Saturday, 15 October 2016

Pontypool Rumble On

A grey autumnal day in Pontypool Park greeted Skewen RFC for their Championship match. This was going to be a tough challenge for the West Walians as Pontypool have made a commanding start of the season with six straight victories. For Pooler, it was all about maintaining their momentum as they continue in their quest to win the league.
The trees around the Park provided a stunning backdrop with the leaves showing their autumn tints as Skewen kicked off playing down the slope. Pontypool made a tremendous start and soon had the visitors under pressure. The power and pace of their attacks stunned Skewen and within the first fifteen minutes Pooler had scored two converted tries to lead 14-0. The first came after some excellent approach play had led to a scrum five metres from the visitors’ line. Quick sniped after Sparks had made ground to score near the posts. The second followed a break by Hancock that resulted in Kent crossing the whitewash for the second time in two weeks.
As the finally gained some possession, Skewen did manage to get a foothold in the match and showed that they had strong ball carriers to go with a resolute defence. Pontypool, however, were in no mood to give away any tries and thundered into the tackles thwarting most of the attacks on the gain line.  Skewen did manage to get on the scoreboard through a penalty when Pontypool gave away a penalty at a scrum (14-3) after fifteen minutes spent almost exclusively in the home half.
The driven lineout has become a weapon of choice for Pontypool and a reliable source of points. They turned to it to reassert their authority and from a lineout close to the Skewen line, Nash scored after a textbook drive. The try went unconverted but Pooler held a solid 19-3 lead at the interval.
The heavens opened during half time and the rest of the match was affected by heavy rain which rather dampened both teams’ attempts at attacking rugby. Pooler set off in pursuit of the bonus point try but there followed a scrappy period of play with neither side able to make much headway against well organised defences. After about a quarter of an hour of frustration, Pontypool won a lineout just inside the Skewen 22. The lineout was won and the forwards drove fully twenty metres for Smith to score the try. The successful conversion gave Pooler a comfortable 26-3 lead.
Both sides made a series of substitutions in the third quarter and Skewen continued to frustrate the home side with good defensive work at the breakdown. For their part, Pooler continued to tackle fiercely with Tu’ipulotu to the fore and, hard as they tried, Skewen were prevented from scoring a try. It was one such Tu’ipulotu tackle that resulted in the ball coming loose near the halfway line. Thorley scooped up the ball and outpaced the cover defence to score near the posts (33-3).
Pontypool continued to attack but the combination of the dogged Skewen defence and the slippery ball proved too difficult to overcome and the score remained 33-3 at the final whistle.

Although the match did not really have the tension of the match against Tata Steel last week, make no mistake this was a tough encounter. Skewen never gave up and certainly provided a stern challenge. Pontypool were always in charge, however, and produced a workmanlike performance to deliver a bonus point win. Their lineout drive has become a potent weapon and takes us old codgers back to the days of the rolling maul with Bobby Windsor at its heart.

Talking of the past, it was great to see that Pontypool feature prominently on the new Lions’ website. It is almost forty years ago but it brings a tear to the eye to remember those heady days when Pooler were the best and most consistent team in the UK and provided a string of players for Wales and the Lions. It seems pretty unlikely that we will ever see that again but you can still dream!

Wonder of wonders, the Welsh Regions had a great start to the European rugby competitions. All four Regions recorded good victories – admittedly only the Scarlets in the Champions Cup. Let’s hope that they continue with the good work and avoid a Wexit at the pool stages.

Next up for Pontypool is a first visit by Gwent rivals Bedlinog. Their victory over Tata Steel yesterday shows that they certainly cannot be taken lightly. We have now completed almost a third of the Championship matches with Pontypool sitting proudly at the top of the table with a ten point lead. Long may it continue!

