Sunday, 20 August 2017

The not so friendly friendly

Pontypool’s warm up for the new season continued with a match at the Park against long-time rivals Llanelli. The added spice for this so called friendly was that Pooler had defeated the Premiership side last season in the Cup.

Right from the start it was clear that Llanelli were keen to exact revenge and the spice level was at least vindaloo. Llanelli dominated the early exchanges which were punctuated by several bouts of fisticuffs. They eventually outflanked the Pooler defence for Evans to score an unconverted try in the corner to take an early lead (0-5).
Pontypool got a foothold in the game which was clearly going to be a robust encounter with both sides fully committed. Pontypool equalised when second row Gibson suddenly shot out of a ruck and galloped thirty metres or so to score wide out (5-5). This stung Llanelli into action and they retook the lead with a try by Reyland after concerted pressure (5-10). Back came the home side with an unconverted try after a clever kick by Matthew Jones led to a try by Luckwell In the corner bringing the scores level (10-10).
Pontypool then took the lead when another expertly weighted kick by Jones was fielded at full pace by Hurley who raced twenty metres to score. The successful conversion gave Pontypool a 17-10 lead. Despite tremendous Llanelli pressure and being reduced to fourteen men by a yellow card, Pontypool managed to hold on to this lead until half time. This was a really competitive and enjoyable half of rugby with Pontypool certainly not suffering in any way in comparison to the Premiership team.
Llanelli had the edge in the opening exchanges in the second half with Pooler still down to fourteen men. Pontypool’s defence was strong and uncompromising but eventually it cracked and Llanelli closed the gap to 17-15 with another unconverted try by Evans.
Llanelli continued to press but Pooler struck with a fine try when Luckwell crossed under the posts after clever inter-passing following a turnover (24-15). Llanelli were far from finished and, as the inevitable substitutions, were made their three quarters started to look more and more dangerous. Pooler’s chances were not helped when they were reduced to fourteen men again after a yellow card for a high tackle. The gap in the scores was narrowed to 24-22 when they scored a converted try and with ten minutes to go it was anyone’s game.
Pontypool worked their way into a promising position and were awarded a lineout close to the Llanelli line. Then, disaster, the lineout went horribly wrong and Llanelli took full toll as they moved the ball wide and, with the home defence splintered, went the length of the field for Jenkins to score in the corner. The conversion failed but the West Walians had taken the lead at 24-27.
Pontypool tried to bounce back from this blow but to no avail and a match that was there for the taking had slipped through their grasp.

Pontypool have every reason to be optimistic for the new campaign as they matched their opponents from the league above in virtually every aspect of a highly competitive game. Indeed for large periods they bossed the game and can consider themselves rather unfortunate to lose. Of course there is work to do and the high penalty count and those two yellow cards are a cause for concern but overall this was a very satisfactory outing. It was certainly nice to witness a competitive “friendly”.

Well done Pooler!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Musical Chairs

I made a short jaunt to Tondu to cast my eye over the Pooler squad as it starts a run of friendly games in preparation for the new season. These games are not really about winning and losing but more about giving the coaching staff an opportunity to observe as many squad members as possible in a match situation rather than in training. For the spectator, it is utterly confusing as changes in personnel seem to be happening all the time. It is almost like a game of musical chairs – when the referee’s whistle blows there is a mad rush to be one of the thirty players on the field!
Suffice it to say, the Pooler squad looks in fine fettle with several of the new additions to the squad catching the eye and complementing the old guard. Tondu provided stern opposition for the first two thirds of the game but fell away in the final third as the strength in depth of the Pooler squad told. For the record the final score was 7-65 with Pooler running in six tries in the final third. Pooler scored eleven tries in all with Craig Atwell bagging a hat trick.

On the face of this performance, Pontypool look to be in a position to mount a strong challenge for the Championship title again. Overall there would appear to be few if any weaknesses but only time will tell. Lock proved to be a problem position last year due to injuries but all four of the locks on view looked fit and raring to go. Next week’s match against Premiership Llanelli will give the squad a more challenging yardstick to use to measure progress with the preparations for the upcoming season.

This season marks fifty years of supporting Pontypool for me and I am looking forward to the season as if it was my first.

Come on Pooler! 

