Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Thin Red Line

Wales managed to cling on to a narrow 14-13 lead to defeat the French at Cardiff. This was hard work for both players and supporters alike as the French proved tough opponents. The much vaunted Welsh attacking prowess never really managed to crack a ferocious cast iron defence.
The Welsh try was a comedy of errors from a French perspective as they made a complete hash of a poor restart after they had taken an early lead with a dropped goal.  The ball bounced and then just about made the required ten metres before being gathered by Wales. An awkward bounce of the ball from a Welsh kick through then let Liam Williams in for a try in the corner. The French try was much more conventional with powerful carries creating an overlap for Fickou. With three penalties from Halfpenny, Wales held a narrow 14-10 lead at halftime with the French team looking the stronger.
In the second half, Wales were on the back foot most of the time but a tenacious defence just about managed to keep the French at bay. Wales for the most part seemed to be overpowered by the French in the forwards although they always had the colossus that was Alun Wyn Jones to rally around. The French did squander a few chances to take the lead but it was remarkable that Wales restricted them to just three points in the second half. You could not help feeling that if the French got their noses in front there was no way back for Wales. The atmosphere in the ground reflected the balance of play with the French fans making far more noise than their Welsh counterparts. We were all mighty glad to hear the final whistle after a fantastic lineout steal by Shingler had enabled Wales to kick the ball high into the stand.

The victory meant that Wales claimed second place in the Six Nations’ Championship which no one really expected before the tournament started. Ireland were run away champions and their victory at Twickenham showed them to be worthy winners of the title and their third Grand Slam.

The defeat by Ireland left England languishing in fifth place and Eddie Jones with egg on his face. I guess that England will just have to hire another half dozen coaches as the ones they’ve got have too many irretrievable breakdowns. We had “Warren ball” and now we have “Eddie no ball”.

Scotland snatched a last gasp victory in Rome against the luckless Italians and took third place in the championship. You really do feel sorry for the Italians who have played some great rugby at times. Of course you never want your side to be the one that loses to them, but it would be all right if someone else did. I take my hat off to Parisse who has given his all to Italian rugby and has now suffered the ignominy of his one hundredth defeat in an Italian jersey. What a player!

The WRU seem on the verge of yet another restructuring of the Premiership. This time shrinking it back to twelve from sixteen clubs. I seem to remember this happening before with Pontypool on the receiving end of the axe. Having decided on twelve, the WRU then did a U turn and increased the number to fourteen (no room for Pooler though). Some time later, fourteen was considered too few so they went back up to the current sixteen. You have to wonder whether anyone actually knows what they are trying to do.
By my reckoning, the season lasts from September to April which is eight months so around thirty four weeks. If the league has twelve teams, that is twenty two fixture on a home and away basis. Doing the arithmetic that leaves twelve weeks without a league match. Of course there could be the occasional cup game but inevitably to someone has to invent some extraordinary play off arrangement to pad out the season. Eleven home games surely cannot be enough to sustain a club at this level. It certainly is not enough to satisfy my appetite as a supporter.
The next thread to the restructuring seems to be for the regions to have under-23 teams who will search out fixtures in the UK and Ireland. Is this going to be yet more rugby along the M4 rather than elsewhere in Wales? Does anyone have an appetite for watching this? Why don't Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport and Swansea just morph into the under-23s? Ask a consultant I suppose.
Of course we all want Welsh rugby to be successful but it would be good to have a plan and then stick to it for a significant time period rather than chopping and changing all the time. I have no confidence that this restructuring will not follow all the others into the waste paper basket and then be recycled a few years down the line.

Sadly there is yet more snow and, with the long awaited cup quarter final for Pontypool at Merthyr fast approaching, I really hope it is not adversely affected. Let us hope our very own “Beast from the East” can give a good account of themselves against the “Ironmen” on Tuesday evening. 

Come on Pooler!