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Pontypool Show Their Mettle

Two unbeaten records were on the line when the top two teams in the Championship clashed in Port Talbot. Tata Steel had started the season impressively and were sure to provide Pontypool’s sternest test of the season so far. A decent crowd had gathered and there was a roar of from the Eastern Valley faithful as the teams took to the field. Everyone knew that this was going to be one of the biggest games of the season. Conditions were perfect for rugby with a dry pitch and little wind for the players to contend with.
Pontypool started the stronger and really pressed hard in the opening ten minutes. Unfortunately, for all the pressure they exerted, they came away pointless. A combination of indiscipline from the away side coupled with some over-zealous refereeing led to a string of penalties being awarded and meant that Pooler’s early control of the match was wrested away from them. As Tata gained territory, the penalties became kickable and the home side took a 6-0 lead. Pooler did manage to respond with a penalty from Jones to close the gap to 6-3.
It was a fiercely contested game and the two sides were quite evenly matched at this stage with Tata giving the Pontypool plenty to think about at the scrum and at the breakdown. Hurley was rather harshly yellow carded for what looked like a fifty-fifty challenge in the air for a high ball and the away side were down to fourteen men. Worse was to follow when a Pontypool lineout close to their line went wrong and Hall gleefully gathered the loose ball to score the first try of the game. The successful conversion meant that Tata had opened up a substantial 13-3 lead.
It is at times like these that good sides respond although the odds are seemingly against them. Pooler responded brilliantly and took the game to Tata despite being short-handed. First Jones kicked a penalty and then, after a great drive from the forwards, the ball was moved out into the threequarters where a miss pass allowed Kent to gallop over for a try. The conversion from Jones tied the score up at 13-13 and Pooler were well and truly back in the match.
There was no further scoring before halftime and Pontypool must have felt mighty relieved to be on equal terms after a half that had been littered with penalties against them. It was going to take a big effort to overcome their opponents in the second half that was for sure.
Pontypool brought on the vastly experienced Nash as a replacement in the pack for the second half and started the stronger. They began to gain a measure of dominance in the scrum and Tata conceded penalties as a consequence. Jones converted two of them to ease the away side into a 13-19 lead.
Just as Pooler were beginning to assert a measure of control, a high tackle by Coundley led to a yellow card and they were reduced to fourteen men again. Tata yet again seized the opportunity and came back strongly with two penalties of their own to level the scores at 19-19. It was still anyone’s game as we went into the final quarter.
Tata were penalised and combative No8 Llewellyn yellow carded for an offence at a ruck on the Tata twenty two. Jones obliged with the kick to edge Pooler into a 19-22 lead. It was now Pooler’s chance to make numerical advantage pay and a powerful drive from a lineout close to the home line resulted in a try for Parry. Although the conversion went narrowly wide Pooler there was now daylight between the sides at 19-27. The away side continued to apply the pressure and a further penalty from Jones further increased the lead to 19-30.
The home side were far from finished and put together a storming finish which was given further impetus with Pooler’s third yellow card as a consequence of a deliberate knock-on by Kent. Pooler somehow managed to weather the storm despite Tata battering away at their line for the last five minutes or so. This prevented the home side gaining a losing bonus point which might turn out to be important in the latter stages of the season. Final score: Tata 19 Pontypool 30.

Make no mistake this was a really searching examination for Pontypool. Tata Steel were tough uncompromising opponents who never gave up. The turning point in the match was Pooler’s magnificent comeback in the last ten minutes of the first half when everything seemed to be against them. The whole team stood up to be counted and this will surely stand them in good stead as the season progresses. There were some great performances in the pack and with Matthew Jones controlling the game and kicking his goals this was an excellent win that takes Pontypool five points ahead at the top of the Championship.
There are still a few issues with discipline which need to be looked at with too many penalties and yellow cards. Not all the referees that we come across will have Nigel Owens’ sympathy for the game! I take my hat off to those who referee at this level. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it. Fortunately there are those who do and remember that without them we wouldn’t have a game.

I did watch Ospreys v Blues on the TV on Friday night and the Blues were brought well and truly down to earth. You have to be impressed with Sam Davies – there must surely be a place for him in the Welsh squad. At prop Arhip is a real handful – shame he’s not Welsh. I also saw the tail end of the Springboks v the All Blacks. There is no doubt that NZ are taking rugby to a new level and the rest of the world is some distance behind. The Lions are certainly going to find it very tough next summer.

For Pooler, next up is Skewen who visit Pontypool Park next Saturday. They have certainly made an encouraging start to their first season as Championship level winning three of their six matches to date.