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Lions’ Share

Wow that was some finale! The final test between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions ended in a draw meaning that the three match series was shared. That is a brilliant achievement for a squad drawn from four nations that has been brought together in a restricted amount of time. The All Blacks are the current world champions and, by some margin, the most successful team on the planet.
How did the Lions do it? They must be wondering themselves. The usually clinical All Blacks proved strangely fallible in a one-sided first half. True they scored two tries but they could have, nay should have, added at least two more to effectively put the match to bed before half time. That the Lions finished the half only six points down was testament to their dogged determination and ability to take any points on offer by way of penalties. In truth, the Lions rarely threatened to score a try with their best chance leading to an interception which could easily have resulted in a try the other end.
The second half was a real dogfight with defences generally on top. The All Blacks looked the more likely to score a try but the Lions continued to force the home side to give away penalties which they duly converted. Three penalties from the Lions and one for the All Blacks made the score 15-15 as the match entered its final knockings. All our hearts where in our mouths when Owens appeared to field the ball in an offside position in an eminently kickable position following a kick-off with minutes remaining. Following a review, the initial penalty was downgraded to a scrum and the Lions escaped and managed to hold on for the draw. Mind you, with the erratic nature of the All Blacks’ goalkicking it was by no means a certainty that it would have been converted. This is the real reason why the All Blacks failed to win the second and third tests – vital kicks were missed. Farrell has been rock solid for the Lions as Halfpenny was in the last series in Australia.
The draw led to a strange atmosphere at the end of the match where the teams weren’t sure whether to celebrate or commiserate. As the enormity of their achievement sunk in, the Lions no doubt celebrated with some justification. They have certainly rattled the All Blacks and at times made them look far from invincible.

The Lions’ test side ended up pretty close to the one that most people predicted when the tour party was announced. The one big miss was the pace and power of a completely fit George North which would have added a bit of punch to what was quite a light weight set of backs. The combination of Sexton and Farrell worked up to a point and was at its most effective when the All Blacks were a flanker short in the second test. Jonathan Davies had a great series and looked accomplished in all that he did. The back three were a bit erratic with flashes of brilliance accompanied by moments of frailty in defence. Murray was solid at scrum half and took his try well in the second test.
The scrum creaked more than a little with the best scrummaging props being left on the side-lines in favour of the better ball handlers. The lineout worked well apart from a few throws going wrong here and there. In the loose the back row tackled and scrapped manfully and were backed up admirably by the front five. Itoje enhanced his already glowing reputation and provided he stays fit will surely lead the Lions on their next tour to South Africa. Would Billy Vunipola have made a difference? We will never know but the efforts of Faletau were remarkable at times. Warburton proved a level headed captain who led by example and worked well with the combative O’Brien. Congratulations to Alun Wyn Jones on playing in nine successive tests for the Lions – a fantastic achievement. It is up there with Pooler’s Graham Price.
Then of course there was that fantastic Lions’ try in the first test, Yes the Lions as an entity is far from being consigned to the mists of time – particularly when twenty thousand plus fans are prepared to spend large swathes of their life savings to cross the world to support it.
Well done to Warren Gatland and the class of 2017 – you did us proud.

It is only a couple of months before the rugby season and we once more take our places on the Bank at Pontypool Park. It will be tough for the Pooler to match (or even beat) last year’s fantastic achievements but as always I will enter the season with an air of optimism. No matter who plays in the red, white and black they have my support.

Come on Pooler!   

