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.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Déjà déjà vu

I duly switched on the TV at 8.15 am yesterday to watch Wales take on the mighty All Blacks in Auckland. I must confess I did not feel any real sense of optimism. Whilst I can at least say that I was alive when Wales last beat New Zealand, I was only one at the time so cannot claim that “I was there”.

After a ropy start, Wales really took it to the All Blacks in the first half and even had the temerity to go into the interval with a narrow lead. True the home side only played like world champions in fits and starts and had an error count that wouldn’t look out of place in the Welsh Championship, but Wales certainly played with more verve than we have seen for a long time. Two good tries by Faletau and Webb gave Wales the edge but there was an ever present threat from the All Blacks when they gained any sort of momentum.
You don’t need to be a psychic to know what to expect in the second half. This story has been told many times before. Around the hour mark, as the major substitutions start, New Zealand inexorably gain control. The rest, as they, say is history. The All Blacks seem to get stronger as the replacements’ bench is emptied while Wales find it disruptive and then of course there is only one winner. Wales wilted under the pressure and the All Blacks ran out comfortable winners 39-21. I guess that it reveals something of the All Blacks champion’s mentality that leading 32-21 as the last play of the game arrived they still had the presence of mind to attack the Welsh right wing where North was clearly struggling with a leg injury to score a final try. Most other teams would have been content to kick the ball into touch to kill the game.
So Wales finish gallant losers again and we are left to think about what might have been. Plenty of good, committed performances but in the end we were not quite good enough to beat a New Zealand team that was certainly not firing on all cylinders. We have two more attempts to beat them but I fear that they will get stronger and our inevitable injury toll will weaken us …. but you never know. Well perhaps we do really.

In the evening we went to see Rod Stewart in concert in Cardiff. We parked up and watched the Wales v Slovakia football match on the TV in Canton Rugby Club. There was a great atmosphere and it was nice to be in a traditional old style rugby club with pictures and jerseys on the wall and few airs and graces. What is more we were able to celebrate a brilliant Welsh victory. Unfortunately it sounds as if we might have to invoke the Rorke’s Drift spirit when we play Russia if the news headlines about the hooliganism are anything to go by. Rod Stewart was great by the way and we should check if he has any Welsh ancestry as he certainly looked pretty useful when he kicked some rugby balls into the crowd.

On a sad note, I was really sorry to hear about the passing of Cae Trayhern - a real Pooler stalwart. He was a fine combative player who always looked more than prepared to take on the whole opposition pack by himself. My condolences to his family.

I am led to believe that England beat Australia – I wonder if there will be anything about it in the papers?

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Fat Lady has Sung

Well it’s finally all over. Yesterday RGC 1404 duly secured the victory over Glynneath that they needed to pip Pontypool at the post and secure the final promotion place to the Premiership. Pooler are now confined to the Championship for at least four seasons unless the WRU relent on their ring-fencing policy for the Premiership.

The table as it stands is shown below. Incredibly Glynneath have yet another game to play this time against champions elect Merthyr. This means that Glynneath will have played Bargoed, RGC 1404 and Merthyr in the three weeks since Pooler finished their fixtures.

RGC 1404

When you look at the table, you realise what a close run thing it was between Bargoed, RGC 1404 and Pontypool. Their playing records are virtually identical with only those pesky bonus points making the difference. You also realise just how far behind the rest of the league was with Beddau in sixth place forty two points behind Pooler. You could analyse it to death but Pooler need to look no further than their home record against the four other top teams where they only secured three points out of the twenty on offer.
I am sure everyone is frustrated and disappointed but we really need to regroup and build on what has been achieved this season. It is sad to see Louie Tonkin leaving but I am sure that Leighton Jones will do a great job and provide the continuity that we need.

The blue line on the chart shows Pontypool’s progress since the dark days of season 2012-13. As shown by the red line, for the first three seasons 83 points would have secured fourth place but the bar was raised this season with 96 being gathered by RGC in fourth. I know this is no consolation but Pooler really did have a good season and there is much to build on.
You may say that there is nothing to play for over the next three seasons but all we can do is follow Ebbw Vale and keep knocking on the door. Who knows the WRU may change things – they have been known to! Unfortunately it has rarely been in our favour.

Anyway my thanks to everyone at the club for at was what, at times, an exhilarating season. Despite the disappointment, I will definitely be taking my place on the Bank next season and willing this great club on. We will get there in the end!

I watched the European Rugby Champions Cup final yesterday on the TV. I have to say for something that is meant to showcase rugby it was a pretty poor spectacle. I know the weather was poor at times, but as a match it did nothing to sell rugby to the masses. No tries, little open rugby and plenty of cynicism and petulance. It’s a real shame but this seems to be the way in finals.

