Sunday, 14 January 2018

Pooler’s Persistence Pays Off

A dull, dreary day greeted me at Pontypool Park after a couple of weeks away in the sun. Whilst I had been away, Pooler had recorded two home victories against local rivals Newbridge in the league and Tata Steel in the Cup so had maintained their unblemished record for the season. The opponents for this encounter were Bedlinog who have shown over the last couple of seasons that they are at home in the Championship.

Pontypool played down the slope in the first half and it was abundantly clear from the early stages that Pooler were going to have to work hard for victory against a resolute and well organised Bedlinog defence. The home side controlled territory and possession but the Bedlinog tackles were firm. After around ten minutes, Pooler hooker Ball unexpectedly shot out of a ruck twenty metres from the Bedlinog line and fed Jeune who gleefully kept up his recent remarkable try scoring record by scoring the first try, The conversion was successful and Pooler were on their way (7-0). Five minutes later a copybook lineout drive saw Ball touch down for an unconverted try (12-0).
The Bedlinog defence continued to work hard and it took some really good combined play between the home backs and forwards to breach it a quarter of an hour later. Gullis popped up in support exactly on cue to finish off the move in the left hand corner. The try was converted by Jones and Pooler looked in complete control (19-0), Their dominance was reinforced when Robinson scored in the right hand corner after a period of Pooler pressure to bag the try bonus point (24-0).
Bedlinog are made of stern stuff and came back strongly as the first half drew to a close. Trowbridge was first to react to a speculative cross kick and scored a try which was converted by Parry (24-7). This was followed by a Parry penalty that closed the gap to 24-10 at half time. Pontypool seemed in control but Bedlinog were not to be underestimated.
The game followed a similar pattern in the second half as Pooler continued to attack and the Bedlinog defence continued to stifle their best efforts. It took two deft kicks from Jones for the home side to crack the defence midway through the half. The beneficiaries were Gullis and Thorley who both scored in the right hand corner in the space of a few minutes. Neither try was converted but all thoughts of a Bedlinog comeback disappeared with the score at 34-10.
The Pontypool squad has strength in depth and as the replacements were made Pontypool got fresh impetus and scored two more tries with both Thorley and Robinson grabbing their second tries of the afternoon. Both were wide out and went unconverted but the scoreboard had ticked on to an impressive 44-10. Remarkably only two of Pooler’s eight tries had been converted.
The final minutes of the match saw a yellow card for each team but no further scoring.

Another strong performance from Pontypool saw them increase their lead at the top of the Championship to nineteen points. There are two big challenges coming up though. Next week Pontypool travel to West Wales to take on Narberth who lie in second place in the Championship and always provide a stern test. The following week they face Premiership opposition as they take on Carmarthen Quins at home in the next round of the National Cup.

The western Welsh regions have done well in European competition this weekend with a brilliant performance by the Scarlets at Bath and a hard fought draw for the Ospreys against the reigning European champions Saracens. Let us hope the eastern regions can follow suit to give Wales a boost for the fast-approaching Six Nations tournament.

I can’t add any comment on the Welsh Premiership as I really don’t understand how anyone could come up with such an odd format. It doesn’t have to be that complicated does it?
Perhaps Pooler will be part of it some day soon!

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Mission Accomplished for Pooler

From the sunny Gwent lowlands, we journeyed to Glynneath for Pontypool’s latest adventure in the Championship. In Glynneath it was grey and cold but the welcome was certainly warm. Although Pontypool sit proudly at the top of the Championship and Glynneath in the basement, nobody really expected and easy game for Pooler at Abernant park.

