Saturday, 12 May 2018

Celebrating in Style

I am just a little jaded this morning – with good reason I think.  Last night I attended the Pontypool RFC Annual Dinner. We had every reason to celebrate of course as the final Championship league table fully illustrates.

Pontypool RFC 22 22 0 0 926 239 687 139 30 19 0 107
Narberth RFC 22 14 1 7 595 439 156 79 60 11 3 72
Trebanos RFC 22 14 0 8 501 335 166 69 43 9 4 69
Tata Steel RFC 22 13 0 9 546 483 63 77 63 10 4 66
Newbridge RFC 22 12 0 10 460 461 -1 63 61 7 3 58
Bedlinog RFC 22 10 2 10 480 501 -21 58 66 9 5 58
Rhydyfelin RFC 22 10 0 12 391 435 -44 51 58 4 5 49
Newcastle Emlyn RFC 22 9 1 12 470 633 -163 59 83 6 3 47
Beddau RFC 22 8 0 14 379 543 -164 47 72 5 6 43
Cardiff Met RFC 22 7 2 13 473 638 -165 60 92 5 3 40
Skewen RFC 22 7 0 15 351 535 -184 43 70 2 4 34
Glynneath RFC 22 3 0 19 292 622 -330 39 86 2 3 17

Pontypool had a brilliant season as you can see from the table and left the other clubs in the league some way behind as they roared through an unprecedented unbeaten league season.
As you would expect, the evening was a joyous affair brilliantly compered by club chairman Peter Jeffreys. The large dining room was packed which is a good indication of Pooler’s loyal fan base who have been with the club through thick and thin.
Congratulations to all the award winners and indeed to those who didn’t win awards. Rugby is a team game of course and this has been very much at the heart of what Pooler have achieved. It was great to hear the award winners without exception make this point. You really get the feeling that the management, coaches and players are very much on the same page when it comes to moving the club forward. Long may it continue.
We were kept entertained throughout the evening both by the player interviews and the inimitable Phil Steele. The end of evening disco was a step too far for us elder statesmen however and we beat a hasty retreat well fed and watered.

Whilst the dinner was in full swing, the Cardiff Blues were playing Gloucester in the Challenge Cup Final in Bilbao. I have just watched the match on the TV and enjoyed it immensely. Of course when you already know the result you do not really have the same feeling of tension. Hearty congratulations go to the Blues for their stirring comeback and the quality of their rugby. Gloucester may feel a bit aggrieved about a decision or two that didn’t go their way but then that’s rugby. What a great couple of weeks for Cardiff with the Bluebirds winning promotion and the Cardiff Devils sweeping all before them.

It seems a long time until September and the new rugby season. Enjoy the break Pooler and let’s have more of the same in what could be a momentous season.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Cold Turkey

After the high of last Saturday for Pontypool in Narberth, this Saturday was bound to be a low key affair. Even the Royal Wedding would struggle to compete!

I chose not to be a neutral observer at Judgement Day (it would have been Begrudgement Day for me to go I fear) and instead I opted to watch the Dragons v Scarlets game on the TV. I have to say I was mighty glad that I hadn’t made the effort to go to Cardiff as it was pretty poor fare. The Dragons were outplayed by an out of sorts Scarlets team that were clearly still trying to get over the disappointment of the drubbing that they had received from Leinster the previous week. It is just as well for the woeful Dragons that the Scarlets were not at full throttle as it could have been really embarrassing. Still there is always next year as Mr Jackman keeps telling us. I must confess to flicking over to Gloucester v Bath more and more and found it a much higher octane affair with two English teams running the ball for a change.
I only caught brief snatches of the Ospreys v Cardiff Blues games which seemed to be a bit more like it. The Blues fielded an understrength team but still pushed the Ospreys to the limit which shows how far they have progressed as a squad. The Ospreys remain a pretty muted attacking force with tries as rare as Osprey’s teeth. At least Dan Biggar managed to show everyone that he is still a force to be reckoned with.

