Sunday, 3 September 2017

Champion Start

Well here we are again –another season opens for Pontypool RFC. Let us hope that we can replicate the deeds of the previous season which proved to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is a milestone for me as it will be my fiftieth year as a Pooler supporter – there have been plenty of highs and lows that is for sure but never a dull moment.

The first league match of the season is always eagerly anticipated as it often sets the tone for the season. On Saturday the visitors were Rhydyfelin who were promoted to the Championship as winners of Division 1 East and rather like Pooler swept all before them last season. They were clearly keen to test their mettle against the reigning champions.
Pontypool Park was looking at its best on perfect afternoon for rugby. The pitch looked in absolutely peak condition so we had reason to expect a great game of rugby. As the teams ran out, it was immediately clear that there was a marked similarity in the kit that they were wearing and this did make it difficult at times for the aging spectator but the referee and players seemed happy enough.
For the first twenty minutes of the match you could have been forgiven for thinking that Rhydyfelin were the reigning Championship winners as, playing down the slope, they completely dominated possession and territory in impressive style. They were certainly well drilled and lively with backs and forwards combining as they attacked incessantly. The Pooler defence however was resolute and put in some really big hits and won turnovers at critical moments which enabled them to repel the onslaught.
Gradually the home pack started to make its presence felt with a dominant scrum and some typically powerful forward drives applying pressure. Indeed it was Pontypool who opened the scoring against the run of play with a well-taken penalty by Jones as the game entered the second quarter. This was followed a few minutes later by another penalty that opened up a 6-0 lead for the home side.
The game was now much more even with both sets of backs finding it difficult to crack the opposition’s defence. As the half drew to a close, it was Pooler who landed a telling blow when Parry scored from a lineout drive near the Rhydyfelin try line. The conversion was good and this opened up a very flattering 13-0 lead for the home side at half time.
It was Pontypool who started the stronger in the second half and, five minutes in, right wing Thomas scurried over for a try in Goff’s corner. The try was converted admirably by Jones and Pooler were 20-0 up.
The rest of the second half was rather a stalemate with defences on top and a high error count from both sides. Frustratingly Pooler created a number of gaps only to be undone by a forward pass or a knock-on. Rhydyfelin continued to be extremely competitive and Pooler’s lead was always under threat. For their part, Pontypool certainly looked a long way off earning the four try bonus point and this quest was not helped by the loss of the industrious Williams with a yellow card for a dangerous tackle.
Finally in injury time Pooler managed to breach the Rhydyfelin defence again when, after a bit of juggling amongst the backs, Meek scored in the corner. The successful conversion by Jones marked the end of the match with the final score 27-0.

This was a decent win for Pontypool against Rhydyfelin who look more than capable of being a force within the Championship. The final scoreline is pretty flattering and doesn’t reflect the visitors’ contribution to a hard-fought game. It was the first competitive match of the season and I am sure that there is much more to come from the Pontypool squad as the season progresses and the combinations begin to work more smoothly.

Next week there is a visit to the other Championship debutants, Trebanos. I am sure we can anticipate a warm welcome! Sadly I will miss the next few matches as I am away on holiday so I wish everyone the best of luck but rest assured I will be glued to my twitter feed with a light beverage in my hand.

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Happy Families

The Memorial Ground had a festive air with lots of families out enjoying the summer sun. Pontypool were being hosted by their neighbours Pontypool United for the last warm-up game before the season starts in earnest next weekend.
The match had none of the needle of Pooler’s previous encounter against Llanelli and was played in a competitive yet friendly spirit. Pooler, as the higher ranked side, quickly stamped their authority on the game with two well-taken tries from Thorley and Herbert in the first ten minutes which gave them a 0-12 lead. Pooler looked dangerous as they moved the ball at pace and more scores looked likely.
United grew into the game and their rush defence began to force some mistakes from their opponents. Indeed they started to put together some strong attacks themselves which culminated in a converted try by Takel to bring the score to 7-12.
The game then entered a period of stalemate with a series of handling errors and penalties resulting in a frustrating stop-start affair. As the first half drifted towards its close, Pooler broke the deadlock with a try under the posts by Thomas who was put into space by Luckwell. This gave the away side a decent lead at the half at 7-19.
Mass substitutions by both sides in the second half did nothing to improve the fluidity of the game with both sides struggling to put coherent attacks together. It took almost twenty minutes for the next score which came when Hancock dived over from close range after a series of forward drives by the Pooler pack. The conversion failed but Pooler looked in control at 7-24. A few minutes later United’s fate was sealed when Ferriman drove over following more strong forward play and with the successful conversion Pontypool were home and dry at 7-31.
There was still time for the resilient home team to score a consolation try when Takel bagged his second in the dying moments. The conversion went over and, as the final whistle blew moments later, the final score was 14-31.