Monday, 12 March 2018

Wales Sweep Aside the Blues

Wales brought the Six Nations’ weekend to a close with a 38-14 bonus point victory over Italy at the Principality Stadium. It was a strange sort of game with the result never really in doubt after Wales scored two tries through Parkes and North in the opening minutes. They then let Italy back into the game for long periods with a rather listless, disjointed display symptomatic maybe of the ten changes that they had made to the team.
In Minozzi, their full back, Italy have uncovered a gem and he has sparkled throughout the championship. He made Liam Williams look a bit foolish when he jinked his way past him for an Italian try. I am not sure if the incidents are related but Williams was later yellow carded for a reckless high tackle on the self-same Minozzi behind the Italian goal line.
Wales were shorthanded for 20 minutes of the second half when Gareth Davies also received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on. Despite this, they ran in another three tries with Hill, North and Tipuric crossing the whitewash. Italy did manage a second try but really they were always going to finish a distant second.
Wales have now moved up to second place in the Championship and Gatland has silenced his critics who were not wholly impressed by the sweeping changes that he made. It certainly was not a vintage performance by Wales against a mediocre Italian team who with their limited resources find five tough games in such a short period a daunting prospect.

Did we learn anything? The front five performed adequately, the back row were busy and skilful but we lacked a ball carrier, Anscombe and Watkin are sound, North seems to have regained his appetite (in a Welsh jersey anyway) and Liam Williams looks out of sorts with Halfpenny looking sharper when he came on. I think we probably knew all that anyway. Still, we have rested a few players who should be raring to go for the French game and have won comfortably. That is not to be sneezed at.

The interesting thing is who will play fly half against France and who will play in the back row? The first choice front row and Alun Wyn Jones must surely return but will Shingler and Navidi be brought back to play alongside Faletau. The French have formidable ball carriers so we need to counter that so is Moriarty a possible starter? Did Tipuric or Davies do enough to keep their shirts? It would be tough on Shingler and Navidi if they missed out as there were both impressive against England and Ireland.
In the backs we must have a top line goal kicker and I think Halfpenny looks the man to play at fullback. Scott Williams returns and North and Evans have done enough to keep their places but who will be in No. 10? I suspect it might be Dan Biggar but who knows?
Why am I even bothering to think about it anyway? – all will be revealed on Tuesday.

Saturday, 10 March 2018


This is certainly a big rugby weekend with all sorts of goodies on the menu. You could say that we were spoilt for choice on the Saturday afternoon but really there was only one place to be at 2.30 pm and that was Pontypool Park. The pitch had just about survived the ravages of the weather and Pooler were taking on the second placed team in the Championship Tata Steel.

Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and against a breeze on a muddy, energy-sapping pitch. This was going to be a tough shift for the players that was for sure. With so little rugby since Xmas, unsurprisingly Pooler made a sluggish start and for the first ten minutes were confined to their own half as Tata Steel used the elements wisely. Tata found it difficult to keep hold of the ball and although they pressed hard could not break through the home defence. Against the run of play after around ten minutes, Pontypool opened the scoring with a penalty from Matthew Jones when their pursuit of a speculative kick ahead was obstructed.
Gradually Pontypool got up to grips with the challenging conditions. The slippery surface and the wet ball meant a high error count for both teams but Pontypool seemed the more likely to score. Towards the end of the first quarter, Tata lost possession in their own twenty two and Meek toe-poked the ball forward and won the chase to the line to bag the game’s first try. The try was unconverted but Pooler were now 8-0 in the lead.
Tata Steel were proving worthy opponents and a few minutes later hit back in style. A driving maul from a lineout on the Pontypool twenty two proved unstoppable and nearly demolished the posts too. It was reminiscent of the Pooler of old and drew gasps of admiration from the Bank. The conversion was a formality and the away side were back in the hunt at 8-7.
This stung Pooler into action and they took charge of the match in the last ten minutes of the first half. First, another handling error by Tata was severely punished when after some smart interplay with Robinson, Attwell crossed for a converted try (15-7). Then, a few minutes later, Prothero was tackled just short of the line after being put in the clear. He popped the ball up for Matthew Jones to score the try which went unconverted. This left Pontypool with a healthy 20-7 lead at half time.
The second half turned out to be more of the same. The conditions made things difficult, that was for sure, and it took you back to the muddy encounters of yesteryear as the two sides slugged it out. The difference between the two sides was that Pontypool made less mistakes and took their chances and in Matthew Jones they had a player who could control the game.
After about ten minutes of the half, Pooler gained the try bonus point when Gullis ran a great supporting line to breach the Tata defence. With the well-judged conversion from Jones, Pooler were well clear at 27-7. Five minutes later, Gullis was again on the scoresheet when he popped in support of an arcing run by Prothero. Another excellent conversion added to Tata’s misery as the lead grew to 34-7.
There was the usual period of stalemate as the replacements tried to find their feet on the tricky surface. This was attritional stuff that was for sure. You really wouldn’t want to be the person charged with washing the kit after the match.
As the game entered its final knockings, Pontypool produced the best try of the match. Owen Williams made a great break from the home twenty two and found Luckwell in support. Luckwell found Attwell steaming up on a brilliant angle. Attwell shot through the defence to score from thirty metres out. The conversion pushed Pooler over forty points at 41-7.
Tata Steel somehow found the energy and desire to attack strongly in the dying minutes of the game and were rewarded with a try by Davies which was converted by Bricknell to make the final score 41-14.

This makes Pooler’s league record for the season sixteen wins out of sixteen starts. With a 27 point lead over Narberth, and only six games remaining, one more victory will give Pontypool an unassailable lead. The next league game will be at Cardiff Met who were the only team to beat Pontypool last season in the Championship. That makes for an interesting encounter that is for sure.
In the meantime, there is the small matter of the trip to Merthyr for the postponed quarter final cup match on the 20th March. This will really be a challenge but one I am sure Pooler will relish. A packed house, under floodlights now that really does take you back!

I guess a lot of us would like to go back to those halcyon days with fifty odd games a season and a fixture list packed with local derbies and matches against top class English opposition. That I am afraid is never going to happen although the WRU governance structure still seems to reflect those times. It does need to change to recognise the current era and it is sad to note that this seems to be too difficult for them to take on board even though at grass roots level it is supported. When it comes to changing league structures, the WRU seems to make decisions at a rate that makes Donald Trump look pedestrian and with about as much forethought. Why then can’t they address the governance structure with similar alacrity?

I got home in time to watch the France v. England game. Whilst the game was close and therefore exciting, I thought that the actual standard of rugby was pretty mediocre. England, for all the chat of Eddie Jones, have been hugely disappointing this season and could quite easily end up losing three games. When you consider the resources at their disposal, it really is a pretty poor return. When you also add the lacklustre performance of the English clubs in Europe it must be quite worrying for all concerned. Oh dear what a pity, never mind!

The English defeat makes Ireland champions with a game to spare and a visit to HQ with the Grand Slam and Triple Crown up for grabs. So far, they are the only side to win an away match against sides other than Italy and in that respect they deserve to be champions. Their win against France in Paris required them to play their “get out of jail card” and on such fine margins the championship hangs. If only Anscombe’s pass had not been intercepted in Dublin and if only the TMO at Twickenham had got it right……dream on!

This afternoon I am off to Cardiff to watch a rather revolutionary Welsh team take on Italy. Let’s hope it comes off.

Come on Wales and come on Pooler!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Snow Joke

Sadly due to the snow the Merthyr v. Pontypool cup game was postponed. In fact there was not much rugby being played at all. I was even denied the prospect witnessing the Dragons’ defeat in South Africa by the TV schedules.