Great win boys let’s keep it going. Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Pooler Power Home

I had been away for a couple of weeks and missed three Pooler games and was in urgent need of a fix. Fortunately it is not as bad as it seems as the excellent service provided by the tweeters and the facebookers enables you to stay in touch whether you are on the couch or in some far-flung part of the world. We were able to keep up to date by visiting the local Starbucks (free wi-fi) in the USA or Canada. Not quite like being at the ground but a decent substitute. Anyway I was delighted to learn of three excellent victories against Beddau (16-26), Newbridge (50-17) and Glynneath (10-33) which meant four wins out of four. A great start to the season.

The opponents for my re-initiation were Dunvant a club that we had crossed swords with many times in the past. Like Pooler they are trying to recapture their place in the Welsh pecking order. The morning had been punctuated by heavy showers so the first big decision was whether to risk standing on the Bank. The sky was blue with few dark clouds so we decided to risk it. Much is said about the trees in the fall in New England but the trees in autumn in Pontypool Park present as captivating sight as any in the world. Anyway enough of this - let’s get down to the rugby.

Dunvant had a rather splendid red and green kit which would not have looked out of place on Stade Francais. This meant that Pontypool sported their blue strip which is also rather fetching. Dunvant kicked off with Pooler playing up the slope in brilliant sunshine with the pitch in remarkably good condition. From the outset, Pooler looked the more powerful outfit and scored a great long range try almost the first time that they had decent possession. Robinson outpaced the Dunvant defence after good work by Jones and Usher. Further good tries were added by Usher and Hurley in the next ten minutes or so and at 19-0 it all looked pretty plain sailing for a home side that looked full of running.
As so often happens with such a good start. Pooler went off the boil a little and the second quarter became scrappy and littered with mistakes. Dunvant seized their opportunity to get back into the game and their backs showed a good turn of speed and eye for a gap to score two quick tries from Williams-Parry and Lewis to close the gap to 19-14.
Pontypool were stung into action and the forwards took control with Rusby-Davies scoring from a lineout drive to secure the bonus point and ease the home side into a 24-14 lead. Dunvant were not about to lie down and kicked a penalty just before half time to leave the score at 24-17 at the interval.
Pontypool had their game faces on when they returned to the field after some mentoring in the changing room. They certainly went up a gear or two and proceeded to dismantle Dunvant with a great second half display. They ran in no fewer than seven tries as Dunvant’s resistance faded – the tries came from Williams, Dyer, Harford, Robinson, Jones, Thorley and Meek. With five successful conversions, it meant they racked up forty five unanswered points to leave a final score of 69-17. It really was exhilarating stuff with backs and forwards combining effectively. Towards the end of the match the dark storm clouds reappeared and the rain pelted down and we were delighted when the referee called a halt a little early.

A fine second half performance form Pooler resulted in a convincing victory and must put them in good heart for next week’s tough challenge at unbeaten Tata Steel. The good thing is that there is still plenty of room for improvement with the team not always running like a well-oiled machine. The passing at times was a bit erratic which might have been more problematic against stronger opposition. The game was won in style and I went away feeling content with my fix - if a little damp. We even won the half time raffle so a really good day.

The great news in Pontypool now have a clear lead at the top of the Championship after gaining 24 of a possible 25 points on offer. Just behind are Tata Steel on 23 points so next week’s match in Port Talbot promises to be “le crunch” with two unbeaten records on the line. I can’t wait!

On Friday I spent the evening (much to the annoyance of Isobel) flicking furiously between the Ryder Cup, Northampton v Exeter and Dragons v Glasgow. What is really striking is the difference between the English Premier League and the Pro 12 in terms of atmosphere, quality of player, intensity and even the quality of television coverage. You guessed it - the English Premiership comes out on top and it really demonstrated the gulf between the two leagues. It is all about money unfortunately and it is hard to see how the gap will ever close. The good news for Wales was that George North looked in fine fettle and set the Northampton game alight with a super break as well as scoring a try. The Dragons had a good go at Glasgow but came up short and it looks like another tough season for them.

It’s great to be back and to see Pontypool playing so well. Good luck next week – come on Pooler!

