Saturday, 26 November 2016

Winning Ways

Yet again I missed a Pontypool game due to international duties in Cardiff. It is a real shame, as from what I can gather, Pooler put in one of their better performances of the season in putting Glamorgan Wanderers to the sword in Ely by the convincing margin of 11-47. This of course makes it eleven wins out of eleven as we reach the halfway mark in the rather truncated season. There will be a major challenge next weekend when Pooler visit second placed Narberth who are clearly playing well as their good win against Tata Steel would indicate. This will be a chance for Pontypool to pull well clear at the top of the Championship but equally an opportunity for Narberth to close the gap to just a few points. It promises to be gripping encounter.

Meanwhile in Cardiff, Wales took on the once mighty Springboks. Neither team had covered itself in glory in the Autumn Series and both had a point to prove. The first half was eminently forgettable as neither side looked capable of finding their way to the try line. Wales clearly had the edge but there was only the odd flash of inspiration as defences were on top. South Africa looked a mere shadow of the team that has sat near the top of the world rankings for an eternity as they struggled to find any pattern. Wales were awarded a few more penalties than the Springboks and so went in at halftime with a 12-6 lead thanks to the trusty boot of Halfpenny.
In the second half you sensed that Wales finally truly believed that they could defeat a Southern Hemisphere heavyweight. They needed a try, the crowd needed a try, everyone needed a try and it finally came from a lineout drive with Owens flopping over. The relief was palpable and even though Halfpenny missed the conversion Wales led 20-6. With the Springboks going nowhere, surely the game was in the bag.
A raft of changes unsettled Wales and out of the blue the Springboks closed the gap to 20-13 with a well taken try. The nerves started to jangle in the stadium once again. Wales needed a moment of inspiration to seal the deal and it came from the excellent Tipuric who had been a clear candidate for man of the match. He burst on to a good pass from Faletau and rounded the fullback with a move that Shane Williams would have been proud of to cross near the posts. 27-13 and the game was over. The crowd went home happy – Wales really needed this.

This was a decent performance by an under pressure Welsh team. Remember it is only the third time that they have beaten South Africa in their history. Although this has to be one of the least impressive Springboks’ teams that has visited our shores, it was a pretty convincing victory. Biggar controlled the game well from outside half and did a few of his trade mark kick-and-chases to try and break the Springbok midfield defence. The outstanding player on the field, however, was Tipuric who seemed to have a hand in everything good that Wales did. While it was sad to see Lydiate leave the field with what looked to be a serious injury, it was great to see the influential Faletau back. Wales will certainly have a selection dilemma for the back row in the Six Nations. Wales are still a long way from being genuine Six Nations contenders but this was a step in the right direction.

I enjoyed the rugby on the TV on Friday night as I flicked between the Scarlets and the Ospreys. Both regions gave vibrant displays against Leinster and Glasgow respectively. There was plenty of talent on view in both sides and I managed to feel a bit more optimistic about Welsh rugby at least for a while.

But it is back to the real stuff next weekend and Pontypool at Narberth. 
Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Wales Team Is Losing Its Way

With Pooler not playing, we took a last minute decision to go to Cardiff to watch Wales play Japan. As it happens, so did a lot of other people and the Principality Stadium was almost full. Being a late entrant meant that our seats were high in the Gods at the end that Japan attacked in the first half. It was striking how many kids were there and all sporting their Welsh jerseys too – if there was a time for Wales to win hearts and minds of the younger generation this was it.
As we watched the teams warming up, the emphasis that Japan puts on teamwork was clearly evident. As they marched off after the warm up, they all put a hand on a teammate’s shoulder in a display of solidarity. If ever there was a team that that is bigger than the sum of the parts this it. They have had to be to compete at the highest level against the giants that populate the world of rugby.
When you watched Wales they looked dour and seemed to lack joie de vivre as they warmed up. Some may argue that this is professionalism and concentration on the job in hand but there doesn’t seem much of a buzz about the team as they go through their drills.

