Carmarthen Town 0
CARMARTHEN’S outstanding start to their Welsh Premier League second-phase programme, along with their six-match unbeaten run, were brought to an abrupt halt on Saturday, February 18, with this narrow defeat against a strong Bala side who lie in second place in the league and are themselves enjoying a sequence of just one defeat in 17 games.
The Old Gold were far from disgraced and the outcome of this match could have been so different if they had not made such an awful start, conceding a poor goal in the opening stages – after that shock they soon recovered and for the remaining 75-80 minutes the play was far more evenly balanced, with both sides enjoying spells of pressure.
From the outset the visitors swarmed forward, putting immediate and sustained pressure on the Town defence which looked uncharacteristically hesitant and disorganised.
After only two minutes Bala took the lead when David Thompson’s huge throw-in caused confusion in the crowded penalty area where Kieran Smith took advantage to fire the ball crisply past ‘keeper Lee Idzi and into the net.
The Lakesiders again went close on 4 minutes – Anthony Stephens’ corner was met by Stuart Jones who saw his firm header deflected just wide of the post. But from thereon Town gradually began to find their customary rhythm, spirit and discipline.
The defence, and in particular the formidable central pairing of Lee Surman and Dave Vincent, increasingly showed greater composure and resilience, while in midfield key players Kieran Lewis, Ceri Morgan and Declan Carroll were using their energy and vision both to disrupt the visitors’ attacking momentum and create opportunities for lively strikers Liam Thomas and Liam Griffiths to exploit with their pace and movement.
Throughout the rest of the first-half the game was more open and evenly balanced with the play shifting briskly from end to end – but with both defences performing soundly there were very few clear scoring chances.
However on 25 minutes the hosts narrowly avoided conceding again when a low cross from Ryan Wade took a huge deflection off a defender that sent the ball dangerously high towards the goal, only for Idzi to produce a stunning reflex save, clawing the ball onto the top of the bar and safely behind.
The Old Gold’s first notable effort arose in the 31st minute when Carroll slid a fine pass through to Griffiths who raced forward to the edge of the penalty area and turned smartly past his marker before hitting a fierce drive that flew marginally wide of the post.
Then on 35 minutes Carroll’s corner-kick into a packed goalmouth reached Thomas who, from 8 yards, cleverly chipped the ball over several defenders but ‘keeper Ashley Morris stretched high to claim it just under the bar.
After the interval the same pattern of play quickly emerged but for a long period the game was fairly uneventful and rather scrappy.
Then midway through the second-half manager Mark Aizlewood made his intentions clear when, in a 10 minute spell, he brought on three attack-minded substitutes Luke Cummings, Kyle Bassett and Matthew Thomas to inject more pace and flair into Town’s search for an equaliser.
In the 79th minute that was almost achieved – Cummings launched a long throw into the penalty area to find Morgan who from 10 yards drilled the ball through a crowd of players only for Morris to react instinctively and kick it off the goal-line to safety.
With the Old Gold pressing forward so enthusiastically, Bala were now looking more of a threat on the counter-attack and on 85 minutes they went close to extending their fragile lead – Wade cut inside from the right flank and drove the ball across the face of the goal but saw Bassett, alert to the danger, race back into the goalmouth and make a timely clearance.
Then after 91 minutes Town’s flying winger demonstrated his searing pace at the other end of the pitch when he burst through the Bala defence and into the penalty area only for Morris to rescue his side once more by quickly coming out of his goal and diving down to block Bassett’s 15 yard angled drive.
But deep into added time the visitors again threatened when, with the Old Gold defence stretched, Wade raced clear to the edge of the penalty area and as Idzi, who had clearly been hampered by a leg injury for some time, struggled to come out to challenge him the striker fired towards the unguarded goal only for the ball to drift just wide of the far post.
While this result was disappointing, Town’s performance (after the initial disastrous lapse) was certainly not – and to have secured six points in their opening second-phase fixtures against unquestionably the three strongest teams in the WPL was both highly commendable and unexpected.
Carmarthen, currently occupying fifth place in the league, next have an important away fixture against sixth-placed Cardiff Met on Saturday, March 4, (k/o 2.30pm).
A repeat of their stunning victory there on New Year’s Eve would be both very welcome and a big step towards securing that League position at the end of the season.