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Pontypool Storm It

Pontypool Park in the early autumn is a beautiful place particularly when the sun shines. Unfortunately there was no evidence of the sun as the rugby season proper started for Pontypool RFC. The rain beat down relentlessly on the newly mown pitch with a severity ranging from a heavy drizzle to a torrential downpour.
With that warm feeling of optimism that you have at the start of every season, we took our places on the Bank during a period of drizzle firmly believing that the sky was lightening. Pooler were taking on the Otters of Narberth in the first match in the SWALEC Welsh Championship for 2016/17. There was much to look forward to with a raft of new faces in the home team.
Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and it proved difficult to concentrate on the rugby as most of the brave souls on the Bank were engrossed in trying to control their umbrellas in a gusty wind. In truth there was not a lot to miss in the opening minutes while we agonised whether to decamp to the shelter of the stand. After ten minutes or so, we did retreat to the stand when there seemed little prospect of the rain stopping. At least we had a taste of the difficult conditions the players were having to cope with and I didn’t envy them one bit.
The first quarter was eminently forgettable as both sides struggled to keep hold of the slippery ball and to get rid of the ring rustiness after the summer break. If anything, Narberth looked the more likely to score but even that was a pretty remote possibility. This was poor fare for the spectators and I found myself thinking that the goal posts could do with a coat of paint. Was this the rugby that I had been anticipating for four months? Not really!
Finally the deadlock was broken with a penalty by new player coach Matthew Jones. He and new fullback Meek had been doing some pretty astute tactical kicking seeking out mistakes from the Narberth backs which seemed to be the best tactic in the conditions. Such a kick from Jones led to a fumble from Narberth near their try line with Meek gleefully accepting the opportunity for the first try. The conversion failed narrowly but Pooler had slithered to an 8-0 lead and the crowd became much more animated.
Another great kick ahead, this time from Meek allowed Hurley to show his footballing skills to score in the corner. The try was again unconverted but with the score at 13-0 the home side were in the ascendancy. The scoring for the first half was completed by an exchange of penalty goals with the sides gratefully trudging off to the warmth of the changing rooms. The score line of 16-3 was possibly a little flattering but Pooler were beginning to show their worth as a team.
Narberth started the second half strongly - no doubt as a result of some well-chosen words during the interval. The exerted pressure on the home line and came away with a second penalty to close the gap to 16-6.
Slowly but surely the Pooler pack started to get on top and as a measure of their dominance Parry scored in a powerful concerted drive by the forwards from a lineout close to the Narberth. The lead was now 21-6 and it was difficult to see Narberth being able to find a way back into the game.
Pontypool went in search of the all-important try bonus point. An extra bonus point or two last season would have led to promotion in the final analysis so they were determined not to let the opportunity slip. As has now become the norm, fresh legs were brought on from both benches with the strength of the home squad becoming apparent with the replacements making considerable impact.
The fourth try came from a well-worked move from a scrum on the Narberth twenty two. Sparks picked up from the base of the scrum who passed to Quick who fed Busby-Davies who galloped over the line. The conversion was successful to the delight of the crowd and opened up a surely unassailable 28-6 lead.
Pontypool were by no means finished and they completed what had become a one-sided contest with tries from Hurley and Sparks, with the former being converted, to run out 40-6 winners at the final whistle.

Once the cobwebs have had been blown away, this was a very encouraging performance from Pontypool who showed all round strength in horrible conditions. In Jones and Meek they have two clever players who can control the game through their tactical kicking and the pack looks to have the potential to become a formidable unit. It was not really a day for running rugby so it was difficult to assess the potency of the backs in an attacking vein but I feel sure that they have plenty to offer. Injuries always play a critical part in the success of a team and Pooler certainly look to have a really strong squad. Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer and there is a stern test at Beddau to contend with next Saturday. The signs are encouraging though that is for sure.

As a supporter looking forward to the season, I do feel a little cheated by the limited amount of league rugby on offer this season. The reduction of the Championship to twelve teams does seem to be a regressive step. In fact by the end of October we will have played over 40% of our matches!  I remember the days when Pontypool played well over 40 games in a season. Sill I am sure, as always, the WRU knows best.

Well done Pooler I have almost forgotten about last season’s heartache – well not really, but a good win certainly helps!
Come on Pooler!

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Season’s Greetings

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

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

Good luck to squad and management alike.

Come on Pooler!   

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Out with a Whimper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on Wales

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Déjà Déjà Déjà Vu

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

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

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

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

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