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!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Pooler Power On

Sadly I didn’t make it to Newcastle Emlyn for Pontypool’s latest game. As usual, I regretted it as soon as it was too late to jump in the car and spent match time surrounded by tablets and phones as I tried to keep up with what was going on down West. In the end it was a comfortable victory for Pooler with the final score 10-62 with nine tries scored. This leaves Pontypool firmly entrenched at the top of the Championship with an unblemished record of ten straight wins and a lead of fifteen points over nearest rivals Narberth as the first “season” ends. It will not be until December 9th that they take the field in earnest again which is frustrating, to say the least, as they are certainly building up a head of steam.  The season 2019-20 still seems a long way off and the opportunity for Pontypool to hopefully regain Premiership status. Maintaining the current momentum will be challenging for sure.

As I kept up with the Pontypool score, I idly flicked between the Barbarians v New Zealand and Leicester v Gloucester games. The Barbarians resembled a NZ fourth team with a few added extras while the NZ team was certainly not at full strength. It was entertaining enough and it gives you an insight into the strength in depth of New Zealand rugby. There seems to be a never-ending conveyor belt of big athletic units just waiting for their opportunity to break into the first team. The Leicester v Gloucester match was in the Anglo-Welsh Cup with very much second teams taking the field. It was good to see Ross Moriarty playing again and looking fit. Hopefully he will be firing for the Six Nations. At the end of the season he will of course face the agonising decision of whether to return to Wales to play regional rugby or not be eligible to play for Wales again. Nose, face and spite spring to mind.

Next Saturday Wales take on Australia in the first match of the Autumn Series. I would expect few surprises from number one to ten with Shingler getting the nod at six rather than Lydiate. In the backs Jon Davies and Liam Williams are certainties with Steff Evans probably given his chance on the wing. I would then add Patchell at twelve and Hallam Amos on the wing moving Williams to fullback. Halfpenny and Priestland/Williams on the bench. Of course I will be hopelessly wrong but at least I had a go.

I have certainly enjoyed the first half of the Championship campaign thanks to Pontypool’s high octane rugby. Well done boys. Let’s hope it keeps going and we have a decent run in the Cup to boot.

Come on Pooler and come on Wales!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Autumn Frolics

Blessed relief, the sun was shining at Pontypool Park on Saturday. Although there was a stiff breeze blowing down the valley it was but a zephyr compared with the howling gale at Port Talbot the previous week. Pontypool were entertaining Cardiff Met University who were the only team to lower Pooler’s colours in the Championship last season. Both teams were not at full strength- Cardiff Met opting to prioritise inter-university rugby while Pontypool used the opportunity to give squad players a run out.

Pontypool played up the slope and against the breeze in the first half and needed to stamp their authority on the game from the off. This they duly did by monopolising possession and putting the students under extreme pressure. It took a while to break the Cardiff Met defence but the first try came when Thorley was first to a kick ahead that bounced invitingly over the try line in the right hand corner (5-0). A few minutes later, a trademark driving lineout saw Jeune score a try that was converted by Meek (12-0). Towards the end of the first quarter Robinson scored the home side’s third as the Pooler pressure continued. With the conversion, Pontypool had opened up a 19-0 lead and the game seemed to be effectively over.
Cardiff Met didn’t believe that and, after being awarded a series of penalties that took them deep into the home twenty two, Howard crossed for a try that was converted to close the gap to 19-7. It was clear that Pontypool were well on top in the forward exchanges and the students were in for a difficult afternoon. Two more lineouts near the Cardiff Met resulted in two more driving mauls and two more tries for Jeune one of which was converted. This gave Jeune his hat trick and delivered Pooler’s bonus point as a one-sided half drew to a close with the score 31-7.
If last week’s clash with Tata Steel had been full on and red blooded this was far more anaemic and with Pooler playing with the wind and down the slope in the second half a cricket score was in prospect.
Cardiff Met had clearly decided that to use their backs to run at Pontypool at every opportunity was the only way for them to play in the second half. There followed a period where Pontypool used the wind to kick the ball into the Cardiff Met twenty two and the students duly ran it back with gusto. As they reached the Pontypool half, stern defence resulted in a turnover and Pooler kicked the ball back down the field and the process started again. The students were playing high risk rugby and eventually this led to an interception by Molson who was tackled just short of the try line. He did manage to offload the ball to the supporting Gullis who scored the try (36-7).
A few minutes later another Cardiff Met attack broke down and this time Molson took full advantage as he sprinted thirty metres or so to score (41-7). The game was littered with handling errors as both teams threw the ball about as if it was a hot potato. It took a short range plunge over the try line from home prop Bale to re-establish normality (48-7).
In the final quarter it was all Pontypool and they scored three more tries in a period of just over five minutes. One from Thomas when he ran a lovely line to split the students’ defence and this was sandwiched by tries by Thorley and Meek who successfully chased kicks ahead. Two were converted by Meek which took the score to 67-7.
The students continued to run everything and they were rewarded with a consolation try by Keane which was converted (67-14). Pontypool had the last laugh, however, when Herbert crossed for a try in the last play of the game. Meek’s conversion gave a final score of 74-14.