It was clear right from the start that the pitch, which had the consistency of a Xmas pudding, was going to have a major impact on the way the game was played. It was certainly not going to be a day for running rugby.
Pontypool started brightly enough and within five minutes Luckwell had scored a try when he finished off powerful approach work from Lampitt and Williams. Meek converted and Pooler looked to be on their way to a victory (0-7). Unfortunately this was a long way from the truth. The rest of the first half turned out to be a hard-fought, dour affair with Pontypool unable to find any continuity in their play and the Glynneath forwards relishing the battle. Pooler gave away far too many penalties as the home side harried them into mistakes.
Sadly the most notable incident was a nasty looking injury to Pontypool hooker Watkins which resulted in a long delay as he was stretchered off the pitch. It is good to hear that he has not suffered any serious effects from the accident. Glynneath did manage to narrow the deficit with a penalty just before half time to leave Pontypool with a narrow lead at 3-7.
From a spectator’s perspective the match was pretty frustrating to watch as it was quite difficult to differentiate between the two sets of players as their already similar coloured jerseys gradually took on a coating of black mud. To make matters worse, the ball got dirtier and dirtier and more and more difficult to see when it was on the ground. Hats off to the referee who did a good job in difficult circumstances.
The second half saw Pontypool try and up the pace and they did manage to put a few sets of phases together. After about quarter of an hour, they at last managed to breach the stubborn home defence with Williams barging over for an unconverted try (3-12).
Pooler continued to attack and the backs managed to make some good ground down the right flank and Robinson squeezed in in the corner. The conversion failed but Pontypool had opened up a significant gap with the score at 3-17.
Pontypool needed one more try for the bonus point but it was Glynneath who did the attacking for the next ten minutes or so. The hammered away at the Pooler line with wave after wave of forward drives but the defence just held out. Finally Pontypool broke out of the stranglehold and worked their way down the field as the final whistle approached. Replacement scum half Quick spotted a gap and raced twenty metres or so to score under the posts. With the conversion the score was 3-24 although the scoreboard operator had already left his post. Shortly afterwards the referee blew the final whistle to everyone’s relief.

Another tough outing for Pontypool who again proved that they are worthy pacesetters in the Championship. Glynneath belied their lowly position to present a real challenge in difficult conditions. Yet again the Pontypool set piece was the foundation of the victory. The lineout operated well with Gregory doing some great work and the scrum was powerful putting the Glynneath scrum under tremendous pressure.

The next match for Pontypool will be at home against local rivals Newbridge after Xmas. This is sure to be a close encounter of the hard kind.

I hope everyone has a great Xmas and we all have a successful and peaceful New Year.

Come on Pooler!  

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Pooler get back in the saddle

Pontypool finally got back into competitive action on a cold, grey December day in Pontypool Park after a month of kicking their heels. Their opponents were Trebanos who have certainly created an impression in their first season in the Championship and were in the pack chasing Pontypool at the top of the league.

Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and it was immediately apparent that this was going to be a tough and bruising encounter. As might be expected after the lay-off, the game was littered with mistakes as both sides tried to assert a measure of control. The two things that were immediately apparent were that the Pooler scrum had an edge and the referee was going to have his work cut out controlling a niggly and scrappy game.
After ten minutes or so, Pooler finally earned a scrum close to the Trebanos line. They applied the necessary pressure and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try (7-0). He also gave a yellow card to the Trebanos loosehead prop.
The game reverted to a battle between the two twenty two lines with defences on top and neither set of backs managing to find any sparkle due to a combination of rustiness and cold fingers. It invariably ended in booting the ball down field and a kick chase on a sticky pitch. The game desperately needed a touch of inspiration and it came when Pooler took a quick tap penalty after about half an hour and, although the passing amongst the backs was hardly slick, Thomas was freed on the left wing. He was tackled just short of the line but managed to off load the ball for the supporting Gullis to score. The try went unconverted but Pooler had built a 12-0 lead on a day when points were going to be hard to come by.  There was no further scoring in what had been a hard fought first half.
The second half started well for the home side as they worked their way down field into the Trebanos twenty two. After a series of forward thrusts, Jones threaded a clever grubber through the away defence for Gullis to score. The conversion gave Pooler what looked to be a winning lead of 19-0 but still needing a further try to claim the bonus point.
The next twenty minutes was real attritional stuff with forwards and backs alike clattering into each other with some ferocity. There was a yellow card for either side and it was Trebanos who were the team that took advantage of their period of numerical superiority. After several minutes of sustained attacking, they scored a well-deserved try by Davies which was converted by Edwards to close the gap to 19-7 as the game went into the final quarter.
The Trebanos try plus a series of substitutions seemed to give both sides fresh impetus and the battle became even fiercer. Trebanos were certainly not about to lie down and Pooler were anxious to get their bonus point try. With ten minutes to go, Pooler earned a lineout close to the Trebanos line. An excellently constructed lineout drive saw Nash get the vital touch down. The conversion from wide out failed but at 24-7 Pooler were home and hosed. The final ten minutes did not deliver any more scoring even though both sides huffed and puffed. I for one was glad to return to the warmth of my car as my feet felt like blocks of ice.

