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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 Scarlets scrum half Gareth Davies appeared in the amphitheatre as a concussed Rhys Webb was withdrawn and despite Scarlets hooker Ken Owens and his line out jumpers being unable to win that set piece battle the scrum was gaining momentum.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.

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Nigel Owens hosts virtual rugby quiz for Pembroke Panthers

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PEMBROKE Panthers RFC enjoyed a rugby return during lockdown after winning a competition which saw international referee Nigel Owens host their own virtual clubhouse quiz, thanks to Principality Building Society.

The women’s squad at the Pembroke club beat more than 1000 entries to win Principality’s Clubhouse Quiz competition. With many clubs affected by widespread flooding at the start of this year and now closed indefinitely due to coronavirus, the building society is continually looking for ways to support grassroots rugby clubs in Wales.

Pembroke Panther Lucy Neale, 30, entered her team with the hope of bringing the players together online. She said: “We’d usually see each other up to five times a week between training sessions, matches and socials, so it’s been a really strange time. I thought I’d enter the club thinking it would be a nice pick-me-up for us all, but never actually expected to win so it was an amazing surprise.”

The team were tested on their rugby knowledge by world cup referee Nigel Owens over video conferencing platform Zoom, where players won tickets to Welsh internationals at Principality Stadium, signed rugby shirts and balls, and tickets for a tour around Principality Stadium. The quiz included a guest appearance from former Welsh international Tom Shanklin.

Lucy continued: “It was such a memorable and special evening for us all. We’re usually quite a lively bunch but we behaved well for Nigel. We’re so thankful to Principality for putting on the quiz and allowing us to enjoy this once in a lifetime experience as a team.”

As sponsors of Principality Stadium and the National Youth Leagues for grassroots clubs in Wales, Principality has a strong relationship with the Welsh Rugby Union and knows how much rugby means to communities across the country. With matches on hold currently, the building society wanted to be able to bring the buzz of the clubhouse to the home.

Clubhouse Quiz host, Nigel Owens, said: “Principality’s Clubhouse Quiz was a fantastic way to bring one team closer together and Pembroke Panthers really showed off their rugby knowledge. Rugby plays such an important role in Welsh communities and I know they’ll be missing the action on the field right now, so it was lovely to have been part of this experience to bring this team together. Thankfully, I didn’t have to sin bin any of them either.”

Julie-Ann Haines, Chief Customer Officer at Principality Building Society, said: “Many rugby clubs across Wales have had a really difficult year, with flood damage to pitches and clubhouses now followed by coronavirus. This was our chance to recreate the camaraderie of the clubhouse for one team and we hope that it brought plenty of laughs and memorable moments for Pembroke Panthers at this challenging time.”

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Wales v Scotland postponed

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WALES’ Six Nations match at home to Scotland on Saturday has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The two other Six Nation fixtures had already been postponed and no date has been confirmed to complete the 2020 Championship.

The Welsh Rugby Union had insisted earlier on Friday the game would “go ahead as planned”.

A WRU statement read: “The Welsh Rugby Union has maintained an open dialogue with, and continued to seek advice and direction from, the National Assembly for Wales and other stakeholders, including the Six Nations, on this fast-moving issue.

“Whilst medical advice remains consistent, we have decided that it is in the best interests of supporters, players and staff to fall in line with recent measures taken across the UK and global sports industries.

“The WRU would like to thank all parties for their counsel on the subject and will make further announcements with respect to rescheduling the fixture in the coming days.

“Every effort has been made to stage this game and we appreciate that individuals will have been inconvenienced. Given the fluid and unprecedented nature of this issue a postponement became the only viable option.”

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Domestic football at all levels in Wales suspended

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THE FOOTBALL Association of Wales has today (13 March) taken the decision to suspend domestic football at all levels in Wales with immediate effect until April 4 due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The intention at this time will be to resume the football schedule depending on the medical advice and conditions from the relevant authorities at that time.

The FAW is fully aware of the impact this will have on the domestic game but the health and safety of all fans, players, volunteers and stakeholders are of paramount importance.

The FAW will continue to monitor this situation on a day-by-day basis and will continue to provide updates when appropriate.

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