This was a very frenetic game of rugby with Pontypool always in the driving seat. At times it resembled what we used to call “Barbarians’ rugby” and it was certainly a relief after last week’s nerve-tingling encounter. Pooler continue to carry all before them in the Championship and now take their unbeaten record to Newcastle Emlyn next week.

I watched the Ospreys v Dragons game on the TV on Friday night. It was a curious affair with the Osprey’s virtually monopolising possession and territory. A combination of the Ospreys’ toothless attack and the Dragons’ strong defence meant that the scoreboard didn’t really reflect that dominance for much of the game. Indeed when the Dragons were able to attack they looked far more potent with Amos looking particularly lively. Still the Dragons failed to get an away win in the league for the umpteenth time but they do seem to be improving week by week under the new regime.

The Welsh Squad announcement brought many talking points but the one that I find most strange is the omission of Thomas Young who is playing out of his skin week in week out in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Who am I to second guess Warren Gatland and in fairness Sam Cross did look very good in his first ever game of professional rugby but still…..

With the Autumn Internationals looming, we enter a fallow period in the Championship. Almost farcically, after the trip to Newcastle Emlyn next weekend, Pooler’s next league match is not until December 9th. It will be almost like starting a new season but at least there will be plenty of time to do the Xmas shopping.

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Strife of Brian

As we motored down the M4 towards Port Talbot being battered by storm Brian, we could have easily been forgiven for thinking that no one in their right mind would play (or watch) rugby in the prevailing conditions. Strong winds and teeming rain did not make our trip to watch Pontypool play Tata Steel a particularly attractive prospect. But we are hardy souls and we pressed on regardless.

When we arrived, it was clear that the game was going to go ahead although there was not the usual enthusiasm from the players to get out on to the pitch for their warm-up. Despite the dismal weather, the pitch looked in good condition and the players were just going to have to find a way to combat the elements. This was going to be a classic “wind game” with the wind howling down the pitch bringing with it a faint whiff of sulphur from the coke ovens of Margam Works. Playing against the wind in the first half, it was all about keeping the opposition out and trying to sneak a few points. Playing with the wind you needed to build a substantial lead in order to hold off the expected onslaught in the second half. This was a 15-20 point wind in our estimation and Pooler were playing with the wind in the first half so they had some work to do.

The first quarter of hour of play almost exclusively took place inside the home twenty two. Pontypool pressed hard but the home defence was tough and restricted the visitors to just two penalties by Jones (0-6). From the kick off after the second penalty, Pooler failed to secure the ball and ended up giving away a penalty and the big boot of Bradley managed to propel the ball successfully over the bar (3-6).
A few minutes later, Watkins, the lively Tata scrum half, scooted away from a lineout and found his team mates in support for flanker Lewis to cross under the posts. Bradley took the conversion rather too close to the posts and Pontypool managed to charge it down. This was not going to plan with Pooler losing 8-6 even though they were playing with the elements.
Pooler had twenty minutes to build a lead and they went about their task with gusto. The forwards were on top in the scrums and put together some impressive driving lineouts as they went in search of points. After a strong forward surge, scrum half Quick darted over for a try. This was converted by Jones to put Pooler back into the lead (8-13).
Tata were proving hard to break down and made things difficult by slowing down Pooler’s ball at the rucks. Eventually they transgressed once too often and they were reduced to fourteen men by a yellow card. As the first half came to a close, the Pooler scrum were heading for a pushover try when the scrum disintegrated. The referee had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try (8-20). Half time followed shortly afterwards and we doubted whether a twelve point lead was enough as the wind and rain continued unabated.
The second half was pretty similar to the first but this time it was Tata camped in the Pooler twenty two as they tried to close the gap in the scores. Pontypool held on grimly for the first quarter with their defence scrambling to keep out the powerful surges of the home team. The one area that the away side had a distinct edge was in the scrum and a number of penalties awarded against Tata gave the occasional chance for a relieving kick.
Pontypool held Tata out for twenty minutes or so but then Nash was sin binned for a high tackle. This gave the Tata pack numerical supremacy and they capitalised on it when Llewellyn barged over for a try. The successful conversion from Bradley put the home side in touching distance at 15-20. Things were looking distinctly ominous for Pontypool but they continued to defend as if their lives depended upon it.  Things got even more precarious when Bradley closed the gap to just two points with ten minutes left when he blasted over a penalty from well inside the Tata half (18-20).
Pontypool were restored to their full complement when Nash returned and a series of substitutions brought some much needed fresh legs on to the field. The Pontypool scrum took charge and gained a series of penalties which allowed Pontypool to work their way into the home twenty two for the first time in the second half and also wind down the clock. As the final whistle went, Pooler were just short of the Tata line. The Pooler fans sigh of relief was almost as strong as the wind. Final score 18-20. That charged down conversion proved vital in the end!