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Lions Pounce

I was absolutely delighted that the British & Irish Lions beat the All Blacks of New Zealand yesterday but, if it was hard work watching it, it must have been agonising playing. Similarly to the first test the Lions started well enough but failed to get on the score board. As the All Blacks began to take control, the Lions were given some unexpected assistance in the form of the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams in the first half. This meant that it was fifteen against fourteen and made for a far more even contest. An exchange of penalties left the score at 9-9 at half time and it was all to play for.
The first twenty minutes of the second half were dominated in terms of possession and territory by the short-handed home team. Their pressure and the Lions’ largesse led to a string of penalties and the Kiwis built up a nine point lead. Things looked bad for the Lions and got worse when Vunipola was yellow carded. Then came a moment of inspiration as the Lions moved the wide right and then wide left for Faletau to power over in the corner. The conversion sailed wide but the Lions were back in the game. The All Blacks being the All Blacks didn’t take it lying down and despite narrowly missing out on a try were awarded a kickable penalty to restore a seven point lead at 21-14. Indeed if Barrett had got his kicking boots the All Blacks could have and should have had thirty points on the board.
In the last quarter the Lions needed inspiration and they got it from a surging run by George who set up a ruck near the NZ line. Murray spotted a gap and powered over and with the conversion the scores were level. Momentum was with the Lions and they went on the attack. A poor pass to Sinckler meant he had to jump to catch the ball. As he caught the ball he was tackled in the air and a penalty was awarded to the Lions with Farrell duly obliging for the Lions to take the lead with a few minutes remaining. The All Blacks came back strongly but the Lions held out for a famous victory 21-24.
This was a gutsy performance from the Lions in atrocious weather conditions and keeps the series alive. There are always ifs and buts but we should celebrate it as victories in New Zealand are like hen’s teeth. Probably the most worrying feature about the Lions’ play was the number of penalties conceded which could easily have lost them the match. It was borne out of the frustration created by the All Blacks’ stranglehold on the game in the third quarter but it certainly needs to improve if victory is to be secured in the final test. The intensity and passion of the Lions was there for all to see and was accompanied by some flashes of brilliance. We need that and more next week if we are to take the series as we can expect a serious backlash from the Kiwis. It would seem sensible to stick with the same team next week although that will depend on the outcome O’Brien’s citing and of course the injury list.

Good luck Lions  

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Caged Lions

A lot has been said and written about the British & Irish Lions 30-15 defeat by the All Blacks in the first test. Strangely we expected it to be the Lions’ forwards who would have the edge over their opponents but this was clearly not the case nor is it likely to happen in the next two encounters. This is particularly evident in the contact area where the All Blacks almost always make a yard or two when they are tackled which allows them to get the ball on the ground and away quickly. This is not just the forwards but the backs as well. They are not bigger and probably not stronger as measured by how many weights they can lift in the gym but have an innate ability to get their body position just right. I don’t remember too many instances when a Lions’ tackle stopped the man dead or knocked him back. This cannot be an accident so I wonder how they train the players to be so effective. This factor had a large part to play in the outcome of the game as it enabled the All Blacks to retain possession and force the Lions to give away penalties. In this aspect of the game the Lions sorely miss Billy Vunipola as it seems that he along with his brother and to an extent Faletau also seem to be blessed with the ability to break tackles.
It seemed to me that the two sets of three-quarters were quite evenly matched with the Lions looking dangerous particularly when the All Blacks were reorganised themselves as they lost players to injury. At half back the All Blacks had a distinct edge with Smith running the show. I think the Lions could have brought on Webb earlier and made a straight swap between Farrell and Sexton. Farrell and Sexton playing together were not strong enough to contain Sonny Bill Williams.

Would I make changes for the next test? I don’t think there is any real need to change the backs and half backs. In the forwards change the locks to Itoje and Lawes and bring in Warburton for O’Mahony. Henderson and Tipuric on the bench. You can never second guess Gatland though!

There is of course the old cliché about the wounded lion being dangerous so let’s hope it comes true next Saturday. Somehow you think that the wounded lion will be put out of its misery.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Into the Lions then….

Saturday afternoon didn’t seem the same. No Pontypool rugby - just me, the couch, and the TV set. A mighty successful and enjoyable season for Pooler is over. Other teams still have a lot to play for though.

My first thoughts were for our friends and rivals at Newbridge. They had to get a point out of their visit to Narberth to be sure of their place in the Championship next season. I was delighted that they did it in style and recorded a thumping win. The Gwent representation in the Championship would certainly have been pretty sparse without them.

I tuned in to the European Champions Cup semi-final between Munster and Saracens expecting a close thing. In the end, Munster seemed rudderless without Connor Murray and were overpowered by Saracens whose stronger set of replacements took the game away from the Irishmen in the last quarter. Apparently around a quarter of the Lions’ squad were on view in this match and I guess the way the Saracens play might give us a clue as to how the Lions will play. The Saracens were streetwise and ruthless with possibly five of the Lions’ test pack in their ranks and Farrell directing operations at 10. Not pretty but mighty effective.

A lot has been spoken and written about the make-up of the Lions’ squad. In particular about there being twelve Welshmen and only two Scotsmen when Scotland beat Wales in the Six Nations this year. I think the Scots capitulation against England might be a better yardstick to use where the Scots were found wanting when the pressure came on away from home. In a lot of cases the margins in selection must have been mighty close and I am sure it is not a question of bias as Gatland is as pragmatic as they come. Good to see the Pontypool connection with the Lions is still going strong with Faletau and the Vunipola brothers in the touring party. Let us hope that there are no injury problems before the tour and the squad pull together and take it to the All Blacks. They will need a lot of skill plenty of good fortune if they are to prevail.

