Sunday, 4 September 2016

Pontypool Storm It

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!

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Season’s Greetings

So here we are again looking forward to another rugby season with our beloved Pooler. A solid pre-season and a number of new faces in the squad give a feeling of optimism for a successful campaign. The closure of trapdoor to the Premiership by the WRU is a source of great frustration to all at the club I know.  Some may argue that there is little to play for this season but I disagree. It is an opportunity to stamp our authority on the Championship and build on the progress that we have made over the last few seasons. When the trapdoor eventually opens, we need to be ready and waiting to take our place. In the uncertain financial climate in Welsh Rugby no club is guaranteed to survive.

The first league match of the season is always the acid test of squad strength and Pontypool have doughty Narberth first up. The good news is that we start with a home fixture and we really need to start with a win. It will not be easy against Narberth who always give us a tough outing. Whilst we only lost to the teams that eventually finished above us in the league last season, we had quite a few close calls against the lower ranked teams. This season will be full of challenges but if it weren’t it wouldn’t be rugby would it.
I can’t wait.

Good luck to squad and management alike.

Come on Pooler!   

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Out with a Whimper

So the Welsh rugby season finally staggers to a close. It went out with more a whimper than a roar as the Welsh team suffered a heavy defeat by New Zealand in the final test in Dunedin. Since August last year, Wales have played an incredible nineteen matches – small wonder some of the players looked as if they were running on empty yesterday. A small nation like Wales with its limited resources is always going to struggle with this kind of work load.

On the other hand, England started with a whimper and have finished the season with a tremendous roar. They finally seem to have found a winning formula under Eddie Jones. For years the smaller nations in Europe have relied on the managerial incompetence, club self-interest and in-fighting in England and France to give us a chance of being competitive. Now it looks as if this is disappearing in England at least. It doesn’t bode well.

Back to yesterday’s game and the All Blacks seem to have put even more pace into their game as the test series against Wales progressed. Wales were left floundering at times by Barrett, Dagg and co. Whilst Wales never stopped trying their hearts out they were only really competitive for the first quarter of the third test which is a step backwards. Six tries to none is a pretty comprehensive defeat.

Has any good come out of this tour? Well it seems that we are at least trying to change our game plan and adopt a more open style. I don’t really think we currently have the right personnel for this but it was encouraging at times. It does seem to rely very much on the presence of Liam Williams at the moment who has had a marvellous series. In combination with North and a rejuvenated Halfpenny, we should have a decent back three. The other standout player for Wales has been Faletau who is a remarkable athlete and could fit quite comfortably into an All Blacks team. A special mention for Tomas Francis who must have been on a starvation diet on tour as he looks much more like an athlete and is contributing more outside the scrum.

On reflection, my two high points of the season both came early on – the unlikely Wales victory over England in the RWC and Pontypool’s stunning victory away at Merthyr. Unfortunately neither ultimately led to success but at least we could dream for a while. As the season progressed, the dreams disappeared and we are now left looking forward, no doubt, to more ups and downs next season. Such is the lot of a Pontypool and Wales supporter.

It is not all bad for the Welsh as we have our football team performing heroics in France, Yesterday’s rather scrappy victory against Northern Ireland has put Wales in the quarter finals of Euro 2016. Wow!

Let’s try and forget the rugby for a while.

Come on Wales

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Déjà Déjà Déjà Vu

After last Tuesday’s embarrassment in Waikato where a Wales “seconds”  were humbled by Waikato “seconds”, I was more than concerned about the senior Wales team’s prospects against the All Blacks in Wellington yesterday. You have to watch though….just in case.