So to the match. Wales started wretchedly and Japan had soon registered a six point lead. It could have been worse as Liam William’s cynical block probably saved a try. He was awarded a fully justified yellow card for his pains. In fairness to Wales, they did wake up with Lydiate scoring a try. “This is it”, we thought, Wales should win this at a canter. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Wales played very much in fits and starts from then on with little flair and continuity. Japan, for their part, scurried around the field and made things difficult for Wales. It was very much punch and counterpunch as whenever Wales opened up a lead the Japanese came straight back at them seizing gleefully on the abundance of sloppy Welsh play.
Japan clearly won the tactical kicking battle with their kicks invariably putting the Welsh under pressure with an excellent chase. The Welsh kicking was often aimless and far too deep which gave the opposition too much time and room.  It was becoming abundantly clear that this was going to be a close run thing as the minutes ticked away. The crowd around us didn’t seem unduly worried as they fiddled with their phones and tried to start a Mexican wave or two. Even though the match was closely fought, the lack of Welsh artistry meant that their attention was wavering. Interest flickered when an excellent run and offload by Wyn Jones put Warburton in for a try but it was all too little for  demanding audience.
Looking down from our eyrie in the stand, you could see that Japanese energy and organisation was clearly superior. Wales at times resembled a shambles as they desperately tried to get hold of the tricky Japanese backs. A brilliant counter attack from Japan tied the scores at 30-30 with a few minutes left. The Japanese actually looked the more likely to snatch victory. Wales had other ideas and marched down the field with some purpose – probably thinking about those headlines in the papers if they failed to win. Sam Davies in his second appearance for Wales looked the coolest man on the field as he slotted a last minute dropped goal and grabbed the spoils for a rather fortunate home side.

Japan can consider themselves extremely unlucky to lose as they played the better rugby. Wales will need to do an awful lot better than this if they want to stay in the top eight sides in the world. They seem to have lost their way and it is difficult to detect a style of play. The will not have to wait long to have an opportunity to put things right. There is the small matter of a match against South Africa next Saturday. The Springboks may have lost to Italy but they will present a whole new set of challenges for a misfiring Welsh team. If this was soccer, we would be talking about heads rolling in the Welsh management team. It is a thought though!

Next Saturday Pontypool are back in action with an away fixture at Glamorgan Wanderers.  Two important games in one day.

Come on Wales and more importantly come on Pooler! 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Pooler March On While Wales Stutter

So it is ten out of ten for Pontypool after they gave the students of Cardiff Met a master class in rugby. While Pooler were extending their winning run with a comfortable 68-5 victory though, I was heading down to Cardiff to watch Wales take on Argentina at the Principality Stadium. Knowing what I know now, I think I would have been far better off at Pontypool Park.

The Wales game was a pretty tame affair with the stadium having rows and rows of empty seats. There were few thrills and plenty of spills as both sides failed to convince. Yes, it was close but it was hardly gripping stuff. Wales had plenty of possession and territory but their attacks lacked the killer punch and all too quickly seemed to run out of ideas. The return of several key players did make an improvement compared with the misery of last week. Liam Williams added much needed sparkle and determination and Wyn Jones some steel but even they couldn’t lift a lethargic Welsh team.
In the end Wales ran out 24-20 winners but were holding on at the end. It was a victory against Southern Hemisphere opposition but Argentina were a shadow of the team that performed so admirably in the RWC. Strangely, Howley didn’t see the need to use the resources he had on the bench to try and ignite Wales. The only replacements came in the front row and really because of injury rather than for tactical reasons. All in all, lunch apart, it was a pretty unfulfilling experience.
When you see how the other home nations are performing, Wales look out of sorts and off the pace. I am not sure why this is but they really do need to use the remaining two games in the Autumn Series to put things right. If they don’t, I shudder to think what resurgent England will do to them.

Pontypool have not got a game next week and take on Glamorgan Wanderers the following week. Another clash of fixtures means I will be in Cardiff watching Wales take on South Africa. I will need to look at the logistics to see if I can manage a double header and sufficient libation.