Well next on the agenda will be the trials and tribulations of the Wales team. First stop Twickenham for the money grabbing match and then on to New Zealand. As usual, we hear the optimism but I for one are not expecting anything but more disappointment. Of course you never know….
Thanks to all at Pooler for a great effort and see you next season.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

We can still dream

RGC’s thumping victory at Cardiff Met yesterday means that Pontypool’s slender hopes of promotion to the Premiership have shed another few pounds. It will now take a victory by Glynneath at home against RGC 1404 for Pooler to gain promotion. Mind you, Glynneath did record a rather unlikely bonus point win at Bargoed yesterday. With this victory, Glynneath have now staved off the threat of relegation so the result of the game against RGC 1404 is not quite so critical to them. For the record, the Gogs need three points to overhaul Pontypool (but I guess drawing level with two will do) and claim promotion. We can still hope!

I spent the afternoon fitfully flicking across channels and watching about four games of rugby at once. One thing is abundantly clear the entertainment value of rugby is greatly enhanced by the better playing conditions at this time of the year. Even the English Premiership becomes less of a scrum and penalty fest. The Welsh regions with the honourable exception of the Blues certainly did not cover themselves with glory yesterday and this brings to an end a pretty dismal season for them. The only bright spot, rather surprisingly, came from the Dragons who against all the odds got to the semi-final of the Challenge Cup. With the exception of this, we had what is becoming the customary Wexit at the group stage.

When I thought about the impact of playing conditions, I wondered why the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere don’t just swap the venues of the Autumn and Summer tours around.  It would be much nicer for the travelling supporters too. Am I crazy? You don’t have to answer that.

Come on Glynneath you can do it!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

More Pain for Brave Pooler

Pontypool had one more chance to secure promotion to the Premiership when they visited Bargoed. Last week promotion was snatched agonisingly from their grasp by a penalty in the last few minutes of the match against RGC 1404. This week only a win would do but, if you had to pick a place to get a win, Bargoed is probably the most difficult one in the Championship. Bargoed are in storming form and have already beaten all three of the other main contenders on their patch. A large crowd with strong representation from both camps had gathered on a blustery day in the Rhymney Valley to watch the contest.

Pooler started with a bang with Lewis scoring a try in the left corner in the first couple of minutes. The conversion sailed wide but Pooler were up and running. This galvanised Bargoed into action and for the next ten minutes they took up residence in the Pontypool 22 with the away side giving away a stream of penalties. It was inevitable that the home side would score and their try came from Weyman from close range. The conversion failed and the scores were tied at 5-5.
Bargoed remained in the ascendancy as their pack and scrum half Pizey controlled the game. It took some stout defending from Pooler to keep them out. The away captain and hooker Parry had to leave the field with a shoulder injury which meant a reshuffle in the front row. Bargoed deservedly went ahead through a penalty but this was quickly cancelled out by a penalty for the away side from Gullis (8-8).
The last few minutes of the half belonged to Bargoed and they were awarded a further two kickable penalties as they attacked strongly and Jones duly obliged to leave the half time score 14-8. Pontypool certainly had it all to do in the second half.
The first half an hour of the second half was virtually all played in the Bargoed half as Pontypool raised their game and pounded away. The Pontypool scrum gained the ascendancy and the home side started to concede penalties. Pooler got over the line on a couple of occasions but failed to get the ball down. It was excruciating to watch as an away supporter. Try as they might, and they tried bloody hard, Pooler could not get the all-important try. The resolute Bargoed defence seemed impregnable.
As the game entered its closing stages, Bargoed were awarded a penalty in a rare incursion into Pooler territory. Jones converted it and the Eastern Valley contingent knew the game was virtually up as the Bargoed lead had stretched to nine points. Bargoed closed the game out deep in Pontypool territory and celebrated their promotion as the final whistle sounded with the score at 17-8.

The Pontypool players could not have tried harder or given more but they came up against formidable opponents in Bargoed who richly deserve promotion.  After a stuttering start, Bargoed have finished the season the strongest of all the teams and, of course, were denied promotion last season after winning the Championship by a street.

Pontypool now drop to fourth place in the league but have completed all their fixtures. RGC 1404 in fifth place are still seven points behind but have two games to play. If they win both games then they will be promoted. The Gogs have two away games at Cardiff Met and Glynneath so there is still some hope for Pontypool.

The Championship this season has virtually divided into two with the top five teams way ahead with almost forty points separating them from the rest. Whilst Pontypool’s performance against the lower teams has been exemplary, they have struggled against the top teams. They have only won once and drawn once in the eight matches with the points tally eight for and thirty against. If they fail to gain promotion, then this is the deciding factor. It is worth noting that Pontypool’s final total of ninety four points would have put them comfortably in third place last season.

If RGC 1404 win their last two games as expected, then the current situation is that Pontypool will be confined to the Championship for three years as the Premiership is to be ring-fenced. Some might say this is just sour grapes, but doesn’t that seem ridiculous.

We still have and anxious week or so as the final matches are played out so I will be keeping my fingers crossed. Stranger things have happened!

