Dulais Valley Lions team mates.
Both have become that much more important to him in the year since his father Garry died in the Gleision mining disaster.
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The under-15s team, originally formed at under-12 level three years ago as a junior amalgam of Crynant and Seven Sisters rugby clubs, has offered Alex a sort of salvation.
And the bond between the players, coaches and parents is as strong as it gets.
"The club has meant everything to me for the last year," he says. "It has really been something to keep my mind on, waiting for Sunday to play the game or waiting for training with the lads. It is something to keep my head at bay really.
"I am proud of them all. They are all brilliant. They have been nice to me, a bunch of mates at the end of the day. It is a huge release coming here, having a laugh with the boys and training. It fills a huge gap, something I keep my mind on."
He plays in the second row and at 14 is already 6ft 1in. He was just about to run out of the Crynant RFC changing room — one of the Lions's two homes along with Seven Sisters — for training ahead of their match with Tonmawr on Sunday.
So how is he playing at the moment?
"Don't ask me, ask the coach," says Alex against a backdrop of laughter from some team mates.
But what is not in doubt is his hopes in the game. The Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyefera pupil says: "I would like to go the whole way. I would put my heart into it, try my best to be a pro."
Alongside him in the typically dark changing room is his captain and hooker Dewi Edwards. Like the others, mature beyond their years, he has played his part in what have been and continue to be difficult times.
"We have always stuck together as a team," he says. "It hasn't been an easy time. We are using part of our minds, but we have to play our rugby as well. We have had to get on with it."
Vice captain and full back Rhys Herbert agrees that a special bond has built up.
"We have just stuck together off the field and played good rugby on the field, to make sure we are all one team, and that is all that really counted," he says. "We are 100 per cent behind Alex."
Coach Daryl Herbert recalled the Sunday after the tragedy which claimed the life of Alex's dad and three of his colleagues. He called at the house to take Alex to the ground just to get him away for a short time.
"A few of the players were watching smaller children playing," he says.
"It was just something to take his mind off for a couple of hours. I think it did help having some friends around him.
"What Alex has been through in the last 12 months has been horrific. They are a good group of boys, very loyal to each other and committed to what they do. And they have become good friends through their team. They felt loyalty towards Alex to try and help him through it. I am always proud of them. They have been great. Obviously the fact that Alex had has his rugby has given him a bit of a release."
His mum Theresa Stringer goes further.
"If it wasn't for the Dulais Valley Lions I really don't know how Alex would have coped this year because this is what he has got out of bed for," she says. "Otherwise he would not have left the house, without his team or his family. That is the support Alex has had and I am grateful to the Dulais Valley coaches, children and parents as well.
"This is the only thing Alex would go to. Most children are out playing in the nights. Alex won't. He will come to rugby, but he won't go anywhere else in the evenings. It has become more important for him, something for him to focus on."
The night before the disaster was a Wednesday, and a training session at Crynant.
"It was the last thing he did with his dad," says Theresa. "It is a bond he has still got. We used to take him to training on alternate weeks.
"It was his dad's turn to take him to rugby that night and he stayed with his dad that night. The next day Garry went to work and Alex went to school. And the rest is history, as they say."
She also recalled the silent tribute at the first Lions game after the tragedy.
"Alex broke down and the whole team ran to him and grabbed hold of him," she says.
"It was amazing to see 13-year-old boys treating him like that. It affected them all and they all had to think what it would be like for them. The boys are 100 per cent behind him. They are backing him, the coaches, parents. It is unbelievable the support he has had here."
Alex appreciated the support his dad gave him in his rugby, even if he did not always rate his opinion.
"He always supported the boys," he says. "He didn't say much, but was always barking something out. At out best and at our worst, he was behind us.
"I still listened to him, but laughed as well, knowing that he gave up, I think in the under-12s, because he thought everyone else was too big! He would tell me I had done something wrong, laughing, knowing I had mucked up.
"But the memories can actually be quite motivational, knowing that not so long ago he would be watching me on the pitch. His jeep would be somewhere near, and he would be watching somewhere. A lot of my strength has come from that."