Well done Pooler.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Rugby

The rugby weekend started at Pontypool Park with a special memorial match to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic injury to former Pontypool player Roger Addison. A great example of the good heartedness of the rugby family. A Pontypool XV took on a Torfaen XV drawn from the clubs in the area on a chilly evening in front of a fair sized crowd. The Pooler team contained many players who were not first team regulars so both sides were likely to lack cohesion.
Torfaen playing down the slope settled quicker and played some good rugby to seize control of the match. Often this type of match lacks intensity with the emphasis on entertaining the spectators but both sides were certainly fully committed in a bruising encounter. Torfaen opened up a deserved 7-17 lead but Pooler, with a try from Boycott, closed the gap to 14-17 just before half time.
The second half belonged to Pontypool who played with much more purpose and they quickly overhauled Torfaen with a try from Smith 19-17. Whilst the game was played almost exclusively in the Torfaen half, it took Pooler a long time to find a way to turn possession and territory into points. In the last ten minutes they at last found the try line with Boycott and Jones crossing to make the final score 33-17.
Of course, the most important purpose of the evening was to both remember Roger Addison and to raise money for Rookwood and Stoke Mandeville Hospitals. Thanks to the generosity of all involved the princely sum of £6000 was raised on this special night.

On Saturday I went down to Cardiff to watch Wales play Australia. We are used to Wales starting a new campaign slowly but on this occasion they were virtually in reverse. Wales were awful as the Australians totally dominated the first half. If the Aussies had been more clinical, they would surely have led by forty points at the interval. As it was, they led 3-20 and Wales had failed to put any meaningful attacks in place. Wales looked sluggish and slow witted while the Australians were lively and quick to seize the ball. There were simply no redeeming features for the Welsh fans who looked on in silent horror.
The second half had to be better and it was but the improvement was marginal and not enough to challenge the Australian lead. Wales did manage a consolation try but the visitors were well worth their 8-32 victory. There is no doubt that the absence of the influential Faletau, Wyn Jones and Warburton played a part in the dismal performance but this was a really bad start for Howley and his team of coaches. It will be interesting to see what they do to produce a team that will be more competitive against Argentina next weekend.

If the Welsh were anaemic, the Irish were absolutely full-blooded as they took on the mighty All Blacks in Chicago in the evening. The Irish were everything that Wales weren’t. They played with pride and passion and not a little skill as they knocked the All Blacks completely out of their stride. They withstood a late New Zealand rally to run out clear winners by 40-29. This was the first time that the Irish have beaten New Zealand and if they continue to play like that they will be a very difficult team to beat. This match produced the best rugby of the weekend by far and hopefully it will have whet the appetite of the American public.

Next Saturday Pooler are back in league action with a home fixture against Cardiff Met and they will be hoping to further their unbeaten start to the season.

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Battling Pooler stay top of the pile

I missed another Pontypool game as the long trek to Newcastle Emlyn unfortunately clashed with another part of my busy social programme. “Get your priorities right young man”, I hear you say. Pooler games are like gold dust in the slimmed down version of the Championship this season so it was with a heavy heart that I took up my position on the couch with my tablet close at hand. What is more, I may well miss the next Pooler game as I will be going to Cardiff for the Wales v. Argentina game. Even though the Pontypool game has been brought forward it still does not leave enough time for travel and adequate liquid refreshment.
The good news was that Pontypool recorded their ninth straight win in the Championship by the narrow margin of 18-23 at Newcastle Emlyn. It all sounded pretty tense with Pooler yet again tested to the full and just managing to squeeze home. Having read the excellent match report and fielded the tweets, it doesn’t seem as if Pooler were firing on all cylinders against a spirited home team. I felt quite tense on the couch I must say.

There certainly wasn’t much tension in the Ospreys v Dragons game on the TV. Two late tries by the Dragons made the final score (35-17) look a lot closer than the match actually was. The Dragon’s forwards struggled to be competitive against what was not far off an Osprey’s second team pack and the home backs were far sharper. Keelan Giles on the wing certainly looks an exciting prospect.
One of my hobbyhorses is the massive variation in the size of in goal areas on rugby pitches. It really does have a significant effect on the game – the laws say that the dead ball line can be 10-22 metres from the goal line. It seems a massive variation and with the way the ball bounces on both artificial and converted football pitches it has a major impact on tactical kicking. In the Dragons’ game Macloed actually had so little room that he put his foot on the deadball line while trying to make a clearance kick.