This was a decent workout for Pontypool as the well-organised United side pushed them hard. Pooler will certainly need to tighten up and reduce the error count in the league matches to come. Nevertheless a successful pre-season should leave Pontypool in good heart for the challenges of the new campaign. The squad looks to have significant depth in all areas and it will be fascinating to see what the starting fifteen will be for the first league game with so many players in contention.
Pontypool will be taking on newly-promoted Rhydyfelin at the Park next Saturday and can expect a tough match as the newcomers will certainly want to impress against the reigning champions. I’m looking forward to it already!

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The not so friendly friendly

Pontypool’s warm up for the new season continued with a match at the Park against long-time rivals Llanelli. The added spice for this so called friendly was that Pooler had defeated the Premiership side last season in the Cup.

Right from the start it was clear that Llanelli were keen to exact revenge and the spice level was at least vindaloo. Llanelli dominated the early exchanges which were punctuated by several bouts of fisticuffs. They eventually outflanked the Pooler defence for Evans to score an unconverted try in the corner to take an early lead (0-5).
Pontypool got a foothold in the game which was clearly going to be a robust encounter with both sides fully committed. Pontypool equalised when second row Gibson suddenly shot out of a ruck and galloped thirty metres or so to score wide out (5-5). This stung Llanelli into action and they retook the lead with a try by Reyland after concerted pressure (5-10). Back came the home side with an unconverted try after a clever kick by Matthew Jones led to a try by Luckwell In the corner bringing the scores level (10-10).
Pontypool then took the lead when another expertly weighted kick by Jones was fielded at full pace by Hurley who raced twenty metres to score. The successful conversion gave Pontypool a 17-10 lead. Despite tremendous Llanelli pressure and being reduced to fourteen men by a yellow card, Pontypool managed to hold on to this lead until half time. This was a really competitive and enjoyable half of rugby with Pontypool certainly not suffering in any way in comparison to the Premiership team.
Llanelli had the edge in the opening exchanges in the second half with Pooler still down to fourteen men. Pontypool’s defence was strong and uncompromising but eventually it cracked and Llanelli closed the gap to 17-15 with another unconverted try by Evans.
Llanelli continued to press but Pooler struck with a fine try when Luckwell crossed under the posts after clever inter-passing following a turnover (24-15). Llanelli were far from finished and, as the inevitable substitutions, were made their three quarters started to look more and more dangerous. Pooler’s chances were not helped when they were reduced to fourteen men again after a yellow card for a high tackle. The gap in the scores was narrowed to 24-22 when they scored a converted try and with ten minutes to go it was anyone’s game.
Pontypool worked their way into a promising position and were awarded a lineout close to the Llanelli line. Then, disaster, the lineout went horribly wrong and Llanelli took full toll as they moved the ball wide and, with the home defence splintered, went the length of the field for Jenkins to score in the corner. The conversion failed but the West Walians had taken the lead at 24-27.
Pontypool tried to bounce back from this blow but to no avail and a match that was there for the taking had slipped through their grasp.

Pontypool have every reason to be optimistic for the new campaign as they matched their opponents from the league above in virtually every aspect of a highly competitive game. Indeed for large periods they bossed the game and can consider themselves rather unfortunate to lose. Of course there is work to do and the high penalty count and those two yellow cards are a cause for concern but overall this was a very satisfactory outing. It was certainly nice to witness a competitive “friendly”.

