Sunday, 19 February 2017

Vibrant Pooler Win Thriller

Cup games between Cardiff and Pontypool have a rich history with many epic encounters which more often and not have gone Cardiff’s way. So it was that the Pontypool faithful made their way to the Arms Park to witness what they hoped would be another classic encounter. The Cardiff officials seemed a little taken aback by the size of the Pooler Army and this led to a bit of frustration getting into the ground but all that was soon forgotten as we took our places.

Conditions were absolutely perfect with no wind and of course the artificial pitch. Cardiff must surely have started as favourites as they are in the Premiership with Pooler in the league below and of course their familiarity with the way the pitch plays.

Rather like in the previous round in Llanelli, the Premiership side started the stronger as Pontypool tried to acclimatise to the conditions. Cardiff deservedly got the first points on the board with two well-taken penalties by their lively outside half Thompson. The Pontypool tacklers started to get their range and seemed on intent on making the Cardiff attackers their traditional black and blue. There were some thunderous hits going in. Tu’ipulotu in particular was relishing the challenge and he intercepted a pass in a promising home attack and set Brookes scurrying under the posts. Pooler were up and running and with the successful conversion 6-7 in the lead.
Cardiff continued to attack with their pacey backs but Pontypool continued to rock them back with powerful defence. As Pontypool started to get more possession it was clear that their driving play was going to be very effective as they repeatedly crossed the gain line. Pontypool were awarded a penalty and Matthew Jones made no mistake 6-10.
Back came the home side with a series of strong thrusts. The Pontypool defence finally cracked and conceded a try near their posts. Cardiff were back in the lead at 13-10. Cardiff then increased their lead through another penalty to 16-10 after a rather harsh decision by the referee. This was turning out to be a tremendous match with Pooler’s power and commitment against the undoubted skill of the Cardiff backs. Does that sound familiar?
Pontypool worked their way into the Cardiff twenty two and their backs showed just what they could do with a perfectly executed strike move which put Hurley over for a try in the corner. A fantastic try coupled with a fantastic conversion put Pontypool back on top at 16-17.
In the sixth minute of injury time Cardiff were awarded yet another penalty and the sure footed Thompson converted to give the home side a narrow 19-17 lead after a tremendous first half battle. At that stage it was difficult to pick a winner and it promised to be an epic second half.
As you would expect, Cardiff were out of the blocks quickly in the second half and the Pontypool defence had it all to do to keep them out. But keep them out they did and what is more they broke out from their own twenty two and almost scored. There followed a period of concerted pressure from the away side and an excellent line break by Hurley was supported by substitute Gullis who crossed near the posts. With the conversion Pooler were back in the lead at 19-24.
Pontypool really had the bit between their teeth and tore into the Cardiff ranks as they sought to put the game to bed. Their pressure led to a further penalty 19-27 but this was quickly cancelled out by a penalty from the home side 22-27. Yet another penalty to the home side made it 25-27 and it was getting really tense.
The Pontypool supporters pumped up the volume as they tried to will their side home. Pooler responded with another powerful surge deep into home territory. Forwards and backs hurled themselves forward and it was almost inevitable that it was the redoubtable Nash that eventually crossed in the corner. Another fine conversion from Jones gave Pontypool breathing space at 25-34.
Pontypool continued to surge forward and under enormous pressure Cardiff conceded a penalty at a ruck and lost a man to the sin bin. Pontypool looked winners at 25-37 but there was no room for complacency as the Cardiff backs had looked more than capable of scoring a try or two. Strong defence led to another penalty for Pontypool which the ever reliable Jones slotted. The away side had a 15 point lead at 25-40 and were now more than two scores clear with time running out. Game over you would say.
Cardiff didn’t think it was game over, however, and put together a powerful set of phases and despite some strong defence deservedly scored their second try of the match near the posts. The gap had closed to 32-40 deep into injury time. Cardiff threw the ball about but Pooler were in no mood to let this one go. The away side forced Cardiff to concede yet another penalty with Jones yet again converting to bring a fantastic game to a close with a final score of 32-43.

What a brilliant game of rugby and what a brilliant performance by Pontypool. As at Llanelli, it was the complete team performance with everyone playing out of their skins against a good Cardiff side. If this is what rugby on an artificial pitch is like, let’s have more of it! A word for the travelling Pontypool support who outnumbered and out-shouted the home fans and really count as the sixteenth man. There is no mistaking the fact that Pontypool are a Premiership team in all but name and it is a real shame that they have no short term route to that exclusive club.