Then there was yesterday and Finals Day at the Principality Stadium. Congratulations to Porthcawl, Brynmawr and Merthyr on their cup success. From what I saw, Brynmawr will be a force in the Championship next season if they clinch promotion. Merthyr completely overpowered Newport in the top tier final and put Pooler’s loss at Merthyr in the quarter final in perspective.

Life is hard without rugby to watch where you actually care who wins – roll on next season.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Pontypool Dig Deep for Glory

Right from the day that the Championship fixtures were announced, Pontypool’s trip to Narberth was recognised as the toughest assignment on the list. Here we were then on a glorious sunny afternoon at Narberth nervously awaiting the kick off. Not that the Championship itself was on the line as that was already in the bag for Pooler, but this was the chance to go through the season with an unbeaten league record. Narberth themselves were looking to secure a distant second place in the league and would like nothing better than to upset the Pontypool applecart. A good crowd containing a large contingent from the East basked in the sunshine. The stage was set, the helicopter had landed and so the game commenced.

The first quarter was a very cagey affair with lots of tactical kicking as the sides tried to get the measure of each other. Narberth kicked the ball downfield virtually every time they won possession while Pooler did at least try to move the ball on occasions and as a consequence looked the more likely to score a try.
As we went into the second quarter, it was Pooler who drew first blood. A brilliant break by Gullis fractured the home defence. The ball was recycled and, with Pooler already awarded a penalty, Meek tried an audacious cross kick. Prothero managed to tap the ball back for Lampitt to score the opening try in the corner. A tremendous conversion from Matthew Jones gave Pooler a 0-7 lead. Sadly this was Lampitt’s last contribution as he had to leave the field with an injury and was replaced by Davies
Pontypool still looked the more likely to score a try and Usher and Sparks both went close after good approach play. Narberth still seemed content to kick for position and finally got their reward with a penalty from Griffiths (3-7). As the a tense first half drew to a close, Pooler were attacking strongly in the home twenty two and were awarded a penalty in front of the posts. Matthew Jones duly converted and at the break Pooler held a slim but deserved 3-10 lead. This was nail-biting stuff indeed!
It was Pontypool who started the second half the stronger and were soon deep in the Narberth twenty two. They won a lineout close to the try line and spread the ball wide and created an overlap which allowed Usher to score a try in the corner. Another excellent conversion from Matthew Jones opened up a 3-17 lead for the champions. The large Pooler contingent breathed a little easier.
Narberth had to change something if they were going to get back into the game. Finally they started to mix up their tactics and ran the ball and it paid dividends. Narberth centre Jones found a gaping hole in the Pooler defence to gallop twenty metres or so to the line. The try was converted by Griffiths and Narberth were back within a converted try at 10-17. This seemed to give Narberth confidence and brought about a shift in momentum towards the home side.
As the third quarter came to an end, Narberth again breached the Pooler defence with some good back play and this time Gale on the wing was the beneficiary. The try was converted by Griffiths and it the scores were level at 17-17 with the Pooler faithful stunned into silence. Worse was to come when Griffiths added a further penalty to give the home side the lead at 20-17 with fifteen minutes or so left.
The chips were well and truly down and this is where good sides show their mettle. Pontypool used their full complement of replacements and rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They managed to lift their game up a level and were soon camped in the Narberth twenty two. They hammered away at the home line and eventually Rhodri Jones forced his way over for the all-important try near the posts. The conversion by Matthew Jones gave Pooler a four point lead at 20-24.
The game was still far from secured and Pontypool continued to press for the try that would surely win the game. They worked their way into the home twenty two and were awarded a penalty in front of the posts when Davies offended at a ruck and got shown a yellow card for his trouble. Matthew Jones kicked the goal and Pooler were now 20-27 ahead as the game entered its final stages.
Despite a few nervous moments, Pontypool managed to close the game out at 20-27 and maintain their winning record. Cue massive celebration!

What a tremendous season Pontypool have had. To go through a league season unbeaten is a tremendous feat. It certainly has not been easy and they have been sorely tested on a number of occasions but still managed to find a way to win. There is a tremendous spirit and belief and no little talent in the squad that has carried all before them. I heartily congratulate all involved on a fantastic season – you have made an old man very happy! I am delighted to see the young talent that has blossomed as the season has progressed – the future is bright.