I also cast my eyes over Cardiff Blues v. the Scarlets on Friday night. A really strange game full of thrills and spills and perhaps the direst ten minutes of rugby that I have seen. The Blues were pressing with ten minutes left in the first half and the full ten minutes was consumed by five metre scrum after five metre scrum. Even though two of the props were yellow carded, it went on and on for what seemed to be an eternity. This does the game no favours at all. The referee didn’t have his greatest day but there has to be some responsibility on the players to produce a spectacle. The Scarlets would probably argue that they achieved the aim of stopping the Blues scoring but, dear oh dear, it was excruciating.

In the Premiership, there are wildly differing starts to the season from the four teams that pipped Pontypool for promotion last season. Merthyr and RGC 1404 go from strength to strength with six wins out of seven while Swansea and Bargoed struggle with only one win each. I wonder how Pontypool would have fared? Sadly it will be a few years before we get a chance to find out.

Next weekend Wales kick off the Autumn Internationals with a match against Australia. It must be a year since we played them last so we must all be getting withdrawal symptoms. Let’s hope we can finally play for the full eighty minutes and sneak a win. One can only hope. I suspect will not make too many changes from the tried and tested team and formula but it would be refreshing if they took the opportunity to try something or somebody new.
Come on Wales!

For Pooler there is a chance to reflect on what has been a terrific start to the season. Well done boys you have made us proud. There is still a long way to go and certainly no room for complacency but so far so good.

Keep it going Pooler!  

Sunday, 23 October 2016

It’s Getting Harder

Management had decreed that I had to spend the weekend in Oxfordshire so I missed Pontypool’s latest encounter and it sounds like I missed a good close game. Bedlinog clearly gave a really good account of themselves and Pooler were mighty relieved to grab a narrow 13-10 victory when a first defeat of the season was staring them in the face. That is three tough encounters in a row and Pontypool have found a way to win all three. When you sit at the top of the Championship and have the great history that Pooler has, you can expect everyone to raise their game when they play against them and that certainly seems to be the case. Well done for keeping the impressive running going Pooler.

For my part, I did manage to sneak out to watch the local Oxfordshire side, Chinnor play against Bury St. Edmonds. Chinnor are enjoying a good season and are unbeaten and sit proudly at the top of English League Division Two South. This is just three leagues down from the English Premiership so it was interesting to compare the standard with Pontypool in the Welsh Championship two leagues down from regional rugby. I did spend most of the match fiddling with my mobile phone trying to keep up with events at Pontypool Park but I did watch the rugby enough to form an impression.
Chinnor have a mixture of professional and semi-professional players and what immediately struck me was the size of the forwards. These were not young players making their way in the game but burly men who knew their way around a rugby field. The ground itself had no stand or terrace but did have floodlights and a large clubhouse at the side of the pitch. There were also another three or four pitches nearby although there were no other matches being played. Apparently they have a tremendously strong mini-rugby set up. There are sixteen teams in their league so they do manage to play a decent amount of rugby unlike the Welsh Championship.
Chinnor were by far the stronger team and played some good rugby to overpower Bury St. Edmunds 45-14. The million dollar question of course is how would Pontypool fare against them? It is difficult to judge but I got the feeling that it would be a close run thing with home advantage possibly tipping the balance either way. When you think that Chinnor actually play on the outskirts of Thame  which has a population of around 12,000 and you consider how many similar setups there are in England you begin to realise just how powerful a rugby nation England is. You really wonder how the other home nations can compete at all when you look at the sheer weight of numbers. Is it only just over a year ago that Wales beat England in the RWC?

I did get to watch four matches from the various European competitions on the TV. I started with two pretty poor spectacles: Bath v Bristol (Thur) and Sale v Toulon (Fri). Both matches were the typical slug fests that are so often European rugby. It is tough and uncompromising and punctuated by injuries and referrals to the fourth official. There is plenty of muscle but little of the artistry that you would hope would set the rugby at this level apart. The two games yesterday: Toulouse v Wasps and Leicester v Racing 92 were in a similar vein although there were some flashes of brilliance from Wasps and Racing 92 at times. The neutral observer wonders at the ferocity but there is little to get the pulse racing.