Well done Pooler!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Musical Chairs

I made a short jaunt to Tondu to cast my eye over the Pooler squad as it starts a run of friendly games in preparation for the new season. These games are not really about winning and losing but more about giving the coaching staff an opportunity to observe as many squad members as possible in a match situation rather than in training. For the spectator, it is utterly confusing as changes in personnel seem to be happening all the time. It is almost like a game of musical chairs – when the referee’s whistle blows there is a mad rush to be one of the thirty players on the field!
Suffice it to say, the Pooler squad looks in fine fettle with several of the new additions to the squad catching the eye and complementing the old guard. Tondu provided stern opposition for the first two thirds of the game but fell away in the final third as the strength in depth of the Pooler squad told. For the record the final score was 7-65 with Pooler running in six tries in the final third. Pooler scored eleven tries in all with Craig Atwell bagging a hat trick.

On the face of this performance, Pontypool look to be in a position to mount a strong challenge for the Championship title again. Overall there would appear to be few if any weaknesses but only time will tell. Lock proved to be a problem position last year due to injuries but all four of the locks on view looked fit and raring to go. Next week’s match against Premiership Llanelli will give the squad a more challenging yardstick to use to measure progress with the preparations for the upcoming season.

This season marks fifty years of supporting Pontypool for me and I am looking forward to the season as if it was my first.

Come on Pooler! 

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Lions’ Share

Wow that was some finale! The final test between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions ended in a draw meaning that the three match series was shared. That is a brilliant achievement for a squad drawn from four nations that has been brought together in a restricted amount of time. The All Blacks are the current world champions and, by some margin, the most successful team on the planet.
How did the Lions do it? They must be wondering themselves. The usually clinical All Blacks proved strangely fallible in a one-sided first half. True they scored two tries but they could have, nay should have, added at least two more to effectively put the match to bed before half time. That the Lions finished the half only six points down was testament to their dogged determination and ability to take any points on offer by way of penalties. In truth, the Lions rarely threatened to score a try with their best chance leading to an interception which could easily have resulted in a try the other end.
The second half was a real dogfight with defences generally on top. The All Blacks looked the more likely to score a try but the Lions continued to force the home side to give away penalties which they duly converted. Three penalties from the Lions and one for the All Blacks made the score 15-15 as the match entered its final knockings. All our hearts where in our mouths when Owens appeared to field the ball in an offside position in an eminently kickable position following a kick-off with minutes remaining. Following a review, the initial penalty was downgraded to a scrum and the Lions escaped and managed to hold on for the draw. Mind you, with the erratic nature of the All Blacks’ goalkicking it was by no means a certainty that it would have been converted. This is the real reason why the All Blacks failed to win the second and third tests – vital kicks were missed. Farrell has been rock solid for the Lions as Halfpenny was in the last series in Australia.
The draw led to a strange atmosphere at the end of the match where the teams weren’t sure whether to celebrate or commiserate. As the enormity of their achievement sunk in, the Lions no doubt celebrated with some justification. They have certainly rattled the All Blacks and at times made them look far from invincible.

The Lions’ test side ended up pretty close to the one that most people predicted when the tour party was announced. The one big miss was the pace and power of a completely fit George North which would have added a bit of punch to what was quite a light weight set of backs. The combination of Sexton and Farrell worked up to a point and was at its most effective when the All Blacks were a flanker short in the second test. Jonathan Davies had a great series and looked accomplished in all that he did. The back three were a bit erratic with flashes of brilliance accompanied by moments of frailty in defence. Murray was solid at scrum half and took his try well in the second test.
The scrum creaked more than a little with the best scrummaging props being left on the side-lines in favour of the better ball handlers. The lineout worked well apart from a few throws going wrong here and there. In the loose the back row tackled and scrapped manfully and were backed up admirably by the front five. Itoje enhanced his already glowing reputation and provided he stays fit will surely lead the Lions on their next tour to South Africa. Would Billy Vunipola have made a difference? We will never know but the efforts of Faletau were remarkable at times. Warburton proved a level headed captain who led by example and worked well with the combative O’Brien. Congratulations to Alun Wyn Jones on playing in nine successive tests for the Lions – a fantastic achievement. It is up there with Pooler’s Graham Price.
Then of course there was that fantastic Lions’ try in the first test, Yes the Lions as an entity is far from being consigned to the mists of time – particularly when twenty thousand plus fans are prepared to spend large swathes of their life savings to cross the world to support it.
Well done to Warren Gatland and the class of 2017 – you did us proud.

