Sunday, 1 January 2017

Bah Humbug!

A barren period over the festive break for Pooler fans as there was no match after the Newbridge fixture on the 17th of December. Perhaps it is my age, but I get little joy out of going out in the cold to watch some other person’s favourite team play somebody else’s favourite team. So I tend to take to the couch and watch miscellaneous matches on the TV – at least you can flick to another channel if it becomes too much like hard work. It is probably just as well that Pontypool didn’t play as if they had played, say, a couple of matches there would only have been five league games left for the remaining four months of the season. As it is, there are only seven to look forward to. Let’s hope we can do a job on Llanelli and have a bit of cup rugby to supplement our meagre diet. The bad news for me is that I am going away for a couple of weeks and will miss three, yes three, of those precious seven matches. Aargh! Championship rugby has become a rare resource indeed.

Meanwhile on the couch I did watch quite a lot of the Welsh Regions battling it out in the much trumpeted local derbys. Rugby was a pretty rare resource in all four matches too as the Regions seemed to have adopted the style of the national team in the autumn internationals. Plenty of endeavour but skill levels lacking for large swathes of the time. Yes of course there were some bright spots and if you packaged a twenty minute combined highlights from the four matches it might look good but overall it was pretty disappointing stuff. The kicking duels in the Dragons v. Ospreys with crowd chanting “Ole” put the tin hat on a dismal series of matches. If the other games were turkeys then this was the parson’s nose. East Wales definitely came off second best overall with Ospreys the pick of the four regions in an eminently forgettable quartet.

As you can gather, these matches didn’t really make sparkling entertainment so quite a lot of channel hopping was the order of the day. Rugby from England and Ireland looked to be a couple of notches up in terms of skill and speed of thought and deed. Rugby in Wales is definitely seems to be drifting inexorably off the Northern Hemisphere pace let alone the Southern Hemisphere pace. I did watch a bit of Pontypridd v. Cross Keys in the Premiership and that was quite impressive at times so perhaps it is not all bad – clutching at straws here. Perhaps the plastic pitch at Sardis Road helped to make it a more open game. It must have been a lot easier to play on than the mud flats of Rodney Parade yesterday.

I just reread this and it is quite a depressing way to start the New Year. On a positive note Pontypool are sitting at the top of the Championship with an unbeaten record and have been playing some good rugby. Long may that continue.

Wishing all in Pontypool and beyond a successful and peaceful 2017.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Scrum All Ye Faithful

Over the years, the local derbys between Pontypool and near neighbours Newbridge have produced some memorable clashes. On Saturday Pontypool took their unbeaten record to the Welfare Ground with another tough outing anticipated. It was a dull, grey, still afternoon and a good crowd had assembled hoping for some tasty Xmas fare. The pitch looked a bit like a Xmas pudding anyway!

Newbridge made a hash of the kick off and from the ensuing scrum their pack was pushed back yards. It was clear that the Newbridge scrum was going to face a searching examination for the remainder of the match. This was the dominant feature of the first half with the scrum proving an invaluable source of possession and penalties for the away side.
Even though they frequently had excellent field position, Pooler found it difficult to put points on the board. The referee’s whistle regularly punctuated the first half as a series of handling errors and transgressions made any kind of continuity difficult to achieve. By half time Pontypool had only managed to build a 3-13 lead despite occupying the Newbridge half for virtually the whole forty minutes. The one Pontypool try came when the lively Coundley who was on hand to take a pass from Jones after the outside half had beaten a couple of men. The remaining points came from three penalties - two for Pontypool and one for Newbridge. By half time both sides had also been reduced to fourteen men by yellow cards with Davies for Pooler and, ex Pontypool prop, Edwards for Newbridge in the sin bin.
Newbridge did have a few attacks early in the second half but the match soon resumed the pattern of the first half with Pontypool dominating proceedings. After about ten minutes, Pontypool won a lineout close to the Newbridge line and at last got the driving lineout drill to work with Coundley getting over the line for his second try. The conversion made the score 3-20 and it seemed unlikely that the home side had the wherewithal to mount a comeback. Their cause was made even more forlorn when Edwards had the briefest of cameos on his return to the field which was brought to an end by a second yellow card for an offence at a ruck.
Pontypool were now in complete command and it was time for the backs to take a hand. Good handling put Meek in for an unconverted try (3-25) and shortly afterwards the ball was spread wide for Usher to outflank the defence and score in the corner. Again the try went unconverted but Pooler had secured the bonus point and a 3-30 lead.
The substitutions were coming thick and fast for both teams and it was good to see Clayton Gullis return to action for Pontypool after a long layoff due to injury. As full time approached, Pontypool scored their fifth try when Usher was again put into space and scored near the posts. With the successful conversion this made the score 3-37.
To their credit Newbridge had never given up and in injury time they made a rare incursion into the Pontypool twenty two. Nash was yellow carded for offending at a ruck and from the penalty Newbridge hooker Vokes barged over for a consolation try which was converted from near the touchline (10-37).
There was still time for East from Pooler to be yellow carded for obstruction and for Meek to end proceedings with a penalty to make the final score 10-40.

