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Battling Wales’ wait for All Blacks win goes on

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By Jonathan Twigg

A PACKED Principality Stadium in Cardiff witnessed a sporting occasion on Saturday (Nov 25) when the New Zealand All Blacks, under the stewardship of former Wales Head Coach Steve Hansen emerged with a 33-18 victory over Warren Gatland’s Welsh side, to extend their winning run to 30 and with it extend the longest winning sequence in international rugby.

Not since Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, a year when Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest have Wales lowered the All Blacks colours, conceding over 1000 points in the process; the All Black side on Saturday showed ten changes to the one which drew the final test of the summers battle with the British & Irish lions, showing true character to win the game scoring four tries in the process.

Wales included eight Scarlets players in their staring XV in a ‘phoenix’ moment they were led out by centre Scott Williams who was winning his fiftieth cap, even though he failed to make the original squad selection for the Autumn series.

The crowd had been whipped into a frenzy on the cold winter evening thanks to the RAF band of the Regiment of the Royal Welsh who will be celebrating their centenary next year. A former fighter pilot from Cardiff, Roald Dahl utilised a period of ‘grounding’ to hone his writing skill but not even he could have scripted the drama which unfolded before the 74,500 capacity crowd, starting wih the anthems to the ever impressive Maori ‘Haka’.

The kick off saw the ball plunged into the hands of Jake Ball with the Scarlets lock forward setting the platform for Dan Bigger to hoist a ‘Gary Owen’. Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams looked shaky as play was moved back a forth across the pitch by Wales.

From a scrum 5m out the Welsh pack got a nudge on and Scarlets full back Leigh Halfpenny opened the scoring with a ninth minute penalty. Scarlets scrum half Gareth Davies appeared in the amphitheatre as a concussed Rhys Webb was withdrawn and despite Scarlets hooker Ken Owens and his line out jumpers being unable to win that set piece battle the scrum was gaining momentum.

Wales were enjoying both territory and possession but as in any groundhog scenario, the Webb Ellis cup holders first foray into the Welsh half by winger Rieko Ioane set in motion a flowing All Black move.  Scrum half Aaron Smith took up the mantle and moved back outside to find winger Waisake Naholo who ran over Scarlets winger Steff Evans to stun the crowd into silence, and Barrett rubbed salt into the wounds with a brilliant touchline conversion for a 7-3 lead.

The difference between the world champions and any pretenders to their crown is the clinical way they ensure they score when opportunities are presented to them. Wales have a fluency in their running and passing through the channels but let themselves down with a lack of vision and composure at the crucial time.

Winger Hallam Amos had one such opportunity as did Taulupe Faletau who spilled the ball with the white line beneath him as ferocious battle lines were drawn deeply in the turf. A shoulder dislocation to Ball brought forth asthma sufferer Cory Hill proving such a lifelong debilitating illness does not prevent participation at the highest level.

Big game players develop as their experience builds, where young winger Evans will take solace as he was found wanting at key times, with missed tackles and grubber kicks to make him turn.

New Zealand developed a game plan to play on this but could not prevent the influence of Scarlets prop Rob Evans on the game; now the nominated first receiver as he put Biggar into space to create the opening for Evans to flutter those magic daps, the reason why the youngster has been selected by Gatland.

On his tail was six foot six Scarlets flanker Aaron Shingler who linked well with back row colleagues Faletau and Josh Navidi to offer Halfpenny a 45m penalty which he failed to accept. The back row trio were using front foot ball and the All Blacks made 86 tackles, 70 more than their hosts as they kept the saucepan simmering and not boiling despite Halfpenny taking the score back to 7-6.

Scrum half Davies volleyed the ball though for the Welsh forwards to hit the gain line at pace, although the World champions themselves refused to settle for an easy three points when offered.  They were happy to go live with a quick tap and drive from three penalties which was rewarded with second try for Naholo in the corner for a 12-6 lead.

Wales did want to play and a length of the field counter attack in the final minute of the half set Amos away on a 40m burst. Biggar freed Williams who strode for the corner as the half time whistle saw them just a point adrift and had Tom and Glyn Richards from the Castle Inn, Newport purring with disbelief.

“The atmosphere is electric and Wales have fed off the passion within this cauldron. Credit the All Blacks who have smothered the Welsh fire and hold a lead when they have been under the cosh for the majority of the game” screamed Glyn.