It is a real shame that there is no promotion as the squad looks capable of challenging the teams in the Premiership. Still we will just have to do it all again next season and see what the future holds.

Driving back in the car I listened on the radio as the Scarlets were dismantled by Leinster. Leinster must surely be favourites to win the European Champions Cup now. Congratulations must go to the Cardiff Blues on reaching the final of the Challenge Cup – it is great to see them turning things around so spectacularly.

When we got back to the local we had the opportunity to hold the Championship Cup which sadly had not made the trip to Narberth. Happy days!

Well done Pooler you were magnificent! 

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Hard Going for Pooler

Pontypool’s penultimate match of the season was a visit to Rhydyfelin and at last the sun shone. Rhydyfelin are involved in a scrap at the bottom of the Championship to avoid relegation so Pooler were sure to be given another stern examination to pass if they were to preserve that unbeaten record.

Pontypool started brilliantly and before the home side had time to settle had scored two converted tries. The first came from a driving lineout with Watkins getting the touchdown and for the second Gullis latched on to a delightful chip kick by Meek to score near the posts. Meek landed both the conversions and Pooler had raced into a 0-14 lead.
Pontypool failed to claim the home side’s kick-off following their second try and were soon under pressure. This brought the boisterous and vociferous home supporters to life and it was game on. Lucas, the Rhydyfelin scrum half, spotted a gap and scored a try in the corner and, as the conversion sailed over, the momentum had shifted with the score at 7-14 with only ten minutes played.
This was a really tough battle and there were lots of injuries. Pooler lost Ollie Drake and Jordan Williams to leg injuries and had it all to do to keep the lively home side at bay. As a section of the home fans stocks of beer dwindled, so did the quality of their language and sadly it made for an unpleasant atmosphere at times but Pooler managed to keep their cool. The immense pressure being applied by Rhydyfelin was resulting in too many turnovers and Pooler could not get a grip of the game. After an attritional twenty minute period, Pooler struck on the half hour mark. They were awarded a penalty and Matthew Jones’ pinpoint kick gave them a lineout near the home try-line. The initial forward drive was stopped but Herbert broke free to score in the corner. The try was unconverted but Pooler had breathing space at 7-19. There were no further scores in the first half with defences on top and neither side really able to put a set of phases together. H.T. 7-19.
As you would expect, Rhydyfelin came out for the second half breathing fire and were soon hammering away at the Pooler line. As at Skewen earlier in the week, the defence was magnificent and managed to keep the home side at bay. Pontypool lost young loosehead prop Rosser to another leg injury and as a result the scrums were uncontested from then on.
A turning point came on the hour mark when Green the home prop received his marching orders from the referee for a punch thrown at a Pooler player which started a mass brawl. Rhydyfelin continued to strive hard but gradually ran out of steam. The Pontypool backs began to find gaps and orchestrated by Matthew Jones ruthlessly took full toll of their opportunities. Meek scored a brace of tries to put the game to bed. The second was a beauty with an excellent break by Gullis from inside his own half taken on by Luckwell with Meek in support to get the score. Meek converted both of his tries and Pooler were well clear and had secured the bonus point at 7-33.
Pooler were now running Rhydyfelin ragged and in time added on Lampitt was on hand to cross for a try under the posts after a sweeping move involving forwards and backs. Another successful conversion from Meek gave a final score of 7-40.

This was another tough physical battle for Pooler and playing three games in a week will surely take its toll in terms of injuries. It is a testament to the strength and the spirit within the squad that they manage to keep on winning. It is really pleasing to see the younger squad members of the squad showing what they are made of when the pressure is on – it certainly bodes well for the future.

So this is it! We are down to the last game of the season. Pontypool will need to overcome Narberth on their own patch of they are to achieve the remarkable feat of twenty two wins out of twenty two starts in the Championship. Narberth have been their closest challengers for most of the season so the stage is set for an epic encounter. This will not be easy that is for sure and Pooler will have to be at their very best to pull it off.

Come on Pooler!