In the end this was a convincing win for Pontypool but they had to work hard for it against stubborn opposition. The powerful scrum was the key to the victory and was a source of plentiful possession. I guess that there will be a measure of frustration about not being able to score a few more points in the first half but I think even the most ardent Pontypool fan would have taken a 10-40 victory at Newbridge if it had been offered to them before the kick off.

This brings down the curtain on 2016 for Pontypool.  The year started so promisingly with Pontypool sitting in a promotion place near the top of the Championship. Unfortunately things did not work out but the squad has done fantastically well to bounce back from just missing out on promotion and reel off fifteen straight victories this season. Well done everyone.

Here’s wishing everyone a Merry Xmas and a Successful New Year.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Half That Time Forgot

A dark, miserable, wet afternoon at Pontypool Park still has the edge over Xmas shopping. This marked my return to the fold after international and domestic duties and I was looking forward to a fierce encounter with Beddau who were sitting comfortably in the top half of the Championship table.

Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and it was clear right from the start that the horrible conditions were going to have a huge impact on the quality of rugby produced. The slippery ball and the muddy pitch meant the error count was bound to be high. Pooler looked to have the edge in the early encounters but found it frustratingly difficult to hang on to the ball. After about ten minutes though, they delighted the home crowd by scoring an excellent try after gaining possession near their own twenty two. With handling that belied the conditions, Usher was put in space. As the defence closed in on Usher, the ever alert Nash was by his side to take the scoring pass and gallop over near the posts The successful conversion gave Pontypool a 7-0 lead.
The game reverted to an arm wrestle as both sides struggled to control possession. Eventually the Pontypool backs managed to put a series of passes together to contrive another excellent try for Robinson. The conversion extended the home side’s lead to 14-0.
As half time approached, the Pontypool scrum began to gain ascendancy and after a series of scrums near the Beddau line they were awarded a penalty try. This gave Pontypool a comfortable 21-0 lead as the teams gratefully retreated to the changing rooms for the half time break.
The second half was like going back in time as the two muddied and almost indistinguishable sides slugged it out. The Beddau team had clearly decided that, by fair means or foul, they were not going to let Pontypool dominate them. Pontypool for their part were certainly not going to take a backward step. This led to a very bad tempered battle with outbreaks of fisticuffs quite common as the two packs locked horns. Remarkably there was only one yellow card shown and that to Nash despite a high penalty count. The rain continued to fall and the pitch got muddier and muddier - it really was attritional stuff. There was little rugby of note as, whenever either side got into a promising situation, the ball was invariably spilled. To make matters worse, Pontypool were yet again denied the use of their powerful scrummaging as injuries to the Beddau front row resulted in uncontested scrums. No surprise then that the second half was scoreless. The final score for the record was 21-0.
Despite the frustration of not securing a bonus point, I think everyone was glad when the referee’s final whistle brought proceedings to an end – I certainly was.
This was a tough energy- sapping encounter that Pontypool thoroughly deserved to win on the basis of their first half performance. Beddau proved to be challenging opponents who never gave up and tested the home side to the full. For Pooler this is the thirteenth straight win and consolidates their position at the top of the Championship. After the disappointment of last season this is a terrific performance.