While Pontypool could not find the form that they had before the lay-off, this was a solid hard-earned victory against doughty opponents. It keeps them firmly planted at the top of the Championship with eleven wins from eleven games at the halfway stage. The next match will be at Glynneath next Saturday. Glynneath have been struggling a little this season but are sure to give Pooler a warm welcome.

There are certainly a lot of rumours flying around about the Dragons’ recruitment drive. I don’t know where the money is coming from to fund it I am sure when we hear that Moriarty will be the highest paid player in Welsh rugby. It is difficult to imagine top players like Quade Cooper, George North and Taulupe Faletau coming cheap. I wish the Dragons well as their history of recruitment has certainly not been that impressive since the days of Teichmann and Montgomery.

I duly filled in the WRU questionnaire about the future of rugby in Wales. I must admit I do fear for the outcome following the report from the consultants if you believe the spin that has already started. The constant short term tinkering with the league structure and the various competitions has got us precisely nowhere so far. Whatever happens, there has to be some incentive for every club in the pyramid to excel and there has to be stability in the way competitions are run.

In the European Rugby Champions Cup it saddened me to see the rows of empty seats at the Scarlets while virtually every ground in the other countries was full. Nevertheless both Scarlets and Ospreys won as did the Dragons in the Challenge Cup with the only Welsh loss the Blues at Sale. It still seems likely that we will again see a Wexit in the Champions Cup.

Anyway let’s not get too depressed - Xmas is coming and we’re going to Glynneath to watch Pooler next Saturday.

Come on Pooler! 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Wales hang on – just!

The final leg of the Welsh Autumn Attrition Series saw Wales take on South Africa in the Principality Stadium. Both teams needed a win but neither were at anything like full strength with long injury lists and shorn of the gold diggers plying their trade in the rich feeding grounds of England and France.

Wales started brilliantly and had registered two converted tries before the Springboks had wiped the sleep out of their eyes. Two great kicks by Biggar led to tries for Williams and new cap Parkes. Wow! The spectators from both persuasions were completely stunned. This can’t be slow-starting Wales can it?
It got even better when Parkes scored his second try after a charged down kick to make Wales runaway leaders at 21-3. Wales had managed to keep the ball away from the bigger and stronger Springbok forwards and that surely couldn’t last could it? The answer, of course, was no it couldn’t. As we had feared before the match, the Welsh scrum was an Achilles heel. Wales seemed to give a penalty away at every scrum and of course their possession and territory statistics plummeted.
The period either side of half time saw the South Africans dominate proceedings and the Welsh lead shrink alarmingly. Tries by Gelant and Pollard left Wales looking very vulnerable as the Springbok forwards took control. Worse was to come when the Springboks deservedly took the lead at 21-22 after a converted try from Kriel.
The Welsh midfield general Biggar had left the field with an injury and it looked like the home side were heading for defeat as they seemed to lack direction. Wales were fortunate to be able to call upon the experienced Rhys Web from the bench and he together with the last vestiges of gas left in the Wyn Jones’ tank helped Wales to regroup. They worked their way down field and gleefully accepted a Halfpenny penalty which saw them regain the lead at 24-22.
The last minutes of the game were pure agony as the South Africans marched inexorably towards the Welsh line. Somehow Wales managed to turn the ball over in the nick of time but it still meant another trial for their creaking scrum. This time it just about held and an excellent relieving kick from Webb and a great kick chase saw Wales home. We must find a way to keep Webb in the fold!

If the quality of the match was patchy, the excitement level was high. A win was very important however it came and the Welsh fans went away happy. At the time it certainly didn’t matter that this Springboks team is a shadow of the powerhouses of yesteryear – a win is a win.

Gatland and his cohort will have plenty to think about before the Six Nations. First concern will be the injury list which will, of course, cut down the options available. With a clean bill of health there looks to be a highly competitive team in the making. Sadly the Lions’ tour and the taxing autumn programme are a big drain on resources. The bright spots in the autumn were the re-emergence of Hallam Amos, the ball handling of Rob Evans, the industry of Josh Navidi and the nous of Hadleigh Parkes and Owain Williams. First up in the Six Nations will be the visit of resurgent Scotland – sure to be a stern test. The second half in Murrayfield in last season’s match still gives me nightmares.

Pontypool get back down to business next weekend - thank goodness. Trebanos, the visitors to Pontypool Park, have made a great impression on the Championship after promotion last season. They certainly gave Pooler plenty to think about in the away fixture. On Friday, Pontypool were denied the opportunity of a run out against Talywain by the weather. Nevertheless they should be raring to go after the lay-off.