Years ago we used to call Gloucester “the poor man’s Pontypool” - with tongue firmly pressed in cheek of course. This is certainly no longer the case even in fun. They managed to clear the Kingsholm pitch for their match against Newcastle so at least there was some rugby to watch on the TV. It turned out to be a close game with Gloucester losing their unbeaten home record by the narrowest of margins 20-21. They did score four tries and if they had kicked just one of six attempts on goal they would have won.

As I sat on the couch with muscles aching from the morning’s snow clearing effort, I thought about the current situation in the Six Nations. Sadly I started to come up with a list of songs to sum up each team’s progress to date. I didn’t spend a lot of time on it as you can probably tell and I am sure it could be bettered quite easily.

Ireland – “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
England – “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Rolling Stones
Scotland – “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed
Wales – “Keep on Running” by the Spencer Davis Group
France – “Heroes and Villains” by the Beachboys
Italy – “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics

Hopefully the snow will have disappeared by next weekend so I can get my mind back on the things that matter most. Firstly, at Pontypool Park on Saturday, Pooler are due to play Tata Steel for the third time this season. Whilst Pooler have won both previous encounters, this will not be easy with Tata Steel lying in second place in the table.
Then on Sunday Wales take on Italy at the Principality Stadium. After two narrow defeats in England and Ireland they need a decent win to bolster confidence. I cannot imagine there will be many changes but Faletau and North will be pushing for inclusion in the starting line-up.
It has to be a better weekend than the current one that is for sure.

Come on Pooler and come on Wales!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Irish Eyes Are Smiling

We took our place in the ubiquitous Irish bar in the Costa del Sol with some trepidation as Wales and Ireland were about to lock horns in Dublin. We formed a Welsh enclave of two in the crowded bar.
Our trepidation proved well-founded as the Irish looked determined to grind the Welsh into the dust with their brand of power rugby. Wales barely touched the ball in the first half which was accurately reflected in all the statistics but the score. Wales seemed to be able to glean points whenever they ventured into Irish territory while Ireland with the boot of Sexton strangely errant let a lot of points go begging. Wales even managed to build a bit of lead at 8-13 but that was wiped out by an Irish try just before half a time which gave the home side the edge at 15-13.
Wales were still in it and surely had to give a better account of themselves in the second half did not they? Sadly the second half started with more of the same with the Irish driving into Wales as if their lives depended on it. They were irrepressible and before we knew it Wales had conceded another two tries and were fourteen points in arrears. 
An Irish bar was not the ideal place to be at this point. We shrank into our corner shaking our heads sadly and taking solace in another pint. Only two attempts to draw, I thought optimistically, as the alcohol coursed through my veins.
Substitutions were made by both teams and things began to change. Wales finally got some ball and began to show just how dangerous they could be. Shingler scored in the corner and with Halfpenny's conversion it was 27-20 and game on. Momentum was suddenly with Wales and a remarkable turnaround was still possible. 
The Irish contingent in the bar went silent and there was a mass crossing of fingers and gulping of Guinness. Then disaster for Wales as they conceded to penalty at a scrum. Murray's drunken looking kick hit a post and went over 30-20.
The Irish were cock-a-hoop and smiling again. Wales were not finished, however, and fractured the Irish defense for Evans to score a great try. Halfpenny duly converted and Wales were within three at 30-27 and still a couple of minutes left. 
It was still on for Wales with the home side looking jittery. Wales attacked strongly and created the overlap they craved. Stockdale the Irish wing gambled on the intercept and his gamble paid off as Anscombe's pass went straight into his arms with two Welshmen waiting for the ball outside him. The rest is history as they say. Stockdale galloped in for try and the gallant Welsh bid for victory was foiled by the narrowest of margins. Cue for more drink! 
The rugby was not over though. The English arrived in the bar in droves and the Celts combined behind Scotland. The atmosphere became more raucous as there were fairly equal numbers of supporters for each team and the effect of alcohol weaved its magic. Scotland were brilliant and made England look slow of thought and deed in recording to deserved victory. It did not make up for the Welsh defeat but it certainly cheered us up. The Irish were happy, as if they can pull off a decent victory against Scoltland, the championship is virtually theirs. They need to be wary of the Scots though!
After every Welsh defeat there is a post mortem and in the cold light of day we know that Wales were distinctly second best for virtually the whole game. We simply could not contain the Irish power game. Although our set piece was generally sound the Irish ball carriers made big inroads into our defence. The Irish dominated possession and even though our attack looked pretty potent they simply did not get enough ball until it was almost too late. There must be a case for Faletau to return if fit. Liam Williams did not have the expected impact and North did enough to warrant inclusion against Italy.
Next week is the big one! Pooler make the trip to Merthyr. I guess they will be the underdogs but can certainly cause a major upset if they play their best rugby. I am certainly looking forward to a close encounter of the hard kind.
Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Pooler Take Their Chances