Wales were dangerous and had stopped the Kiwis playing, pushing them back through the gate and making them defend with vigour, but it was in the final third where the difference stood out.  Faletau was set at outside centre for the offensive line but perhaps tiredness, familiarity or compliancy prevented the importing scores appearing. The All Blacks possess brilliance, which Wales have but perhaps don’t exploit for the final piece of magic to finish the jigsaw.

The second half began with a more even share of the ball and Naholo straightened his running line to put Ioane through the defence line; when he was stopped Naholo was on hand to score under posts for 19-11 from which Doctor Jamie Roberts replaced Williams to hopefully inject a change in fortunes as prop and Evans departed with fifteen minutes remaining.

The Welsh ambition died when Biggar’s popped pass lacked peripheral vision as his support players were off the pace; Ioane read the play to collect and scoot over for a converted try at 26-11. Amos and Navidi continued to set a belligerent platform; Faletau came close to scoring and the scrum reached a dominant stratosphere, with Kiwi skipper also Sam Whitelock yellow carded.

With a man advantage a solid scrum ensued from which Davies emerged from the blindside to squeeze over from 10m and Halfpenny superbly converted for 26-18 but two scores still required for victory.

The seven man All Black pack absorbed their man deficit and from quick ball off their own scrum Smith looped around replacement Lima Sopoaga for man of the match Ioane to arrive off his wing and blitz over for a classic try, converted by Barrett to end the games scoring 33-18 with five minutes left.

Wales have one game left in their Autumn Series against South Africa, before their attention will switch to the opening game of the Six Nations.

A Gregor Townsend inspired Scotland arrive at the Principality Stadium on Saturday (Feb 3) for the afternoon kick off which will bring a stern test which Wales will have to meet front on.

Sport

Merlins Bridge and Clarbeston Road set for Senior Cup semi-final

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TONIGHT (Feb 21) sees the first Senior Cup semi-final taking place at the Bridge Meadow Stadium in Haverfordwest and it promises to be an excellent game.

Merlins Bridge face Clarbeston Road in a repeat of the 2017 final which the Wizards won and they won’t want to release their grip on the trophy just yet.

However, Clarbeston Road were a Division 2 side back then, and now in Division 1, they will be keen to show how far they have come in just under a year.

Clarby got to this stage after surviving a scare in the third round as they beat second division Hundleton 3-2, thanks to a last minute goal from Jason Griffiths. The Road had earlier wins against St Clears and Fishguard Sports.

The Wizards eased into the last four after thumping Angle 7-0 after previous wins against Solva and Lamphey.

Action from the 2017 Senior Cup Final between Merlins Bridge and Clarbeston Road

Neither side has been tested to the full from their earlier games, with the exception of Clarby against Hundleton, in the competition and tonight is set to be a real test for both teams.

A look at the league table indicates it will be a close game with Merlins Bridge sitting fourth and Clarbeston Road sitting two points behind in fifth, albeit having played four games more.

The teams come into the game having played just once so far this year due to the bad weather across the county.

Clarbeston Road got back into the swing of things on Saturday (Feb 17), with a 6-0 thumping of Milford United, a win which coach Matthew Ellis described as a ‘Nice game to get back into things before the semi-final’.

Jason Griffiths scored a hat trick in that game to take his tally of goals for the season to 19 and the Wizards will do well to keep him quiet tonight.

Merlins Bridge were in West Wales Cup action at the weekend for their first game since December 16 and they beat Port Tennant Colts 1-0 thanks to a Luke Hayward penalty.

The cup mentality the Bridge had on Saturday will still be with them tonight which could work in their favour.

The teams are yet to meet in the league this season so the game could go either way.

The winner will go on to the final where they will play the winner of the second semi-final, which also takes place at the Meadow next Wednesday (Feb 28), between Hakin United and Carew.

Tonight’s game kicks off at 7pm so make sure you get to the Bridge Meadow to support your team.

Good luck to both and may the best team win.

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Sport

Antwhistle praises Pembrokeshire’s best

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GRAEME ANTWHISTLE, Head Coach of Swim Wales visited Pembrokeshire County Swimming for a two day review of their development pathway on Thursday (Feb 7) and Friday (Feb 9).

Swim Wales work closely with their Regional Development Centres where Antwhistle has a critical friend role towards supporting Pembrokeshire Head Coach Craig Nelson and his Assistant Sam Jones who are working with the best swimmers in Pembrokeshire.

The overall aim is one of driving forward a pathway for producing success on the international stage, with the Governing Body offering opportunities to all swimmers in the Principality to reach that goal.