So Pontypool progress to the quarterfinals and I cannot think that any of the remaining teams will relish playing against them in this mood. Let us hope for a home draw this time so we can give our opponents a real Pooler welcome.
Fantastic win, congratulations to all at the club. You did us proud!

Come on Pooler!

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Wales Mugged by England

“Could have” and “should have” are the words that are ringing in a rather thick head this morning. In the end “didn’t” is the word that sums up the Wales loss to England yesterday.
I had turned up expecting England to win comfortably – perhaps I had been taken in by Eddie Trump’s rhetoric. As it turned out, it was far from comfortable for England who looked second best for most of the match. Unfortunately Wales seem to have lost the knack of scoring tries and this cost them as it did in the Rugby World Cup. In a way the game reminded me of Gibbs Day all those years ago in Wembley. That day it was England who could not build a big enough lead to secure victory. Yesterday it was Wales. Bah! It will take a while to get over this I think.

Next week we have another outing to Cardiff when Pontypool take on Cardiff RFC in the Cup. I am certainly looking forward to it as if Pooler play like they did at Llanelli they will provide a stern test for the city slickers.

Come on Pooler! 

Monday, 6 February 2017

The Grey Legion

I have just returned from a weekend in Rome centred around the Italy v. Wales match. The first thing that you notice is that the average age of the travelling Welsh supporters is much higher than for any of the other Six Nations away trips. It is clearly much favoured by "mature" couples who like to be able to combine the cultural experience that Rome has to offer with the rugby and of course the liquid and solid refreshments. Since I am firmly ensconced in the grey hair brigade (although having immature tendencies) it makes for a pleasant experience. For our part, we took in the Vatican on a comprehensive if rather exhausting three hour tour. It was really interesting and took us away from the six euro a pint temptation of the local bars for a while. Yes this can be a pretty expensive trip and particularly so with the current exchange rate. This probably goes a long way to explain why the demography is as it is.

This made me think about the average age of the regular supporters of Welsh club rugby and, although I have no facts, my observation would also be that the grey hair brigade are in the majority. This certainly seems to be the case at Pontypool where the same faces are recognisable year in and year out. If this is the case then this is a worrying trend as time will surely catch up with this stalwart band. This year I celebrate 50 years of watching the Pooler but I certainly hope to watch them for a while longer! The conundrum is how to attract a younger audience. Having a kids' rugby match as a curtain raiser for league games is a good initialtive.

So back to Rome and the match. The Italians to their credit had tried hard, and to a large extent, succeeded in generating a lively pre-match atmosphere in the area outside the stadium. There was a band and lots of food and drink outlets which was just as well as the stadium is some way out of the city. It is a pleasant way to while away an hour or so before the match - at least until the rain came.
Inside the stadium is was clear that ticket sales had not gone well with it only looking half full. This is a real shame as the Italian crowd can certainly generate plenty of noise. It probably doesn’t help when they have two home games in a week with the Irish on their way next weekend.
I am sure I don’t need to give you a match report but in summary the Italians were competitive in the first half when Wales continued to play the toothless rugby of the autumn. After the interval, the rain cleared and the Welsh thinking became less clouded and they ran out comfortable winners. They just fell agonisingly short of the bonus point at the death. Nevertheless an away win and we were able to tuck into our pasta in the evening with a smile on our faces.
I think everyone is clear that the Welsh will need to up their game several notches if they are to threaten England next Saturday. It is certainly a big ask and I don’t think that I will be investing what little of my money is left on a bet on a Welsh victory. I sincerely hope that Wales can pull something out of the hat and really set up a close Six Nations Championship.

I was absolutely delighted that Pontypool continued their brilliant winning run with a 17-40 victory at Skewen on Saturday. This maintained their commanding lead at the top of the Welsh Championship. Well done boys!

The Cup Draw has paired Pontypool with a familiar foe in Cardiff RFC which rekindles memories of some epic battles in the past. Of course Pooler will have the new experience of playing on a plastic pitch which will make things interesting. Over the years, Llanelli and Cardiff proved to be our Nemesis in the Cup and it would be absolutely fantastic if we could beat them both in one season! Certainly a major challenge but why not!
Come on Pooler!

