Graham Price and Pontypool. Magic man, magic place echoes with the sounds of a silent yesteryear. Faulkner, Windsor and Price. Bastards beat Ireland up. But Great MEN.

By Ian Chadband, Chief Sports Correspondent DAILY TELEGRAPH

“A couple of my teeth are out there somewhere,” muses Graham Price, his mind drifting to those battles royals alongside Charlie Faulkner and Bobby Windsor.

Price, then a worker in a fibreglass factory worker, now the president of Pontypool RFC and forever a folk hero, paints a vivid picture of the way it was.

“People were hanging off them trees,” he says, pointing to the picturesque wooded and hilly surrounds. “Fifteen thousand – even more for the big nights. Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport. Four times as many as the Dragons get down the road in Newport now.

“In town, every shop front would decked in red, white and black, with good luck messages in the window. It was so packed here the overspill tumbled into the clubs and pubs in the town. Pontypool thrived.”

It is ancient history. Half of those pubs have gone, as jobs on this eastern fringe of the coalfields disappeared.

Wales has changed along with rugby’s place as its communities’ heartbeat.

Price is one of around a thousand who still watch this grand old club in the second tier of an unsung club game. Somehow, this feels ineffably sad.

Yet wondrous things remain. Pontypool RFC, for one. Before Christmas, following a bitter, legal battle they lost with the Welsh Rugby Union over their demotion to the Championship, they were a week from folding until bailed out by a local millionaire businessman and now they fight on as a ‘community club’ amid astonishing passion.

In the Hanbury Arms, the pub serving as the penniless outfit’s clubhouse, team manager Shaun Rees wells up with emotion.

“The economy in the valleys is bleak, heavy industry’s gone, times are hard and yet I take off my hat to our old supporters who can’t really afford it but still say ‘here, Shaun, have a hundred quid to help out the club, but don’t tell my missus!’ It makes me cry.”

On a morning constitutional around the Park, one of those fans, 71-year-old John Long, tells how he still watches every training session as he has for 59 years. “We get more supporters at training than most clubs get on match day,” he says with a pride that tells you rugby could never leave Pontypool’s spirit.

But what about international rugby? Once, the start of the old Five Nations would see the local red, white and black inextricably entwined with national scarlet fever.

Price, who is now 61, remembers, even before he earned his first cap for Wales as a prop – against France at Parc des Princes in 1975 – how he would play for ‘Pooler’ in the morning, grab a pie and a pint and shoot off to the Arms Park with half of the Gwent Valley in tow.

“It was the nation’s day out,” says Barrie Calder-Matthews, Pontypool’s chairman. “Now? To me, it’s become a corporate day out.”

Welcome to Wales RFC: the fifth region. It is a widespread sentiment.

Seeing Welsh rugby through the prism of one its staunchest citadels, as the Grand Slam champions start the defence of their Six Nations title against Ireland, it is hard to escape the sense of a dispiriting disconnect between the grass-roots struggle and the Millennium Stadium hoopla.

Naturally, as ever, the nation hopes and expects — even while having learned not to rely on what Price calls the team’s unfathomable “boom and bust” performances — and in these parts, they are extra chuffed that second row Andrew Coombs will become the 88th man to have represented both Pontypool and Wales.

Yet any anticipation is accompanied by the seemingly universal feeling that the WRU cares only about its money-spinning national side and neglects the grass roots, marginalising the game’s truest supporters.

“There are idiots who pay 75 quid yet spend half the game queuing for drinks, don’t watch and don’t know anything about the game. Something’s wrong,” sighs Colin Tuckwell, Pontypool’s club secretary.

“Last year, there’s a lady next to me talking and knitting during the game,” Rees adds. “Knitting! I’m thinking ‘why are you here?’”

This is the new breed, he fears; fickle followers of fashion only here for the beer, not real rugby lovers who are being squeezed out by ticket prices so high that the WRU now accepts they must be dropped next season.

The Union boasts of its record annual turnover of £63million, and its 44 per cent turnover growth in the past five years. So, they must be doing something right, yes?

“Our financial performance is the engine to drive our rugby forwards,” says Roger Lewis, the WRU’s chief.

So why, they ask at Pontypool, does it feel the engine is spluttering and Welsh rugby is in reverse? Why are the four regional sides, 10 years old in April, still floundering on and off the pitch in a “financially unsustainable” structure?

Why, then, is club rugby losing its player base while at the top of the pyramid, the best players cannot be rewarded sufficiently to stop them heading for France?

And why with all that concentration on that big red cash cow have the national team just lost seven Tests on the bounce?

Depressingly, not one soul canvassed in Pontypool dares to predict a rosy future, not even the optimist Price.

“The WRU should be supporting the regions more than they have; they should be supporting everybody better than they do,” he says.

He has faith that outstanding players will keep emerging and dismisses fears that football, with Swansea and Cardiff both likely to be in the Premier League next season, might usurp rugby’s place in the hearts of Welsh kids.

Yet he sounds, like many, as if something priceless has been lost.

Regionalism killed the local tribalism which brought the crowds and the buzz.

Now concentration on the national team has diluted the “specialness” of Test Saturdays.

Tickets were gold dust; now, for some games, says Price, they cannot shift them in a Pontypool Tesco.

And so, if the whole structure depends on those 23 chosen ones, what happens if under-performance becomes the norm?

Price was shocked to watch an unnamed player in one of Wales’s tepid autumn internationals who “looked as if he just didn’t want to be there”.

So this Six Nations is critical for Wales, says Rees. “The feeling in Wales is flat. The national team needs hook the seven-year-olds who’ll see the passion and the excitement.”

John Long just shrugs that he has never watched Wales at the Millennium and never will. “Seventy five quid,” he tells a nodding Price. “Ridiculous!”

Forget the hype, the greenbacks and the knitting. Give him the Pontypool bank, a free, freezing night’s training and the memories. Then you can feel Welsh rugby’s soul.