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Try, try, try again

Yet again Wales took on New Zealand with a certain degree of optimism. “If there is a time to beat the All Blacks this is it”, “They are tired at the end of a long season”, “They are missing key players due to injuries”, “Scotland should have beaten them”, etc., etc. Those of us who have been around a long time have heard this all before of course. Still you never know, I thought.

We got to the ground ridiculously early after the debacle before the Australia game. We heeded the warning of Mr Phillips the WRU Chief Executive who told us to get in at least two hours before kick-off. It was all right for him to say that of course when he knew he would be lunching in some private dining room in the bowels of the stadium. We had to queue for maybe fifteen minutes and found ourselves in the stadium with almost two hours to go before the kick off. Lots of other people had heeded Mr Phillip’s advice and the bars were doing a roaring trade. The cynic in me wonders whether this was the real reason for us being told to be there so early. Let us hope that a more efficient way of keeping us secure can be found before the Six Nations.

So to the match. Wales gave it their all and monopolised possession for the first quarter with scant reward. You always feel that New Zealand use the old Ali “rope-a- dope” tactic and wait for the opposition to punch themselves out and then strike ruthlessly and decisively. Despite some vibrant play from Wales, the All Blacks scored two tries through Naholo before half time in response to two penalties. Just as the half was drawing to a close, Wales scored a beautifully worked try when Amos broke the defensive line and crisp passing put Williams over – wonderful. The conversion failed but Wales were well in the game at 11-12.
Wales continued to apply pressure in the second half and the New Zealanders made more errors than they normally make in a year. Then came the surgical strikes – two converted tries by the All Blacks looked decisive. The first from powerful running by Ioane who off-loaded for Lienert-Brown to cross and the second was very much self-inflicted by Wales when Biggar’s pass was intercepted by Ioane.
Wales fought back well and pounded away at the New Zealand line. A yellow card for Sam Whitelock and a try for Wales by Davies – it was a bit like the Scotland game. Wales eight points behind and the All Blacks seemingly on the ropes. Then came a moment of pure class and tells you all you need to know about the world champions. Another surgical strike from a scrum put Ioane in the clear and he simply scorched over and that was that. Final score 18-33.

More disappointment but certainly a high tempo, upbeat performance form Wales. A great performance from Navidi and Amos looked sharp again but injuries to Webb and Ball. Now Wales must face the Springboks next week without the English-based players as well as a lengthy injury list. Opportunity beckons for some I am sure but you have to wonder at the sanity of the demands of the Welsh Autumn Series.

Before the match we managed to see the Scots work the Aussies over as part of the pre-match entertainment. Scotland certainly seem to have got something going and will surely be a force in the Six Nations. It is their turn to stop the English juggernaut this time.

In marked contrast on Friday night I watched Pontypool play a Torfaen XV in a very frosty Pontypool Park. I am glad to say the Pooler players had not forgotten how to play after their lay-off and won comfortably enough - by my calculation it was 64-0. Whilst it was a decent workout for the squad, the real reason for the match was to raise money for Scott Bessant’s Fighting Fund – a worthy cause and we wish Scott well. Pooler next play at Talywain on Friday in another refresher match before getting back to the Championship the week after.
Come on Pooler!

Next Saturday it is up at the crack of dawn to get to Cardiff for the Wales v Springboks game. Breakfast in the stadium perhaps.

Come on Wales!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Grey Day for Wales

I don’t think any sports team has given of their best when wearing grey and on the odd occasions that Wales have worn this drab colour they have produced a drab performance to match. This was certainly one of those occasions. A rather experimental Wales side took on the muscular Georgians at Cardiff and a pretty forgettable match for Welsh fans took place.

It started brightly enough for Wales with a penalty and a well-worked try by Amos giving them a 10-0 lead. Then came the moment that probably changed the game the ball was stripped from the Georgians in a maul and a few passes later Amos sped gleefully down the touchline and touched down for a try. Unfortunately the Welsh team’s joy was short-lived as play was called back by the TMO as the ball was deemed to have gone forward as it was stripped. To make matters worse the Georgians were awarded a penalty shortly afterwards to close the gap to 10-3.
The Georgian forwards began to realise that they had the edge over the youthful Welsh pack and from then on the contest became an arm wrestle with defences on top. It was pretty turgid stuff with Wales becoming more and more frantic and making far too many handling errors against a resolute defensive line.
The second half was grim with the Georgian scrum earning them penalties and stopping Wales getting good field position. As the game entered the final minutes, the score was 13-6 with the only scores in the second half a penalty apiece. Georgia were pressing hard and had a series of scrums and lineouts close to the Welsh line. Welsh replacement prop Francis was sinbinned for offside at a ruck and it looked like the Georgians would surely force a draw if they used their dominant scrum. Brown the Welsh starting tighthead should have come on to the field but suddenly developed “severe cramp” and could not return. This meant uncontested scrums so the Georgians opted for the lineout but after a series of forward drives gave away a penalty and Wales survived.