The only other rugby I watched was Northampton v. Leinster on Friday night on the TV.  Leinster were excellent and good value for their convincing victory. England captain, Hartley, was again in trouble and his red card must surely mean that he is no longer a candidate for the Lions’ captaincy.
Recent results seem to indicate a major resurgence in Irish rugby with the provinces and national team recording some pretty impressive victories. England will certainly have their hands full when the go to Dublin for what promises to be the Six Nations showdown. I wish I could say the same for Welsh rugby but it appears that we have a lot of ground to make up. There were good wins for the Blues and the Ospreys in the second tier European competition but this is not a particularly demanding yardstick as many teams do not field full strength sides.

Next weekend Pontypool make the short trip to Newbridge for a local derby. Despite the relative positions in the Championship, we can expect a tough encounter I am sure. It has rarely been any different.
Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Watching and Waiting

I woke up on Saturday morning with a sore throat and headache and feeling pretty average. This won’t do, I thought, I’ve got to go to Narberth to watch Pontypool. By some perverse logic, I crawled out of bed and went for a swim and sauna thinking it might do me good. By the time I got back home, I felt considerably worse. My normal companions had all cried off, would I be able to do the trip on my own? I had interrogated Google and discovered that the drive would take one hour and forty six minutes each way. Quite a long time if you are not feeling up to scratch. I feverishly studied the possibility of a train but it was not really practical. What was I going to do? Whilst agonising, I took some Lemsip and made my way to the couch.
I must have dropped off as I woke up with a start and saw that in was 12.40 pm but I was feeling substantially better. My phone pinged and it was a tweet wishing Pooler all the best. I can still do this, I thought, and leapt to my feet. No time for any lunch just grab your coat and go. I felt quite lightheaded but I was sure that was because I got up too quickly. The doorbell rang, it was a delivery from Amazon and then the phone rang. Time ticked away inexorably. I am ashamed to admit that I decided not to make the journey to Narberth. “Call yourself a fan”, I hear you say.
It was evident that I had to pay a penance for my misdemeanour and that would be to watch England on the TV. I have to admit I was more interested in the tweets coming in from Narberth describing, what was clearly, a close-fought, high-octane match. I quite enjoyed the first quarter of the England match as the Australians were all over them and really should have built a substantial lead. They didn’t and gave away a gift try to England and were only 10-13 up at half time. Meanwhile in Narberth, a last minute charged down kick and try gave Narberth a 10-6 half time lead over Pooler.
In Twickenham, the England team must have been administered some magic potion as they were unrecognisable from the first half. They proceeded to dismantle Australia and my interest began to wane. What was happening in Narberth, and even what was happening in the snooker, were much more important.
The game at Narberth was clearly a cracker and I heartily wished I was there as it was pure agony waiting for the tweets to come in. The lead changed hands twice but, thanks to tries from Rusby-Davies and Usher, Pooler just managed to squeeze home 13-18. It sounded like a great advertisement for the Championship with the top two teams going at it hammer and tongs. A brilliant result for Pontypool who open up a twelve point lead at the top of the league with their twelfth straight win. Well done Pooler. I collapsed in a heap on the couch.

By the way I think England won 37-21 or something. Maybe it will be in the papers this morning. Seriously though, England will take some beating this season. They have managed to get their ducks in a row and with their enormous resources have to be strong favourites for the Six Nations Championship - particularly with the new bonus points system. Even with their huge player base, they still feel the need to enlist any suitable itinerant talent from across the world that ends up in English club rugby to bolster the squad.
It will be extra shifts in the MBE factory unless someone can find the will and the way to stop them carrying all before them. Having watched Wales in the Autumn Series I can’t think it will be them – but of course you never know. Far more likely, it will be the Irish at the Aviva Stadium who do us all a favour. England have the blue jerseys at home so cannot really see any joy there. Soon there will be talk of an England “Engexit” in order to play in the Southern Hemisphere as there is no competition in Europe.

That is very much in the future and it is club rugby that matters in the present. Next Saturday Pontypool entertain Beddau who proved tough and resourceful opponents earlier in the season. I must be there!

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Winning Ways

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Wales Team Is Losing Its Way

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

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

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

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

Come on Wales and more importantly come on Pooler! 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Pooler March On While Wales Stutter

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

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

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

Well done Pooler.