This was by far Pooler’s most difficult encounter of the season and to come out of it with a victory speaks volumes for the courage and commitment of the team. It was certainly not a day for attractive running rugby but one for dogged forward effort in attack and defence. Well done Pooler!

I did watch a bit of European rugby on the TV and sadly both the Scarlets and Ospreys lost in the Champions Cup and may well be heading for a Wexit at the group stage. The Scarlets were undone by Bath’s superior game plan in awful conditions with the Bath forwards and half backs controlling the game in the second half. Ospreys really gave the mighty Saracens a fright or two in a pulsating game which saw them come away with two bonus points – maybe they have turned the corner after a poor start to the season. We are at that stage of the Challenge Cup when no one knows which teams are taking it seriously. Still there were good away wins for Dragons and Blues to boost their hopes of progressing.

I also watched the Australia v All Blacks test on Saturday morning. Worryingly for Wales’ prospects in the Autumn Series, both sides look to be playing a far superior brand of rugby to that we have been seeing in Wales so far this season.  We have such a small pool of international class players that you wonder at any measures that are introduced which weaken the coaching team’s hand it terms of selection. I didn’t much care for Gatland’s law and I am not sure that the latest idea is going to do us (and especially Rhys Webb) any favours either. Of course, as most things in life these days, it is all about money and we in Wales just haven’t got enough of it to compete with the deep pockets in England and France. It’s easy to criticise but I don’t know what the answer is to make the underperforming regions competitive. Stifling the development of young players by stopping them playing in a more competitive and higher standard of rugby may not be it though.

Next Saturday Pontypool entertain Cardiff Met University at the Park. Let us hope that we can steer clear of storm Brian’s children and have a more entertaining and less harrowing encounter.

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Pooler Light the Afterburners

Pontypool were hoping to continue their winning run in the Championship when they took on Beddau at Pontypool Park on a dull but dry day. Beddau have always proved tough opposition particularly on their own patch and we looked forward to a competitive encounter.

Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and against a light breeze but made a sluggish start. Beddau seized the initiative and were soon in front through a penalty (0-3). As the home side struggled to find their rhythm, Beddau sensed that an upset was on the cards. They certainly looked the more likely to score the first try even though the Pooler defence was characteristically strong. As the game went into the second quarter, Beddau centre, Ashford, powered through the home defence to score near the posts and with the conversion things began to look ominous for Pontypool at 0-10.
Pooler needed to react and react they did a few minutes later. At last, a period of continuity with the ball being spread across the field by backs and forwards alike. It ended with a fine try when fullback Davies took the scoring pass wide on the right. Jones converted and the scoreboard looked a whole lot better at 7-10. The game was now evenly poised but there were signs that Pooler were just beginning to get the better of their opponents in the forward exchanges. As the half drew to a close, Nash powered over after a strong forward drive and Pontypool took the lead at 12-10.
One suspected that a few words of homespun advice were offered in the home changing room at half time as Pontypool started really strongly after the interval. Beddau managed to keep them out for five minutes or so but then followed one of the most breath-taking fifteen minutes of rugby that I have seen Pontypool play. It was if someone had lit the blue touch-paper on a firework. The Pontypool backs lit the afterburners and cut loose. Jones threw well-timed and accurate passes to get the three-quarters moving and fullback Davies provided the penetration with his well-timed interventions. It was Davies who opened the flood gates as he popped in support of Prothero in the left corner (17-10). Then came a candidate for try of the season as Meek, Jones and Davies combined for wing Thomas to score (24-10). Not to be outdone, the forwards got in the act when hooker Jeune picked a lovely angle to power over under the posts (31-10).
Before Beddau could get their breath back, Davies was at it again with a brilliant break that deserved a try. As he was tackled just short of the line, he popped up the ball for Jones who scored and then nailed the conversion (38-10). Moments later it was Gullis making a break and, despite the attentions of the Beddau defence, managed to stagger over the line for a try. This was converted by substitute Hancock (45-10). Pontypool had scored five tries and amassed 33 points in around fifteen minutes of high octane rugby and completely blown their dumbfounded opponents away.
Pontypool had made their substitutions and the game settled back into a more sedate pace as everyone on and off the field seemed to be stunned by what had just happened. Pontypool were still well on top but the team needed time to adjust to the fresh players. The truce did not last long though and Pooler were soon at it again piling on another three tries in the final ten minutes. A pushover try from Nash, a try by Meek following a break by Prothero and the final try coming from substitute scrum half Luckwell. All three were converted moving the score on to 66-10.
As the game came to an end, there was time for Beddau to get a consolation try as Francis took a quick tap penalty and scuttled over with the Pooler team looking on. Final score 66-17.