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Pooler Stand Firm

This was a somewhat unusual occasion these day - a mid-week game under floodlights. Quite nostalgic really. Pontypool visited Skewen in their latest Championship fixture. This was always going to be tough encounter with the home side desperately trying to stave off relegation while Pontypool were keen to keep their unbeaten record at the other end of the league table. Despite the heavy rain of the last couple of days, the pitch was in reasonable condition. The floodlights were not the most effective but still we had a rugby match to watch.

Pontypool started well enough and quickly established themselves in the Skewen half and dominated the first quarter. The first Pooler try came from an excellent long cut-out pass by Meek which found Owen Williams in space. He made good ground and then found Gullis in support at the critical moment to score in the corner (0-5). As the quarter came to an end, Thomas entered the line at speed and skipped past a couple of defenders to canter in under the posts from twenty metres or so. Meek converted and Pontypool looked set at 0-12.
Skewen fought back hard and Pooler started to concede penalties at the breakdown in the second quarter. A Skewen lineout close to the Pontypool try-line was challenged by the away side and the ball went loose. The home hooker, Morris, pounced on it and although the conversion missed Skewen were very much back in the game at 5-12.
This seemed to give the home side even more motivation and they certainly gave the strong Pontypool defence a testing time. Pontypool did what good sides do and scored at the critical time – in this case just before half time. Skewen had Gethin sin-binned for a high tackle and Pontypool looked to have squandered an excellent field position when an attack broke down. Skewen’s relieving kick went to the Pooler fullback Thomas who ran the ball straight back at them and linked with Owen Williams who scored a vital try in the corner. Meek’s conversion was good and at half time Pontypool held a decent 5-19 lead with three tries to their credit.
Skewen came out in the second half in a very determined mood and laid siege to the Pontypool line. It took a brilliant defensive effort from Pooler to keep them out. It seemed that the pressure must eventually tell but the away side managed to repel wave after wave of attackers as the Skewen showed excellent ball retention skills. Occasionally Pooler managed to clear their line from a turnover but Skewen came pounding straight back
Mid way through the half Pooler finally gained a foothold in the Skewen half and took full advantage and effectively killed the game off in a five minute period. First, Herbert ran an excellent inside supporting line to run twenty metres to score under the posts and then Parry was the beneficiary of a driving lineout to score Pooler’s fifth try. With one successful conversion, Pontypool had established an unassailable 5-31 lead and gained the bonus point - albeit against the run of play.
A few minutes later, Pontypool were down to fourteen men when Coundley was sin- binned and from then on it was all hands to the pumps as Skewen stationed themselves in the Pontypool twenty two. The Pontypool defence remained watertight and despite a fantastic effort from the dogged home side they could not add to their first half try. At full time the score was still 5-31 - a score line that certainly flattered Pontypool.

This was a really hard fought victory for Pontypool with Skewen throwing the kitchen sink at them. The defence was outstanding and, of course, in attack they were ruthless in taking the chances that came their way. To come away with a bonus point win was a great achievement.

It certainly does not get any easier for Pontypool with their next match on Saturday a visit to another side near the bottom of the Championship in Rhydyfelin. We can be certain that, like Skewen, they will be giving it their all.

Come on Pooler!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Pooler Points Machine Ploughs On

Saturday saw the furthest east club in the Championship take one of the furthest west as Pontypool entertained Newcastle Emlyn. This was Pontypool’s last home game of the season and a decent crowd managed to tear themselves away from the dog show to see if Pooler could preserve their unbeaten record. Thankfully the heavy rain of the morning had ceased but yet again Pontypool were faced with a heavy pitch.