Congratulations to RGC 1404 for winning the WRU National Cup. This time last year RGC 1404 and Pontypool were locked in a battle for the last promotion place in the Premiership. It demonstrates once again what a good thing promotion/relegation is.

Have a great summer all you Pooler fans.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Pooler Find Bed Uncomfortable

For those of us who were looking forward to a warm, relaxing, spring afternoon, Pontypool’s visit to Bedlinog was a disappointment. There was a keen breeze blowing down the valley which made a warm coat a necessity. The pitch nestled in the valley alongside the river and was dry and firm to say the least with grass in short supply. This was Pooler’s last game of a glorious season and, with a number of familiar faces missing from the starting line-up, you felt that this was going to be a tough encounter against Championship newcomers Bedlinog who occupied a mid-table position.

Pontypool kicked off playing down the valley with the stiff breeze at their backs and immediately went on the attack. Unfortunately they turned over possession when pressing hard and the home side booted the ball up the field. I think the referee was the only person who was convinced that Walker, the Bedlinog wing, had won the chase and touched down in the corner. The conversion failed and the home side had an early lead at 5-0.
Pontypool responded by camping out in the Bedlinog half but were frustrated by a committed defence. Finally, after a quickly taken tapped penalty, Gibson was put clear to cross in the left corner and open the away side’s account and bring the scores level at 5-5. Pontypool continued to attack and gradually built up the lead that you thought would be essential when they turned around to face the elements in the second half. A smartly taken dropped goal by Meek was supplemented by two penalties for Pooler to lead 5-14 after half an hour.
As the first half was coming to an end, the away side were penalised and Bedlinog spurned a relatively easy shot at goal to kick for the corner. This turned out to be a wise decision as, after a series of powerful forward drives, Huish forced his way over near the posts. The successful conversion meant that Pooler’s lead had been trimmed dramatically to 12-14. In the final moments of the half Morgan the Bedlinog flanker was sin-binned for foul play and you felt that this could influence the outcome of a closely contested match.
Pontypool started the second half purposefully and looked as if they really meant to capitalise on their extra man. They were awarded a penalty and opted for a lineout near the Bedlinog line. After a number of forward drives the referee decided that the home side had illegally prevented a try from being scored and awarded Pooler a penalty try. This was just the start that Pontypool wanted – not only had they opened up a 12-21 lead but also the Bedlinog number 8 Murphy had been yellow carded.
This proved to be the turning point in the game and not long after Thorley managed to finish off a good attack by diving over in the left corner and gave Pontypool breathing space with a 12-26 lead.
Bedlinog were far from finished and were given fresh impetus when Meek was yellow carded for a high tackle. They attacked strongly but were thwarted by a Pontypool defence that was not about to let the match slip. A try from the home side at this stage would certainly have made things interesting.
As the match approached full time, the introduction of Matthew Jones proved decisive. His deft kick ahead was gathered by Thorley who fed the supporting Watkins who in turn passed to Sparks who crossed to put the result of the match beyond doubt. Though the conversion failed, Pooler had secured a bonus point and an unassailable lead at 12-31. The match finished with Pontypool attacking strongly but they could not add to their tally.

This was a tough outing for Pontypool who did well to pull off a victory against strong opposition. It brings a marvellous campaign to an end and hearty congratulations to all at the club for making this such a memorable season. Of the many high points, I think the one that will live longest in my memory was that stunning victory in Cardiff Arms Park.
Sadly at the end of all that effort there is not a crock of gold. There is no promotion to the Premiership and Pontypool will have to keep doing what they have done this campaign for another two seasons. I am sure they are more than capable of doing just that but it does seem more than a little unfair.

Judgement Day didn’t really turn out as most people expected. In the first match, a strangely muted Ospreys team was soundly beaten by a fired up Cardiff Blues. In the other match, what was meant to be a try fest for the Scarlets against the Dragons was anything but that with the Scarlets grateful for a narrow victory. So it’s not all about West Wales after all!

Attention now turns to the Lions and the names of those selected for the ultimate honour. I am certainly not going to make any predictions about the make-up of the squad but whoever puts on the famous red jersey let’s get right behind them and see if we can turn over the mighty All Blacks.

Well done Pooler, see you next season.