It is only a couple of months before the rugby season and we once more take our places on the Bank at Pontypool Park. It will be tough for the Pooler to match (or even beat) last year’s fantastic achievements but as always I will enter the season with an air of optimism. No matter who plays in the red, white and black they have my support.

Come on Pooler!   

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Lions Pounce

I was absolutely delighted that the British & Irish Lions beat the All Blacks of New Zealand yesterday but, if it was hard work watching it, it must have been agonising playing. Similarly to the first test the Lions started well enough but failed to get on the score board. As the All Blacks began to take control, the Lions were given some unexpected assistance in the form of the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams in the first half. This meant that it was fifteen against fourteen and made for a far more even contest. An exchange of penalties left the score at 9-9 at half time and it was all to play for.
The first twenty minutes of the second half were dominated in terms of possession and territory by the short-handed home team. Their pressure and the Lions’ largesse led to a string of penalties and the Kiwis built up a nine point lead. Things looked bad for the Lions and got worse when Vunipola was yellow carded. Then came a moment of inspiration as the Lions moved the wide right and then wide left for Faletau to power over in the corner. The conversion sailed wide but the Lions were back in the game. The All Blacks being the All Blacks didn’t take it lying down and despite narrowly missing out on a try were awarded a kickable penalty to restore a seven point lead at 21-14. Indeed if Barrett had got his kicking boots the All Blacks could have and should have had thirty points on the board.
In the last quarter the Lions needed inspiration and they got it from a surging run by George who set up a ruck near the NZ line. Murray spotted a gap and powered over and with the conversion the scores were level. Momentum was with the Lions and they went on the attack. A poor pass to Sinckler meant he had to jump to catch the ball. As he caught the ball he was tackled in the air and a penalty was awarded to the Lions with Farrell duly obliging for the Lions to take the lead with a few minutes remaining. The All Blacks came back strongly but the Lions held out for a famous victory 21-24.
This was a gutsy performance from the Lions in atrocious weather conditions and keeps the series alive. There are always ifs and buts but we should celebrate it as victories in New Zealand are like hen’s teeth. Probably the most worrying feature about the Lions’ play was the number of penalties conceded which could easily have lost them the match. It was borne out of the frustration created by the All Blacks’ stranglehold on the game in the third quarter but it certainly needs to improve if victory is to be secured in the final test. The intensity and passion of the Lions was there for all to see and was accompanied by some flashes of brilliance. We need that and more next week if we are to take the series as we can expect a serious backlash from the Kiwis. It would seem sensible to stick with the same team next week although that will depend on the outcome O’Brien’s citing and of course the injury list.

Good luck Lions  

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Caged Lions

A lot has been said and written about the British & Irish Lions 30-15 defeat by the All Blacks in the first test. Strangely we expected it to be the Lions’ forwards who would have the edge over their opponents but this was clearly not the case nor is it likely to happen in the next two encounters. This is particularly evident in the contact area where the All Blacks almost always make a yard or two when they are tackled which allows them to get the ball on the ground and away quickly. This is not just the forwards but the backs as well. They are not bigger and probably not stronger as measured by how many weights they can lift in the gym but have an innate ability to get their body position just right. I don’t remember too many instances when a Lions’ tackle stopped the man dead or knocked him back. This cannot be an accident so I wonder how they train the players to be so effective. This factor had a large part to play in the outcome of the game as it enabled the All Blacks to retain possession and force the Lions to give away penalties. In this aspect of the game the Lions sorely miss Billy Vunipola as it seems that he along with his brother and to an extent Faletau also seem to be blessed with the ability to break tackles.
It seemed to me that the two sets of three-quarters were quite evenly matched with the Lions looking dangerous particularly when the All Blacks were reorganised themselves as they lost players to injury. At half back the All Blacks had a distinct edge with Smith running the show. I think the Lions could have brought on Webb earlier and made a straight swap between Farrell and Sexton. Farrell and Sexton playing together were not strong enough to contain Sonny Bill Williams.

Would I make changes for the next test? I don’t think there is any real need to change the backs and half backs. In the forwards change the locks to Itoje and Lawes and bring in Warburton for O’Mahony. Henderson and Tipuric on the bench. You can never second guess Gatland though!

There is of course the old cliché about the wounded lion being dangerous so let’s hope it comes true next Saturday. Somehow you think that the wounded lion will be put out of its misery.