Come on Wales!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Super Pooler Defy the Odds

Due to one thing another, it has been a while since I have seen the Pooler in action and I have been looking forward to Pontypool’s visit to Llanelli in the Swalec Cup ever since the draw was made. A cup encounter with Llanelli brings back many memories for us long-in-the-tooth supporters. Unfortunately none of the memories are particularly happy as Pooler have never managed to find a way past the cup specialists. Since my last post, Pooler had extended their unbeaten run to sixteen in the Championship with wins against Glynneath (34-13) and at Dunvant (10-34) so must have felt confident that an upset against their illustrious Premiership opponents was on the cards.
This was my first visit to Parc Y Scarlets and it is certainly pretty impressive. The contrast with the other venues that Pontypool have played at this season couldn’t be starker. In the convivial surroundings of the Quinnell Lounge it was immediately clear that the Pooler Army was out in force and would surely outnumber the home support.

When we took our seats, we were presented with the eerie spectacle of a virtually deserted ground. All the spectators were seated in the middle of one stand and the rest of the stadium was empty. You could not imagine that much home advantage was going to be gained from such an environment. Indeed most of the noise was coming from the vociferous Pooler fans with little to be seen or heard from the Llanelli faithful.
The first ten minutes or so gave Pooler a warm welcome to Premiership rugby as Llanelli moved the ball slickly left and right looking highly dangerous. The away defence stood firm, however, and knocked the Llanelli attackers back time after time eventually gaining relief by winning a penalty.
Now it was time for Pontypool to show what they could do - and how! Quick broke down the left touchline and after interpassing with Usher scored in the corner. Agonisingly Jones’ conversion hit the post and stayed out but Pooler were in the lead at 0-5. The Pooler fans roared their appreciation.
Pontypool really got to grips with the match with the pack gaining a level of ascendancy and the half backs controlling the game well.  The game ebbed and flowed but the away side struck again with a Jones penalty to make it 0-8. Pontypool looked the more likely to score and as half time approached had a series of scrums under the Llanelli posts. Unfortunately they were unable to capitalise on the excellent field position and the home side cleared their lines.
In injury time Llanelli were awarded a penalty which Williams converted to make the score at the interval 3-8. Still very much all to play for but Pontypool had given the home side ample warning that they were a force to be reckoned with.
Llanelli started the second half strongly and almost immediately closed the gap to 6-8 with a penalty. Pontypool responded powerfully but another promising position near the Llanelli failed to yield any points. Shortly afterwards an errant kick and a rare defensive lapse led to Williams scoring a try for Llanelli. Even though the conversion missed, the home side were in the lead for the first time at 11-8. How would Pooler respond to this setback?
The answer was with plenty of guts and no little skill. The arrears were soon cleared with another Jones penalty (11-11) and from then on it was all Pooler as they smelled victory. They played the best rugby of the match as they set off in search of a winning score. Substitute hooker Watkins scored a well-deserved try in the right corner after an excellent passage of play. The missed conversion left the score at 11-16 and those of us who bear the scars of previous encounters still worried that the home side might still find a moment of inspiration.
We needn’t have fretted. Pontypool retained control of the match and another penalty from Jones opened up an eight point gap at 11-19 and we were able to breathe a little easier. Far from sitting back, Pontypool continued to press until the final whistle.  The Pooler fans roared with delight - their team had achieved a famous victory.

When you calm down and think about the game you realise that this was a victory that Pontypool thoroughly deserved. The whole team played out of their skins and wanted to win more that bit more that their opponents. They were not to be denied. Hearty congratulations to all involved as this was truly a team effort. Let’s hope for a home draw in the next round.
Next weekend I make the trip to Rome for the Six Nations opener for Wales. It will be fascinating to see the side that is selected with, second row apart, plenty of conundrums to solve. Will the six day turnaround before the England game be taken into account I wonder? Wales certainly need a winning start as things will get appreciably tougher from there on in with any more potential wins probably against the odds.

Meanwhile I will miss yet another Pooler game as they travel to Skewen next Saturday. They will need to come down to earth quickly as nothing can be taken for granted in the Championship.

Fantastic win Pooler, you did us proud!

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!