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.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Into the Lions then….

Saturday afternoon didn’t seem the same. No Pontypool rugby - just me, the couch, and the TV set. A mighty successful and enjoyable season for Pooler is over. Other teams still have a lot to play for though.

My first thoughts were for our friends and rivals at Newbridge. They had to get a point out of their visit to Narberth to be sure of their place in the Championship next season. I was delighted that they did it in style and recorded a thumping win. The Gwent representation in the Championship would certainly have been pretty sparse without them.

I tuned in to the European Champions Cup semi-final between Munster and Saracens expecting a close thing. In the end, Munster seemed rudderless without Connor Murray and were overpowered by Saracens whose stronger set of replacements took the game away from the Irishmen in the last quarter. Apparently around a quarter of the Lions’ squad were on view in this match and I guess the way the Saracens play might give us a clue as to how the Lions will play. The Saracens were streetwise and ruthless with possibly five of the Lions’ test pack in their ranks and Farrell directing operations at 10. Not pretty but mighty effective.

A lot has been spoken and written about the make-up of the Lions’ squad. In particular about there being twelve Welshmen and only two Scotsmen when Scotland beat Wales in the Six Nations this year. I think the Scots capitulation against England might be a better yardstick to use where the Scots were found wanting when the pressure came on away from home. In a lot of cases the margins in selection must have been mighty close and I am sure it is not a question of bias as Gatland is as pragmatic as they come. Good to see the Pontypool connection with the Lions is still going strong with Faletau and the Vunipola brothers in the touring party. Let us hope that there are no injury problems before the tour and the squad pull together and take it to the All Blacks. They will need a lot of skill plenty of good fortune if they are to prevail.

Congratulations to RGC 1404 for winning the WRU National Cup. This time last year RGC 1404 and Pontypool were locked in a battle for the last promotion place in the Premiership. It demonstrates once again what a good thing promotion/relegation is.

Have a great summer all you Pooler fans.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Pooler Find Bed Uncomfortable

For those of us who were looking forward to a warm, relaxing, spring afternoon, Pontypool’s visit to Bedlinog was a disappointment. There was a keen breeze blowing down the valley which made a warm coat a necessity. The pitch nestled in the valley alongside the river and was dry and firm to say the least with grass in short supply. This was Pooler’s last game of a glorious season and, with a number of familiar faces missing from the starting line-up, you felt that this was going to be a tough encounter against Championship newcomers Bedlinog who occupied a mid-table position.

Pontypool kicked off playing down the valley with the stiff breeze at their backs and immediately went on the attack. Unfortunately they turned over possession when pressing hard and the home side booted the ball up the field. I think the referee was the only person who was convinced that Walker, the Bedlinog wing, had won the chase and touched down in the corner. The conversion failed and the home side had an early lead at 5-0.
Pontypool responded by camping out in the Bedlinog half but were frustrated by a committed defence. Finally, after a quickly taken tapped penalty, Gibson was put clear to cross in the left corner and open the away side’s account and bring the scores level at 5-5. Pontypool continued to attack and gradually built up the lead that you thought would be essential when they turned around to face the elements in the second half. A smartly taken dropped goal by Meek was supplemented by two penalties for Pooler to lead 5-14 after half an hour.
As the first half was coming to an end, the away side were penalised and Bedlinog spurned a relatively easy shot at goal to kick for the corner. This turned out to be a wise decision as, after a series of powerful forward drives, Huish forced his way over near the posts. The successful conversion meant that Pooler’s lead had been trimmed dramatically to 12-14. In the final moments of the half Morgan the Bedlinog flanker was sin-binned for foul play and you felt that this could influence the outcome of a closely contested match.
Pontypool started the second half purposefully and looked as if they really meant to capitalise on their extra man. They were awarded a penalty and opted for a lineout near the Bedlinog line. After a number of forward drives the referee decided that the home side had illegally prevented a try from being scored and awarded Pooler a penalty try. This was just the start that Pontypool wanted – not only had they opened up a 12-21 lead but also the Bedlinog number 8 Murphy had been yellow carded.
This proved to be the turning point in the game and not long after Thorley managed to finish off a good attack by diving over in the left corner and gave Pontypool breathing space with a 12-26 lead.
Bedlinog were far from finished and were given fresh impetus when Meek was yellow carded for a high tackle. They attacked strongly but were thwarted by a Pontypool defence that was not about to let the match slip. A try from the home side at this stage would certainly have made things interesting.
As the match approached full time, the introduction of Matthew Jones proved decisive. His deft kick ahead was gathered by Thorley who fed the supporting Watkins who in turn passed to Sparks who crossed to put the result of the match beyond doubt. Though the conversion failed, Pooler had secured a bonus point and an unassailable lead at 12-31. The match finished with Pontypool attacking strongly but they could not add to their tally.