Pembrokeshire County is an integral cog in this wheel where swimmers in the National Performance squad and National Development squad are on his radar and from his recent visit he commented, “I’m impressed with the progress with swimmers from Pembrokeshire, where it was a noted success their performances at the Swim Wales Welsh Winter Open.”

Prior to taking up his position with Swim Wales Antwhistle was High Performance Coach for British Swimming based at Bath National Centre, an impressive credential for a man who has been coaching for over two decades.

Antwhistle has guided athletes such as Michael Jamieson, Jazz Carlin, Siobhan O’Connor and Andrew Willis to a combined 5 Olympic silver medals, attending high profile events on behalf of Great Britain at the European Youth Olympic Games, European Junior Championships, World Junior Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games.

Antwhistle has an abundance of skills, knowledge and a positive personality where his enthusiasm rubs off on swimmers, coaches and parents as Swim Wales strive to develop their performance pathway for clubs and coaches.

Antwhistle went on to say: “The progress of Pembrokeshire swimmers is clearly visible from when I last visited in November; credit to the squad for taking on board the messages of both support and challenges that I have set them as they are responding.

“If they can see the progress within their training and recognise what they are doing well whilst also having an objective view of the areas they need to improve, then they can believe in themselves to deliver the performance they deserve at next month’s Easter National championships.”

The Pembrokeshire squads have the support of a volunteer committee, headed by Chairman Paul Hayley (Tenby Dolphins), who works closely with the coaching team, Swim Wales and Pembrokeshire Leisure who are funding partners in the initiative.

Recent developments have seen the swimmers working under the guidance of Strength and Academy Wales and Claire Davies [Physiologist] to provide the best opportunity for achieving success.

Antiwhistle concluded: “The biggest challenge is to maintain focus as all of the ten performance clubs in Wales are now receiving this level of support and we are aiming for the sport to become ever more competitive.”

With Swimming on such a high in the County, the performance programme is attracting swimmers who weren’t previously based in the County which shows there is no better time to join the umbrella pathway for swimming.

Young people, after completing Wave 6 of the Learn to Swim programme can join one of six development clubs (Pembroke & District; Tenby Dolphin; Haverfordwest Seals; Milford Tigers; Fishguard Flyers and Preseli Panthers) and could then progress to the Performance Squads and possibly International success.

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Biggar, Williams and Halfpenny in Wales team to face Ireland

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WALES have made three changes to their starting XV to face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (KO 14.15) with British & Irish Lions trio Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny all returning to the side.

Biggar has recovered from a shoulder injury to make his 61st appearance for his country and will line up alongside Gareth Davies at half-back.

Halfpenny and Williams join Steff Evans in the back-three with Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams continuing their partnership in the midfield.

Wales have named an unchanged pack for the trip to Dublin.  The all-Scarlets front-row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee feature for a third consecutive game.  Cory Hill partners captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second-row with Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty comprising the back-row.

“It is great to be able to bring so much experience back into the starting XV and into the backline,” said head coach Warren Gatland, who will take charge of Wales for the 100th time.

“It is the first week we have had everyone in the ‘green’ in terms of availability which is a nice luxury to have and a positive ahead of what is a very important test match against a very good Ireland side.

“We have been pleased with the depth we have developed in the back-three and pleased with how those players have gone but having the experience of Dan, Liam and Leigh coming back in is hugely important.

“We have been pleased with how the forward pack has been going and how they have worked as a unit but as always there is pressure for them to perform too.”

Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis are named as the front-row replacements with Bradley Davies and Justin Tipuric completing the forward contingent.  Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe and George North provide the back-line cover.

Wales Team to play Ireland:

Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (75 Caps)

Liam Williams (Saracens) (45 Caps)

Scott Williams (Scarlets) (53 Caps)

Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets) (3 Caps)

Steff Evans (Scarlets) (7 Caps)

Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (60 Caps)

Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (29 Caps)

Rob Evans (Scarlets) (22 Caps)

Ken Owens (Scarlets) (54 Caps)

Samson Lee (Scarlets) (35 Caps)

Cory Hill (Dragons) (12 Caps)

Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (115 Caps) CAPT

Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) (15 Caps)

Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues) (9 Caps)

Ross Moriarty (Gloucester) (19 Caps)

Replacements:

Elliot Dee (Dragons) (4 Caps)

Wyn Jones (Scarlets) (7 Caps)

Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (28 Caps)

Bradley Davies (Ospreys) (59 Caps)

Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (54 Caps)

Aled Davies (Scarlets) (7 Caps)

Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues) (13 Caps)

George North (Northampton Saints) (70 Caps)

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