This was a rare event indeed – an opportunity to watch Pontypool play a match in the Championship in 2018. “Gather ye rosebuds” and all that and so we trundled down to Beddau to see the action. Beddau invariably give a warm welcome to their visitors both on and off the field and this was no exception. The weather was mercifully dry and the pitch although a little muddy was in good condition for an open game. The game that followed was quite strange in the way that the final score did not really reflect the balance of play on the field at all.

In the first half Beddau dominated possession and to a large extent territory but could not breach the strong Pontypool defence. What little possession Pooler had they either conceded an early penalty for being off their feet at the ruck or were content to kick downfield to the home back three. But Pontypool knew how to take their chances and this was where the big difference between the two sides lay.
The first score of the match came after about ten minutes when the Beddau defence made a horrendous hash of fielding a speculative kick down field by Pontypool. The ball went loose and Mahoney gratefully grabbed it to score near the posts. Meek converted and Pooler had established a 0-7 lead against the run of play.
Beddau continued to be the aggressor and, after half an hour or so, looked to be about to score as they pressed strongly near the Pontypool line. Owen Williams made a timely interception and just about had the legs to run virtually the length of the pitch and win the race to the Beddau line. The try was again converted by Meek and Pooler had doubled their lead to 0-14.
To make matters worse for Beddau, a tremendous long distance driving maul by the Pontypool pack led to a penalty try being awarded in injury time. This left Pontypool with a 0-21 lead at the interval and Beddau short of a prop due to a yellow card.
After about five minutes of the second half, Pontypool finally put together an excellent piece of sustained attack. Forwards and backs combined well to put Owen Williams in for his second try in the corner. The try was unconverted but Pooler had built a formidable lead at 0-26 and had gained the try bonus point.
Beddau continued to attack at every opportunity but their moves seemed to break down at the critical moment as they foundered on the rock of the Pooler defence. Half way through the second half, there was another interception, this time by Sparks, that put paid to another promising attack. The Pooler number eight showed a clean pair of heels to the home backs and scored in the corner (0-31).
There followed the usual raft of substitutions and, despite a yellow card for Ball, Pontypool finished the stronger. With the final play of the game, the Pontypool pack drove hard at the Beddau line and Atwell scored their sixth try of the afternoon. Matthew Jones, who had come on a substitute, added a fine conversion lo make the final score 0-38.

As I wrote earlier, the score line really was rather flattering for Pontypool and Beddau certainly did not deserve to leave the field scoreless. The game is about taking your chances though and that was Pontypool did and the home team failed to do. So Pontypool’s unbeaten league record remains intact and now stands at fifteen out of fifteen this season. They are now seventeen points clear at the top with games in hand on the pursuing pack led by Tata Steel.
In two weeks’ time, Pontypool face by far their biggest challenge of the season when they travel to Merthyr to take on the Premiership league leaders in the National Cup quarter final. I am sure Pooler will give a good account of themselves and no doubt the Pooler Army will be out in force for what promises to be a great occasion.