This was a tough outing for Pontypool who did well to pull off a victory against strong opposition. It brings a marvellous campaign to an end and hearty congratulations to all at the club for making this such a memorable season. Of the many high points, I think the one that will live longest in my memory was that stunning victory in Cardiff Arms Park.
Sadly at the end of all that effort there is not a crock of gold. There is no promotion to the Premiership and Pontypool will have to keep doing what they have done this campaign for another two seasons. I am sure they are more than capable of doing just that but it does seem more than a little unfair.

Judgement Day didn’t really turn out as most people expected. In the first match, a strangely muted Ospreys team was soundly beaten by a fired up Cardiff Blues. In the other match, what was meant to be a try fest for the Scarlets against the Dragons was anything but that with the Scarlets grateful for a narrow victory. So it’s not all about West Wales after all!

Attention now turns to the Lions and the names of those selected for the ultimate honour. I am certainly not going to make any predictions about the make-up of the squad but whoever puts on the famous red jersey let’s get right behind them and see if we can turn over the mighty All Blacks.

Well done Pooler, see you next season.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Champagne Rugby

There was a festive air about Pontypool Park on Saturday. Pontypool were playing their last home game of a mighty successful season. The previous week they had secured the Welsh Championship title and nothing was going to rain on their parade. The Park was bathed in glorious sunshine as young and old enjoyed the party atmosphere. Tata Steel RFC were the visitors and had every intention of being party poopers if they could. For a large part of the season they had been Pooler’s nearest challengers but their challenge had fallen away over the last month or so.

Pontypool kicked off playing down the slope and soon showed that they meant business. They scored three tries within the first quarter of an hour – a powerful burst by Davies, Brooks showing his pace to win the chase from a kick ahead and Watkins from a driving lineout. With two successful conversions from Jones, a 19-0 lead had been opened up before Tata could draw breath.
Pontypool failed to secure the ball from the kick off after their third try and Tata showed that they were not there just to make up the numbers with a well taken try by Davies which was converted by Owen (19-7).
This, however, did not sow the seeds of a comeback as Pooler took complete control in the second quarter with the backs looking like they could score at will. Pooler recorded four more tries through Kent, Thorley, Brooks and Gullis with two successful conversions to make the score at half time an incredible 43-7. The visitors seemingly had no answer to the power and pace of the Pooler machine.
What happened in the second half was bizarre to say the least. Pooler emerged from the changing room looking like they had eaten a nice lunch accompanied by a glass of a robust red wine. Tata Steel came out looking like they had been fed raw meat and were on a mission to salvage their wounded pride. It took the visitors a few minutes to realise that Pooler were having a siesta and then they mounted a fantastic assault. The home defence obligingly opened like the Red Sea for Moses and Tata took full toll. In no time they ran in five tries as their lively backs discovered their mojo. Fortunately for Pooler, Tata’s goal kicking did not match their running and only one of the tries was converted. Nevertheless a seemingly impregnable lead had disappeared before the home team’s very eyes. Tata had amazingly closed the gap to 43-34 and we had barely reached the final quarter of the match.
Pooler’s answer was to empty the substitute’s bench and, once the fresh personnel had got up to speed, the home side regained a grip on a match that was careering out of their grasp. A brace of tries from Thorley settled Pontypool’s nerves and made the scoreboard look a little bit more comfortable at 55-34. Pooler were still pressing hard as a breath-taking game came to a close.

After the game, Pontypool were presented with the cup for winning the Championship by Gareth Davies from the WRU. There was the obligatory champagne shower for those who got too close. I had forgotten how nice it is when your team wins something!

As we celebrated Pooler’s brilliant achievement, I couldn’t help looking back to another sunny day in April the previous season. That time we had little to celebrate when RGC 1404 had beaten us and ultimately scuppered our chances of promotion to the Premiership. Pontypool have done incredibly well to bounce back from that heartbreak and have played some great rugby this season. All this would not be possible but for the support of Peter and Ben Jeffreys and all our other sponsors who have stood by our great club – a big thank you to them all.

The season is not over for Pontypool. Next Saturday they travel to Bedlinog for the final match of the season. Bedlinog have secured their Championship status for next season but will still want to put one over on the champs if they can. I don’t expect another try fest that is for sure.