All this and England winning the Grand Slam – bah! It’s enough to put a man off his beer.

Come on Cardiff Met! Come on Glynneath!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

It’s Not Over Yet

It is squeaky bum time as Sir Alex Ferguson would have it. Pontypool were entertaining one of their deadly rivals, RGC 1404, knowing that a victory would win them promotion to the premiership. It was a sunny afternoon, the pitch was in great condition, and a large crowd had assembled to watch what was sure to be a close game. The North Walians had brought a large and vociferous contingent of supporters who were intent on making themselves heard. It was like old times at the Park.

Pontypool lost the toss and played down the slope in the first half. A good start was essential for the home side and they went to work straight away. The scrum looked strong and they set out their attacking intent. They were up against a strong and well organised defence, however, and the only reward for their early pressure was a Gullis penalty. The Pooler lineout creaked a bit and they got on the wrong side of the referee at the breakdown and RGC started to test the home defence with some astute tactical kicking. RGC 1404 evened up the score at 3-3 with a penalty goal converted by impressive outside half Lang. This was going to be a close match.
Then RGC 1404 speculatively kicked ahead into the Pontypool 22. Everything seemed to stop as the ball looked to have gone into touch on the full and bounced back in to play. Everything stopped that is, apart from two RGC attackers, and Lang gleefully touched the ball down for a try. The Pontypool supporters looked on in disbelief as the touch judge’s flag stayed down. The conversion by Lang gave the Gogs a 3-10 lead. Aaargh!
The home side went on the attack and closed the gap to 6-10 with another Gullis penalty. Just before half time came the second contentious incident in the match when Hurley and an RGC 1404 player collided in mid-air when they were both trying to catch a high kick. The referee rather harshly gave Hurley a yellow card when it looked a fifty-fifty call.
Pooler were stung into action and played their best rugby of the match but again found the Gogs’ defence difficult to penetrate. They did manage to win a third penalty that Gullis duly converted to reduce the arrears to 9-10 with half time looming. Nash fielded the restart but he was immediately swamped by the away pack who forced a turnover. The North Walians ruthlessly exploited the absence of the Pooler right wing for Bagshaw to score in the corner. Lang’s conversion from the touch line gave RGC 1404 a useful 9-17 lead as the half came to a close. Aaargh!
The late try was a real sickener for the home side who had given as good as they got in a pretty even first half. They certainly had it all to do in the second half.
The second half was really all about Pooler trying to crack the RGC1404 defence while staying on the right side of the referee. This was certainly not easy to achieve. For the first half an hour, the game was virtually confined to RGC 1404 half as Pooler pounded away. A fourth penalty from Gullis made the score 12-17 but Pontypool really needed a try. With around ten minutes remaining, Pooler finally got their richly deserved reward when Harris squirmed over for a try from a ruck near the line. The conversion just fell short but Pooler were on even terms at 17-17.  If they could just hold on to a draw, it was enough for promotion.
RGC 1404 bounced back as they knew a win was essential and Pooler started to get a little tense and the game ebbed and flowed. RGC 1404 were awarded a scrum in the Pontypool half and their scrum half knocked the ball on as the scrum wheeled. The referee decided to penalise Pontypool for the wheel and Lang gratefully accepted the opportunity for the Gogs to take back the lead at 17-20. Aaargh!
Pontypool worked their way back into the opposition half but a long range penalty attempt from Gullis went wide. Try as they might in the dying seconds, Pooler could not get the crucial score that they needed against the resolute RGC 1404 defence. The North Walian supporters danced in glee as the final whistle sounded and the home supporters trooped morosely out of the ground.

The Pontypool team gave their all to this match and a draw would probably have been a fair result. To the slightly biased supporter, Pooler didn’t seem to have the rub of the green with a number of crucial decisions not going their way. Still it is not all over as Pooler are still hold third place albeit narrowly.

Team                           Played             Points
Merthyr                         24                    108
Swansea                       25                    103
Pontypool                      25                    94
Bargoed                        24                    92
RGC 1404                    24                     87

The equation for Pontypool is quite simple they need to win at Bargoed next week to secure promotion. Nothing else will do unless RGC 1404 slip up in one of their remaining fixtures against Cardiff Met (a) and Glynneath (a).
If you say it quickly it seems easy but wins for the away side at Bargoed are as rare as hen’s teeth. Bargoed do not actually have to win as they have a home game against bottom-but-one side Glynneath to fall back on and six points from the two games will guarantee them promotion. Rest assured Bargoed will not do Pooler any favours and they will take great pleasure in putting one over on their Gwent rivals. So this is a really tough assignment.

The Pontypool squad and the supporters need to pick themselves up from Saturday’s disappointment and make the short journey to Bargoed next Saturday and make sure that we have a rousing last game of the season. Remember we are still in the race and it’s still within our grasp.

Come on Pooler!