Next week, Wales cross the Irish Sea to take on the Irish in Dublin. This will be no place for the faint hearted and Wales will need to be at their very best to withstand a very confident and powerful Irish outfit. They certainly need to have the resources to cope with a barrage of pinpoint kicks from Murray and Sexton. With this in mind, I would like to see Halfpenny, Liam Williams and North restored to the side to make a solid back three. I also think I would start with Patchell at outside half even though Anscombe performed pretty impressively at Twickenham.

Come on Pooler and come on Wales!

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Chariot Limps Home

The Six Nations Championship moved on to “le crunch” for Wales as the French would have it. A trip to HQ at Twickenham is never easy but with the rain coming down it was going to be doubly difficult for Wales to derail the English chariot.

I took my place on the couch and was soon squirming as England’s kicking game combined with some ferocious forward drives made it look like they were going to dispatch the Welsh quite comfortably. How we missed Halfpenny’s defensive nous as a brilliant kick from Farrell found acres of space and allowed May to cross virtually unopposed. I had turned the sound down and was heading behind the couch as May scored his second after a powerful set of phases from the English pack. It was 12-0 and, even though I am not a lip reader, I could tell that “Swing Low” was blaring out. Oh dear, oh dear. To make matters worse Wales were making Mike Brown look a world beater with their ineffective kicking.
It had to get better for Wales and it did. A few kickable (for a Halfpenny) penalty chances went begging and then Wales seemed to have scored a try when Anscombe won the race to touch down a loose ball over the English line. Sadly the TMO was the only person who thought it wasn’t a try and his was the opinion that counted – bah! Wales did however gather three points from the original penalty. Wales kept England out for the rest of the half and at 12-3 were still in touch at the interval.
Wales did play much better in the second half and as they exerted pressure England began to look more and more fallible. Wales did everything they could to close the gap. Scott Williams was stopped in the act of scoring by a brilliant tackle by Underhill and the support did not quite arrive in time to turn Shingler’s stunning break into a try. As it turned out, the only points scored in the second half were from an Anscombe penalty which made the final score 12-6 to England. Sadly for the Welsh there had been no Wembley moment. The combined English sigh of relief could be heard in Pontypool.

I thought the Welsh pack went very well looking comfortable in the set piece and even managing to snaffle the ball in an English lineout or two. The English forwards did look powerful in their driving play but the Welsh defended stoutly. A couple of dropped balls apart, the Welsh pack carried strongly particularly in the second half as the English began to wilt. The Welsh half backs were put under a lot of pressure and found it tough going especially in the first half. Maybe those nasty comments from Uncle Eddie did have an effect. When Anscombe moved to outside half things improved and he had his most influential spell for Wales. In the backs, defences were on top with few opportunities created by either side as the conditions were far from ideal for attacking rugby. Farrell looked the class act on the field with his tactical awareness shining out in the gloom. Wales did look vulnerable under the high ball and missed the expertise of Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Biggar in this crucial area. They can expect many more high balls from Murray and Sexton in Dublin in a couple of weeks’ time.

If this had been a Champions Cup match, Wales would have been delighted to come away from Twickenham with a losing bonus point. They would have felt that they would be able to catch up in the corresponding home fixture. It is, however, one of the quirks of the Six Nations that the teams only play once and the split of home and away fixtures often determines the champions. Perhaps they should tot up the points after two seasons.

The Irish were far too strong for the Italians in Dublin and looked far more like their formidable selves than they had in Paris last weekend. Wales can expect another torrid encounter when they cross the Irish Sea.

Sadly Pontypool’s friendly against Maesteg Celtic had to be called off yesterday due to the weather but hopefully they will be in action next weekend when they are due to visit Beddau. This has always proved to be a tough fixture and Pooler will have to be on their mettle.

Hard luck Wales and come on Pooler!