Yet again in Wales we wait with bated breath to see if our players plying their trade outside Wales will be able to play in the extra Autumn international. You would think by now we would know one way or the other but it never changes. Only a few years ago, people were saying how much Welsh players would gain from a spell playing outside Wales with the exposure to different cultures and coaching methodology. Now we only want the old dogs to finish their playing days outside Wales and they certainly will not learn any new tricks. Maybe we need to award rugby scholarships to promising young players that enable them to go and play in the Southern Hemisphere in our summer.

Next week Pontypool are away at Newcastle Emlyn and will be hoping for a win to keep them ahead of the chasing pack in the Championship. I am sure the recent victories will leave the squad in confident mood but there is certainly no room for complacency.

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Pontypool Rumble On

A grey autumnal day in Pontypool Park greeted Skewen RFC for their Championship match. This was going to be a tough challenge for the West Walians as Pontypool have made a commanding start of the season with six straight victories. For Pooler, it was all about maintaining their momentum as they continue in their quest to win the league.
The trees around the Park provided a stunning backdrop with the leaves showing their autumn tints as Skewen kicked off playing down the slope. Pontypool made a tremendous start and soon had the visitors under pressure. The power and pace of their attacks stunned Skewen and within the first fifteen minutes Pooler had scored two converted tries to lead 14-0. The first came after some excellent approach play had led to a scrum five metres from the visitors’ line. Quick sniped after Sparks had made ground to score near the posts. The second followed a break by Hancock that resulted in Kent crossing the whitewash for the second time in two weeks.
As the finally gained some possession, Skewen did manage to get a foothold in the match and showed that they had strong ball carriers to go with a resolute defence. Pontypool, however, were in no mood to give away any tries and thundered into the tackles thwarting most of the attacks on the gain line.  Skewen did manage to get on the scoreboard through a penalty when Pontypool gave away a penalty at a scrum (14-3) after fifteen minutes spent almost exclusively in the home half.
The driven lineout has become a weapon of choice for Pontypool and a reliable source of points. They turned to it to reassert their authority and from a lineout close to the Skewen line, Nash scored after a textbook drive. The try went unconverted but Pooler held a solid 19-3 lead at the interval.
The heavens opened during half time and the rest of the match was affected by heavy rain which rather dampened both teams’ attempts at attacking rugby. Pooler set off in pursuit of the bonus point try but there followed a scrappy period of play with neither side able to make much headway against well organised defences. After about a quarter of an hour of frustration, Pontypool won a lineout just inside the Skewen 22. The lineout was won and the forwards drove fully twenty metres for Smith to score the try. The successful conversion gave Pooler a comfortable 26-3 lead.
Both sides made a series of substitutions in the third quarter and Skewen continued to frustrate the home side with good defensive work at the breakdown. For their part, Pooler continued to tackle fiercely with Tu’ipulotu to the fore and, hard as they tried, Skewen were prevented from scoring a try. It was one such Tu’ipulotu tackle that resulted in the ball coming loose near the halfway line. Thorley scooped up the ball and outpaced the cover defence to score near the posts (33-3).
Pontypool continued to attack but the combination of the dogged Skewen defence and the slippery ball proved too difficult to overcome and the score remained 33-3 at the final whistle.

Although the match did not really have the tension of the match against Tata Steel last week, make no mistake this was a tough encounter. Skewen never gave up and certainly provided a stern challenge. Pontypool were always in charge, however, and produced a workmanlike performance to deliver a bonus point win. Their lineout drive has become a potent weapon and takes us old codgers back to the days of the rolling maul with Bobby Windsor at its heart.

Talking of the past, it was great to see that Pontypool feature prominently on the new Lions’ website. It is almost forty years ago but it brings a tear to the eye to remember those heady days when Pooler were the best and most consistent team in the UK and provided a string of players for Wales and the Lions. It seems pretty unlikely that we will ever see that again but you can still dream!

Wonder of wonders, the Welsh Regions had a great start to the European rugby competitions. All four Regions recorded good victories – admittedly only the Scarlets in the Champions Cup. Let’s hope that they continue with the good work and avoid a Wexit at the pool stages.

Next up for Pontypool is a first visit by Gwent rivals Bedlinog. Their victory over Tata Steel yesterday shows that they certainly cannot be taken lightly. We have now completed almost a third of the Championship matches with Pontypool sitting proudly at the top of the table with a ten point lead. Long may it continue!

Come on Pooler!