The first half, as ever, was close and hard fought with Wales matching the All Blacks for intensity and spirit. Wales managed to score a good try when Wyn Jones popped up on the wing to cross in the corner to level the scores to 10-10 at half time. For all their undoubted passion, there were still worrying signs for wales as the home ball carriers almost always managed to evade the first tackle to make extra yards. It is noticeable that both backs and forwards have the ability to step sideways just before contact to avoid the full force of the intended hit. For Wales only Faletau and Liam Williams seem to possess this skill.
The second half suddenly erupted after about 50 minutes or so as the All Blacks, bolstered by a substitute or two, cut loose. They turned up the pace and power a notch or three and in the space of twelve minutes any Welsh hopes of a victory evaporated. How do the All Blacks do this? It is as if Hansen flicks a switch that gives them all an electric shock. I do note that the All Blacks seem to bring their replacements one by one with a five minute gap between them from the fiftieth minute onwards. Wales seem to bring them on en masse usually after the horse has bolted. A rout was very definitely on the cards and I was thinking of taking refuge behind the sofa.
To their great credit, Wales refused to buckle and even had the temerity to score a couple of decent tries as the All Blacks seemed to throttle back. The final score of 36-22 is a fairer reflection of the tremendous effort and no little skill that Wales demonstrated. Wales were yet again gallant losers and the wait for a victory goes on.

So to matters parochial and Pontypool’s prospects for next season. I was delighted to see that we seem to have retained the majority of last season’s squad. Hopefully the team will continue to develop and have a really good season. It is a shame that there is no promotion as a carrot but all we can do is keep playing good rugby.
I am amazed that the Championship is now reduced to just twelve teams – twenty two games is not enough to fill a season. With fourteen teams there were big gaps in the fixture list in the autumn and spring this will only make matters worse. The lack of depth in Welsh rugby was cruelly exposed by the Waikato Chiefs – we need more grass roots rugby rather than less.  Maybe there is going to be some exotic cup competition where we get to play teams from Georgia and Romania.

I guess I will have to turn on the TV again next Saturday morning…. just in case!

By the way England beat Australia again in case you haven’t heard.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Déjà déjà vu

I duly switched on the TV at 8.15 am yesterday to watch Wales take on the mighty All Blacks in Auckland. I must confess I did not feel any real sense of optimism. Whilst I can at least say that I was alive when Wales last beat New Zealand, I was only one at the time so cannot claim that “I was there”.

After a ropy start, Wales really took it to the All Blacks in the first half and even had the temerity to go into the interval with a narrow lead. True the home side only played like world champions in fits and starts and had an error count that wouldn’t look out of place in the Welsh Championship, but Wales certainly played with more verve than we have seen for a long time. Two good tries by Faletau and Webb gave Wales the edge but there was an ever present threat from the All Blacks when they gained any sort of momentum.
You don’t need to be a psychic to know what to expect in the second half. This story has been told many times before. Around the hour mark, as the major substitutions start, New Zealand inexorably gain control. The rest, as they, say is history. The All Blacks seem to get stronger as the replacements’ bench is emptied while Wales find it disruptive and then of course there is only one winner. Wales wilted under the pressure and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners 39-21. I guess that it reveals something of the All Blacks champion’s mentality that leading 32-21 as the last play of the game arrived they still had the presence of mind to attack the Welsh right wing where North was clearly struggling with a leg injury to score a final try. Most other teams would have been content to kick the ball into touch to kill the game.
So Wales finish gallant losers again and we are left to think about what might have been. Plenty of good, committed performances but in the end we were not quite good enough to beat a New Zealand team that was certainly not firing on all cylinders. We have two more attempts to beat them but I fear that they will get stronger and our inevitable injury toll will weaken us …. but you never know. Well perhaps we do really.

In the evening we went to see Rod Stewart in concert in Cardiff. We parked up and watched the Wales v Slovakia football match on the TV in Canton Rugby Club. There was a great atmosphere and it was nice to be in a traditional old style rugby club with pictures and jerseys on the wall and few airs and graces. What is more we were able to celebrate a brilliant Welsh victory. Unfortunately it sounds as if we might have to invoke the Rorke’s Drift spirit when we play Russia if the news headlines about the hooliganism are anything to go by. Rod Stewart was great by the way and we should check if he has any Welsh ancestry as he certainly looked pretty useful when he kicked some rugby balls into the crowd.