Pontypool played up the slope in the first half and started somewhat sluggishly against a lively looking Newcastle Emlyn team. After eight minutes, Dan Davies on the left wing underlined the threat that the away side posed as he brushed off three or four defenders to score the game’s opening try in the corner (0-5).
The shock of going behind seemed to wake the slumbering giant and Pooler snapped into action. A cross kick from Meek was fielded by Thomas who got the ball away to Hancock who scored and, with Meek’s conversion, the home side had grabbed a 7-5 lead. A few minutes later a surge from Watson-Boycott found Thomas in support and he sprinted clear of the defence to score Pooler’s second try. This was also converted by Meek and it was business as usual at 14-5.
The next quarter of an hour was rather frustrating as a high penalty count didn’t allow either side to find any continuity. With only ten minutes left in the half, two of Pooler’s younger players made their presence felt and broke the deadlock. First the hooker, Ball, touched down when the Pontypool pack executed a driving lineout to perfection and then centre, Mahoney, kicked through and won the chase to the line. With the conversions by Meek, in the space of a couple of minutes, Pooler had gained the try bonus point and opened up a 28-5 lead.
As the first half drew to a close there was another burst of activity. Meek put in another deft cross kick and this time Hancock gathered on the Newcastle Emlyn try line to score his second try and Pooler’s fifth (33-5). The away side still looked dangerous and Dan Davies scored a splendid long-range individual try when he beat would-be tacklers for fun as he ran down Pooler’s left flank to cross in the corner (33-10). There was still time in a breathless five minutes for Pontypool to hit back with a penalty try awarded by the referee after the away side illegally stopped a powerful Pooler scrum from driving over. This also resulted in a yellow card for, Leonard, the Newcastle Emlyn flanker. So at half time Pontypool were well in control with a substantial 40-10 lead.
The third quarter of the game was scoreless with mistakes and penalties galore. Pontypool went close on a number of occasions but their accuracy let them down at crucial moments. Credit must also go to Newcastle Emlyn who defended stoutly and still had a backline that posed a threat. We also saw the usual raft of substitutions and the introduction of uncontested scrums.
The final quarter was in marked contrast as Pontypool burst into action as their opponents tired. Gullis ran a great angle to break the Newcastle Emlyn defensive line and score an unconverted try (45-10). A yellow card for the away team’s Baldwin was the last straw and Pooler started to run riot. An excellent break by Coundley was supported by Watson-Boycott who offloaded to Sparks who galloped over under the posts (52-10). A few minutes later Sparks scored again as he burst out of a maul and ran fifteen metres to score (59-10).
Newcastle Emlyn were reeling and, when they lost possession near their ten metre line, they were punished further when Herbert seized the ball and showed tremendous pace to score a try that was converted by Meek (66-10). There was still time for one more Pontypool attack and it was that man Herbert again as he popped up in support of another line break to race in for his second try. Meek added the conversion and, at the final whistle, it was another convincing victory for Pontypool at 73-10.

Pontypool’s record in the Championship is now nineteen wins from nineteen starts. They have averaged over forty four points and over six tries per game in the season to date – a fantastic achievement. This was the last home league game but there are still three more away fixtures. The next two games are against two sides battling to avoid relegation so will not be easy. First up is a visit to Skewen on Wednesday evening and then Rhydyfelin next Saturday. The curtain comes down on the season at Narberth the following weekend. Narberth look favourites to finish second in the Championship and this should be a cracker particularly if we can have a decent bit of weather.

It has been a tough weekend if you are a Cardiff sport’s fan. On Friday night Cardiff City suffered the agony of two missed penalties in injury time and lost to Wolves. Last night the Cardiff Blues were pipped at the post in South Africa when the Cheetahs were awarded a penalty try in time added on after an agonising series of scrums. I have to confess to doing a bit of channel-hopping at this stage with tight finishes also at Manchester City and in the National Cup semi-final at Cross Keys. Well done Merthyr on your victory against Ebbw Vale on what looked to be a real pudding of a pitch. I remember when the semi-finals of the cup were held at the National Stadium! Times have changed that is for sure.

So it is off to Skewen on Wednesday evening. Come on Pooler! 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Pooler Cut Loose – Eventually

The scene was set for a typical Gwent local derby with age-old rivals Newbridge and Pontypool locking horns for the umpteenth time. A large, boisterous crowd was looking forward to a typically uncompromising encounter. The Newbridge pitch was heavy and cloying after all the recent rain but perfectly playable and was sure to be a real test of stamina. Pontypool were defending their unbeaten record, Newbridge were intent on ending it if they could.