You have to feel a lot of sympathy for the Georgians as a draw would have been justice for their efforts. The young Welsh forwards will certainly know that they have been in a game this morning. It is really hard to assess what was learned from this encounter for Wales as there were no standout performances. Amos will have done his chances no harm and Webb and Priestland must be in contention at half back. The forwards looked lively until the collisions with the tough Georgian pack took their toll.
The Georgians would be a handful for any team and they are certainly the best of the second tier of nations. They are frustrated that they cannot progress further as the 6 Nations is ring-fenced with too many vested interests keeping it that way. Does that sound familiar to the Pooler fans out there? A draw against Wales would certainly have pressed their claim and really they were seemingly undone by a bit of sharp practice. Coming up against the uncontested scrum is familiar territory to Pontypool too!

Scotland really gave the All Blacks a fright in a display full of passion and flair. They could have snatched victory at the death had Hogg not been tackled just short if the line after a scintillating break. The All Blacks will be looking mean next Saturday I am sure – so look out Wales.

England beat Australia with a rather flattering score line on a day where most of the borderline decisions went against the Aussies. On a dry day the result might well have been different as the Ausssies looked far more inventive.

The Irish did “a Wales” against Fiji with a narrow victory for their “seconds”. Meanwhile France were pipped by South Africa who had capitulated against Ireland the previous week. Sounds like Wales have a couple of tough Saturdays ahead with All Blacks and Boks in town. I had better get in the queue for next Saturday now.

Come on Wales and come on the stewards!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Encouraging Signs for Wales

We Welsh fans are not normally optimistic by nature and my feeling before the game against Australia was that we were most unlikely to win. Watching the game, you felt that everyone of a Welsh persuasion probably agreed with that sentiment and so of course did the Australians. Yes, without doubt, Wales played their hardest and did their utmost to win but Australia seemed to be able to glean points just when it mattered most.
This is the old story when the two sides meet with Australia finding a way to win and Wales finding a way to lose. This time it was not the heart-breaking last minute victory grab by the Wallabies that we have experienced so many times before. Here they managed to keep Wales at arm’s length, albeit quite a short arm, for most of the game. The final score of 21-29 reflects the Australians’ ability to take their chances.

There were positives for Wales with signs that the much touted all action running game was achievable with the group of players in the squad. The handling and offloading skills of the forwards seem to have improved significantly with Rob Evans and Alun Wyn Jones showing up well in this respect. The backs managed to finish a couple of decent moves with tries for Evans and Amos but did find the Aussie defence a tough nut to crack. Steff Evans had a tough introduction to test rugby but will be a better player for it I am sure. Let us hope that the injury to Jon Davies is not too serious as we can surely build a decent set of backs around him and Liam Williams with a bit of imagination.

Overall I enjoyed the match with plenty of attacking intent from both sides but I just wish we could sneak a win some time. What I didn’t enjoy was queuing for forty minutes or so in the pouring rain to get into the ground. I know we have to have stringent security but surely it could be better organised that that. We joined the queue an hour before kick off as we enjoy listening to the choir under the stand and the Q&A session with a Welsh squad member. Sadly we missed both this time. Let’s hope the WRU have a rethink before the All Blacks match.
Next up for Wales is a match against Georgia who will present a physical challenge but really this is a game that Wales should expect to win reasonably comfortably.

Saw a few brief highlights form England’s victory over Argentina and with wins for Scotland against Samoa and a thumping victory for Ireland against the Springboks it would seem that the Six Nations will be pretty tasty next year. By all accounts, France gave the All Blacks a few scares although not enough to beat them.

On the domestic front losses for Narberth and Trebanos in the Championship strengthened Pontypool’s position at the top of the league. Pooler entertain Trebanos in early December after the Autumn break. Only a month to go!

Come on Wales in the mean time!