Pontypool Park in the early autumn is a beautiful place particularly when the sun shines. Unfortunately there was no evidence of the sun as the rugby season proper started for Pontypool RFC. The rain beat down relentlessly on the newly mown pitch with a severity ranging from a heavy drizzle to a torrential downpour.
With that warm feeling of optimism that you have at the start of every season, we took our places on the Bank during a period of drizzle firmly believing that the sky was lightening. Pooler were taking on the Otters of Narberth in the first match in the SWALEC Welsh Championship for 2016/17. There was much to look forward to with a raft of new faces in the home team.
Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and it proved difficult to concentrate on the rugby as most of the brave souls on the Bank were engrossed in trying to control their umbrellas in a gusty wind. In truth there was not a lot to miss in the opening minutes while we agonised whether to decamp to the shelter of the stand. After ten minutes or so, we did retreat to the stand when there seemed little prospect of the rain stopping. At least we had a taste of the difficult conditions the players were having to cope with and I didn’t envy them one bit.
The first quarter was eminently forgettable as both sides struggled to keep hold of the slippery ball and to get rid of the ring rustiness after the summer break. If anything, Narberth looked the more likely to score but even that was a pretty remote possibility. This was poor fare for the spectators and I found myself thinking that the goal posts could do with a coat of paint. Was this the rugby that I had been anticipating for four months? Not really!
Finally the deadlock was broken with a penalty by new player coach Matthew Jones. He and new fullback Meek had been doing some pretty astute tactical kicking seeking out mistakes from the Narberth backs which seemed to be the best tactic in the conditions. Such a kick from Jones led to a fumble from Narberth near their try line with Meek gleefully accepting the opportunity for the first try. The conversion failed narrowly but Pooler had slithered to an 8-0 lead and the crowd became much more animated.
Another great kick ahead, this time from Meek allowed Hurley to show his footballing skills to score in the corner. The try was again unconverted but with the score at 13-0 the home side were in the ascendancy. The scoring for the first half was completed by an exchange of penalty goals with the sides gratefully trudging off to the warmth of the changing rooms. The score line of 16-3 was possibly a little flattering but Pooler were beginning to show their worth as a team.
Narberth started the second half strongly - no doubt as a result of some well-chosen words during the interval. The exerted pressure on the home line and came away with a second penalty to close the gap to 16-6.
Slowly but surely the Pooler pack started to get on top and as a measure of their dominance Parry scored in a powerful concerted drive by the forwards from a lineout close to the Narberth. The lead was now 21-6 and it was difficult to see Narberth being able to find a way back into the game.
Pontypool went in search of the all-important try bonus point. An extra bonus point or two last season would have led to promotion in the final analysis so they were determined not to let the opportunity slip. As has now become the norm, fresh legs were brought on from both benches with the strength of the home squad becoming apparent with the replacements making considerable impact.
The fourth try came from a well-worked move from a scrum on the Narberth twenty two. Sparks picked up from the base of the scrum who passed to Quick who fed Busby-Davies who galloped over the line. The conversion was successful to the delight of the crowd and opened up a surely unassailable 28-6 lead.
Pontypool were by no means finished and they completed what had become a one-sided contest with tries from Hurley and Sparks, with the former being converted, to run out 40-6 winners at the final whistle.
Once the cobwebs have had been blown away, this was a very encouraging performance from Pontypool who showed all round strength in horrible conditions. In Jones and Meek they have two clever players who can control the game through their tactical kicking and the pack looks to have the potential to become a formidable unit. It was not really a day for running rugby so it was difficult to assess the potency of the backs in an attacking vein but I feel sure that they have plenty to offer. Injuries always play a critical part in the success of a team and Pooler certainly look to have a really strong squad. Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer and there is a stern test at Beddau to contend with next Saturday. The signs are encouraging though that is for sure.
As a supporter looking forward to the season, I do feel a little cheated by the limited amount of league rugby on offer this season. The reduction of the Championship to twelve teams does seem to be a regressive step. In fact by the end of October we will have played over 40% of our matches! I remember the days when Pontypool played well over 40 games in a season. Sill I am sure, as always, the WRU knows best.
Well done Pooler I have almost forgotten about last season’s heartache – well not really, but a good win certainly helps!
Come on Pooler!