Well what can you say after a game like that? The Pooler “purple patch” was just incredible with the backs showing what a dangerous outfit they can be. Davies at fullback was outstanding but he was well supported by his team mates with Thomas on the wing showing bags of potential. Fantastic!

I did watch South Africa v New Zealand when I got home from the match and you have to say the Springboks were a little unlucky to lose. As I wrote last week, Wales are going to have a tough autumn even if they are going to come up again second or third choice players from the Southern Hemisphere. With the exodus of our best players from the Welsh regions, it will be interesting to see whether Gatland’s Law survives. Next week will show just how competitive the regions are (or aren’t) as they take on top flight opposition in the European cups.

For Pontypool there will be the visit of Skewen to the Park. Let’s hope we can reach the dizzy heights of Saturday again.

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Case for the Defence

I had returned from my holidays to find Pontypool sitting proudly at the top of the Championship having won all of their first four games of the season. In my absence, they had recorded a narrow victory at Trebanos (24-27) and followed it up with convincing wins against Glynneath (47-19) and Bedlinog (24-55). The match on offer was expected to be a stern test with the visitors, Narberth, one of the stronger outfits in the league. I was interested to see how the team had evolved in my absence.

It was a grey day with rain never far away in Pontypool and the pitch looked green and lush as we took up our positions on the Bank with our umbrellas at the ready. Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and it was Narberth who seized the early initiative with a bright start. The home defence, however, looked solid as a rock and despite an early substitution due to an injury to Willliams rebuffed all attempts by Narberth to make meaningful inroads.
Pooler started to turn the screw in attack but found the spirited Narberth defence equally tough to penetrate. As the end of the first quarter approached, Pontypool broke the deadlock with a well-taken penalty by Jones (3-0). This seemed to be a turning point as the second quarter was very much dominated by the home side. Their defence suffocated Narberth and the attack began to find chinks in the Narberth armour. After half an hour, Meek crossed for a try after strong work by the Pooler pack which, with the conversion, opened up a 10-0 lead. The closing minutes of the half saw two more tries as Pontypool took control of the match. The first wide out by Prothero following the charge-down of an attempted clearance kick and the second by Parry from a driving lineout close to the Narberth line. The latter try was converted which gave Pontypool a substantial lead at the interval (22-0).
The second half opened with Narberth attacking strongly but there did not seem to be any way past the impressive and aggressive home defence. Pontypool looked a more potent attacking force but despite creating a number of chances it took a quarter of an hour before they scored their fourth try and secured a bonus point. The try came from another driving lineout near the Narberth line with this time the substitute hooker Jeune being the beneficiary. The conversion sailed over and Pooler were home and dry at 29-0.
The rest of the game was dominated by the defences with neither side able to make any impact on the scoreboard. Pontypool created the better chances but their handling let them down at critical moments. Pooler seemed intent on preventing Narberth from scoring any points and their defence was as committed at the end of the match as it was at the beginning. The final score was a resounding 29-0 victory for the home side.

This was a strong performance by Pontypool against a team that will surely be in the top three or four in the league at the end of the season. Indeed, Pooler must feel that they could have scored a further three or more tries if they had been more accurate. The well-organised defence was the bedrock of the victory and amply demonstrates the collective desire of the team to succeed. They have now opened up a significant gap at the top of the Championship with every other team having lost at least twice in the first five matches. Next week sees Beddau visiting Pontypool Park. They have proved tough opposition in the past so Pooler will have to be on their mettle if they are to keep the winning streak going.

I did watch a bit of rugby on the TV and enjoyed the frenetic Scarlets v Connaught match with Steff Evans surely pushing himself forward for a berth on the wing for Wales. The Ospreys had problems with big cats in South Africa in more ways than one while the Dragons managed a solid win in poor conditions against the hapless Southern Kings. At least the pitch at Rodney Parade seems to have improved compared with last season!
When I say a bit of rugby I realise I also watched the second half of the pulsating draw between South Africa v Australia – that is actually quite a lot of rugby.  Well I had been away for three weekends! Wales have lined up South Africa, Australia and the All Blacks for the Autumn series. From what I have seen this weekend, a win against any of these teams is going to be against the odds.

Still we have Beddau to think about. Come on Pooler!