Virtually from the kick-off, Pontypool conceded a penalty in front of their posts. Reese converted with glee to give the home side an early 3-0 advantage. It was clear right from the start that this was going to be a battle with no quarter asked for or given. After about ten minutes, the fuse was lit when Newbridge fullback Hudd head-butted his opposite number Thomas in a contretemps on the touch line. This was all the teams needed to burst into action and it all kicked off Wild West style with a mass brawl with just about all the players involved. Eventually it calmed down but the referee had spotted the initial head butt and showed a red card to Hudd. Bad feeling was never far below the surface from then on and the referee did well to keep matters under control.
The sending off stacked the odds in Pooler’s favour but you would never have known it as the contest was pretty even for the next twenty minutes or so. True, Pontypool got on the scoreboard with a penalty try from a scrum close to the Newbridge line, but the home side took advantage of Pooler’s lack of discipline with Reese adding two penalties the second from the halfway line. So with five minutes of the first half left, Newbridge were leading 9-7.  
There were turnovers galore as Pooler used their forwards to power into contact while Newbridge used their smart backs at every opportunity giving the Pooler defence plenty to think about. The heavy pitch did not make things easy and the ball was often so muddy it was difficult to see. A bit of sandpaper might have come in useful!
It was from a powerful surge by the Pontypool forwards that Coundley charged over the line for a try near the posts and with the conversion gave the away side the lead at 9-14. There was more good news for Pooler as the half drew to a close. A break by the excellent Herbert was taken on by the forwards and Gullis managed to squeeze in for a try in the corner. The conversion failed but Pontypool held a useful 9-19 lead at halftime.
At the start of the second half, the Newbridge backs continued to give Pontypool anxious moments and it was no great surprise when King sped over for a great long range try and although the conversion was missed it put Newbridge back in striking distance at 14-19 with half an hour to go.
Short-handed Newbridge had put in a massive effort which was bound to take its toll. In addition to the sending off, they had also suffered a number of injuries so the last thing they needed was to see fresh legs coming on to the field as Pontypool deployed their substitutes. Eddie Jones may have his finishers but Leighton Jones has his terminators. Sparks in particular made a big impact and almost scored straight after his introduction but was held up just short of the Newbridge line. Pooler recycled the ball for Meek to score the try and then convert it. Pontypool had opened up a significant lead at 14-26 and it proved all too much for the tiring home side.
Sparks then made the game safe for Pontypool with a brace of tries. The first when he supported a good run by Jordan Williams and the second when he sped over unopposed from a lineout near the Newbridge line. Both tries were converted by Meek and Pooler were well clear at 14-40 with ten minutes to go.
Pontypool were now rampant and full back Thomas ran a good angle to pierce the home defence and race over for a try which was again converted by Meek (14-47). To their credit, Newbridge kept trying to run the ball at every opportunity but this met with disaster when Meek intercepted a loose pass to gallop over for his second try which he duly converted (14-54). Pontypool saved their best back play until the end when an intricate interchange between Meek and Gullis opened the way for Mahoney to score the away side’s ninth and final try. The conversion failed and Pontypool ran out comfortable winners at 14-59.
The score line does not truly reflect the effort that the tough and hardworking Newbridge side put into the game. Despite being down to fourteen men after ten minutes, they were well in the game for an hour and gave Pooler plenty to think about. Pontypool managed to keep their cool and in the end were playing the kind of rugby we know they can. The unbeaten run continues with the next hurdle Newcastle Emlyn at home next week.

I wait with bated breath to hear the official announcement of exactly what Premiership/Championship rugby is going to look like for the future – at least until the inevitable reorganisation that follows this one anyway. Rumours abound and it would be good to see it laid out in black and white. I guess it is as simple as reinstating promotion and relegation between a reduced sized Premiership and the Championship and cutting back on the WRU financing. I am still not sure why they ring-fenced the Premiership anyway. I wonder if the A licence criteria will remain? I remain sceptical of the under-23 regional rugby initiative, but you never know it might just work.

There was good news for Welsh rugby with the progression of the Scarlets and the Blues to the semi-finals of their respective European tournaments. I watched the Scarlets win against La Rochelle which was a really hard fought affair. I though Ken Owens was outstanding and was the inspiration behind the victory.

Still four Pontypool games left with that unbeaten record on the line.

Come on Pooler!