On a sad note, I was really sorry to hear about the passing of Cae Trayhern - a real Pooler stalwart. He was a fine combative player who always looked more than prepared to take on the whole opposition pack by himself. My condolences to his family.

I am led to believe that England beat Australia – I wonder if there will be anything about it in the papers?

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Fat Lady has Sung

Well it’s finally all over. Yesterday RGC 1404 duly secured the victory over Glynneath that they needed to pip Pontypool at the post and secure the final promotion place to the Premiership. Pooler are now confined to the Championship for at least four seasons unless the WRU relent on their ring-fencing policy for the Premiership.

The table as it stands is shown below. Incredibly Glynneath have yet another game to play this time against champions elect Merthyr. This means that Glynneath will have played Bargoed, RGC 1404 and Merthyr in the three weeks since Pooler finished their fixtures.

RGC 1404

When you look at the table, you realise what a close run thing it was between Bargoed, RGC 1404 and Pontypool. Their playing records are virtually identical with only those pesky bonus points making the difference. You also realise just how far behind the rest of the league was with Beddau in sixth place forty two points behind Pooler. You could analyse it to death but Pooler need to look no further than their home record against the four other top teams where they only secured three points out of the twenty on offer.
I am sure everyone is frustrated and disappointed but we really need to regroup and build on what has been achieved this season. It is sad to see Louie Tonkin leaving but I am sure that Leighton Jones will do a great job and provide the continuity that we need.

The blue line on the chart shows Pontypool’s progress since the dark days of season 2012-13. As shown by the red line, for the first three seasons 83 points would have secured fourth place but the bar was raised this season with 96 being gathered by RGC in fourth. I know this is no consolation but Pooler really did have a good season and there is much to build on.
You may say that there is nothing to play for over the next three seasons but all we can do is follow Ebbw Vale and keep knocking on the door. Who knows the WRU may change things – they have been known to! Unfortunately it has rarely been in our favour.

Anyway my thanks to everyone at the club for at was what, at times, an exhilarating season. Despite the disappointment, I will definitely be taking my place on the Bank next season and willing this great club on. We will get there in the end!

I watched the European Rugby Champions Cup final yesterday on the TV. I have to say for something that is meant to showcase rugby it was a pretty poor spectacle. I know the weather was poor at times, but as a match it did nothing to sell rugby to the masses. No tries, little open rugby and plenty of cynicism and petulance. It’s a real shame but this seems to be the way in finals.

Well next on the agenda will be the trials and tribulations of the Wales team. First stop Twickenham for the money grabbing match and then on to New Zealand. As usual, we hear the optimism but I for one are not expecting anything but more disappointment. Of course you never know….
Thanks to all at Pooler for a great effort and see you next season.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

We can still dream

RGC’s thumping victory at Cardiff Met yesterday means that Pontypool’s slender hopes of promotion to the Premiership have shed another few pounds. It will now take a victory by Glynneath at home against RGC 1404 for Pooler to gain promotion. Mind you, Glynneath did record a rather unlikely bonus point win at Bargoed yesterday. With this victory, Glynneath have now staved off the threat of relegation so the result of the game against RGC 1404 is not quite so critical to them. For the record, the Gogs need three points to overhaul Pontypool (but I guess drawing level with two will do) and claim promotion. We can still hope!

I spent the afternoon fitfully flicking across channels and watching about four games of rugby at once. One thing is abundantly clear the entertainment value of rugby is greatly enhanced by the better playing conditions at this time of the year. Even the English Premiership becomes less of a scrum and penalty fest. The Welsh regions with the honourable exception of the Blues certainly did not cover themselves with glory yesterday and this brings to an end a pretty dismal season for them. The only bright spot, rather surprisingly, came from the Dragons who against all the odds got to the semi-final of the Challenge Cup. With the exception of this, we had what is becoming the customary Wexit at the group stage.

When I thought about the impact of playing conditions, I wondered why the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere don’t just swap the venues of the Autumn and Summer tours around.  It would be much nicer for the travelling supporters too. Am I crazy? You don’t have to answer that.

Come on Glynneath you can do it!