Our near neighbours Newbridge have a tough challenge on their hands - if they are to avoid relegation they need to get some points out of a visit to second placed Narberth . I wish them all the best.

Well done to all at Pooler you have made an old man very happy! 

     A champagne moment

I get to grips with the cup

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Pooler Clinch the Championship

Pontypool needed to get rid of the pangs of disappointment from the rather chastening defeat at Cardiff Met. University the previous week. The day’s opponents were Glamorgan Wanderers who visited Pontypool Park needing a victory to lift themselves out of the relegation dogfight that has developed in the bottom half of the Championship. At the other end of the table, Pooler knew that any kind of win would secure the Championship with a couple of games to spare.

Heavy overnight rain and some sharp showers during the day had left the playing surface damp and slippery. Mercifully it wasn’t actually raining when the Wanderers kicked off playing down the slope. Pontypool started brightly enough and it looked like the Wanderers were going to have a tough afternoon as the home pack drove remorselessly forward. Rusby Davies soon powered over for a try which went unconverted but Pontypool were on their way (5-0) – or so we thought.
The next half an hour contained some pretty turgid stuff with Pooler unable to make any impression on Glamorgan Wanderers or the scoreboard. The tricky playing conditions and the referee’s obsession with getting each scrum exactly right certainly didn’t help. The away side snuffed out any momentum that Pooler developed by competing strongly at the breakdown and it looked like a stalemate was developing.
As halftime approached, Pooler at last created an overlap in the Wanderers twenty two only for Rudd to deliberately knock on what could have been the scoring pass. Rudd got a deserved yellow card and Pooler kicked for the corner. From the lineout, the home side drover over with Parry claiming the touchdown. The conversion failed but Pontypool had doubled their lead (10-0). And that was basically it for the first half –certainly not very inspiring and the visitors still in touching distance.
The second half started with Pooler conceding a string of penalties mainly for offences at the breakdown. This obviously gave the Wanderers the initiative and their confidence began to grow. Indeed it was only a strong defensive effort from the home side that kept them out. The supporters on the Bank began to shuffle uncomfortably as they could see a tense finish developing.
Both sides fought hard to gain control and the match became ever more scrappy. Early in the third quarter, the Wanderers ended the stalemate with a penalty from Fish which put them within a score at 10-3.   Fortunately for Pooler, the Wanderers conceded a penalty from the kick off and Jones was able to do the necessary and re-establish the ten point lead at 13-3. This was quickly followed by another penalty by Jones (16-3) and we could all breathe a little easier.
Pontypool were in control for the last ten minutes of the match and, in the last minute, Callum Davies reacted quickest when the ball shot out of a scrum near the Wanderers line to touch down for a try. The conversion was successful and the final score of 23-3 rather flattered the home side.

The result means that Pontypool cannot be caught at the top of the Championship so take the title with two games to spare. A brilliant achievement - cue the champagne!
This was a pretty low quality game but the ends justify the means as far as Pontypool are concerned. Hopefully they will now be able to play with more freedom and enjoy themselves in the last two fixtures.

The current Championship table certainly makes good reading but you can see how tight it is at the bottom for the second relegation spot.

Team P W D L For Agnst BPts Pts
1 Pontypool 20 19 0 1 719 233 12 88
2 Narberth 20 16 0 4 602 308 12 76
3 Beddau 22 14 0 8 535 397 14 70
4 Tata Steel 20 13 0 7 516 370 12 64
5 Newcastle Emlyn 20 9 1 10 350 468 9 47
6 Glynneath 21 10 0 11 331 453 4 44
7 Cardiff Met 21 9 0 12 355 548 5 41
8 Glamorgan Wand 21 7 1 13 392 440 11 41
9 Skewen 21 8 1 12 303 400 6 40
10 Bedlinog 20 7 1 12 346 392 9 39
11 Newbridge 20 7 0 13 310 492 7 35
12 Dunvant 20 2 0 18 403 661 8 16

I did watch some of the European rugby on the TV and Leinster and Munster certainly look very impressive. With, either Clermont or Toulon, and probably Saracens, the semi-finals of the Champions Cup look pretty tasty. I did see the second half of Gloucester versus the Blues in the Challenge Cup and the Blues seemed to throw away a promising position with some pretty basic errors. Let’s hope the Ospreys can fly the Welsh flag and avoid a semi-final Wexit.

Pontypool play Tata Steel next week at the Park. Tata were their nearest rivals for a long period of the season but seem to have fallen away a little bit. Let’s hope we can have a competitive and entertaining game next Saturday – with pooler coming out on top.

Congratulations Pooler, you have done us proud this season.