Biggar, Williams and Halfpenny in Wales team to face Ireland
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)
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)
Pontarddualis withstand Fishguard fightback
A MONUMENTAL effort by the Fishguard forwards on the Moors in the several minutes of overtime on Saturday (Feb 17) failed to secure a bonus point for the home side as promotion chasing Pontarddulais took a maximum five points from their 28-20 victory.
The silver streaked No. 8 Simon James claimed a try, his second of the game as the Seagulls never say die attitude epitomised the battle scars of Luke Harding, whose life was remembered with an impeccable minute’s silence for ‘The Gambler’ before kick off.
Luke, since his diagnosis of lung cancer 16 months ago had fought on the coal face every step of the way, raising more than £30,000 for Withybush Hospital but succumbed when his skills were required elsewhere and he knew ‘when he didn’t have the aces’ needed to win the game.
Having secured their third try outside half Kial Keane was unable to convert for the bonus point and referee Darren Randell signalled the end of the Division 2 encounter.
Referee Rendell had irked both sets of supporters during the game, his empathy for the underfoot conditions and numerous marginal decisions on the gain line, perhaps not seen impartially.
The Llanelli butcher did well to keep thirty players on the field as the physical encounter saw several flare ups with handbags flying and his shrill whistle echoing around the Paraddog towards the Irish Sea.
Those final minutes saw Fishguard skipper Kevin Walsh elect for two scrums alongside some tap and goes as the visiting defence, so strong throughout the game overstepped the offside line to ignite the blue touch paper.
The opening score came from teenage Pontardullais scrum half Ethan Dunne who marked his senior debut with a try after nearly twenty minutes.
Fishguard had enjoyed possession and territory in the lead up to the try with scrum half Andrew Williams dynamic before full back Liam Lazarus picked up the loose ball inside his own half, kicked over the top from which Dunne won the foot chase with some neat dribbling skills to tumble across the line.
Lazarus converted as he did for all the visitors four tries, alongside a commanding performance in defence and with ball in hand, comfortable to back his own skills, pace and decision making.
Lazarus wasn’t the only player to show an aptitude for direct running, opposite number Mike Jenkins and winger Sam Kurtz were anything but conservative in their running angles and support play, the hosts having flankers Chris Sousha and Luke Freebury on hand to keep their momentum alive.
Keane landed a penalty for a 7-3 score line before the ‘Bont’ crossed for a second try, Lazurus converting his own touchdown after winger Jared Walters created the space.
Second row Jacob Miles began the second period in a marauding style finding centre Gareth Thomas and outside half George Mbjoma willing ally’s as the ‘Ambers’ took control of the game.
Despite calls for offside at a line out and for a knock on in midfield, Thomas was able to cross for a converted try with six minutes played to extend the lead to 21-3.
Some ferocious and uncompromising tackles in midfield from both sides saw the back rows exchanging pleasantries on the ground, the visitors Rhys Samuel and fellow flanker Dean Courtney on par with James et al.
Winger Thomas George rounded off some excellent team play to reduce the deficit with an unconverted try, where hooker Walsh and fellow front row men Ryan McVeigh and Andrew Morrilo found a second wind, allowing centre Ben John and Narberth’s Dan Birch, on permit for a return to action after a metatarsal injury on the opening day of the season some space to run, with Kurtz crabbing in the background to link the play.
Gethin Williams, Thomas and co centre Paul Geary also took the opportunity to take the game forward, their play creating the bonus point try for No 8. Craig Davies, with replacement prop Andrew Williams of Woodpecker Carpentry a splinter in the home defence with his tenacity.
Fishguard to their credit responded by keeping the ball alive despite the fact second rows Jac and Gwylim Evans had parity in the line out, both involved in the open play with Walsh in gaining hard yards.
James scored the first of his brace, which Keane converted to set up the grandstand overtime finish, where John and Jenkins, alongside McVeigh were in the thick of the action to set up the final try from James.
‘You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away and know when to run; no need to count the money’ at this time, more the blessings and the reflection post-match should be on the future and not the past.
Bill Shankley may not have been right with his ramblings and I’m sure Luke will now have told him, his legacy being one of having that final ace.
The Seagulls will carry that with them to Mumbles on Saturday (Mar 3), as they stand four points clear of relegation whilst Pontarddulais will be geared up for a top of the table encounter when Whitland arrive at Coedback Parc.
Old Gold boost survival hopes
CARMARTHEN continued their promising opening to their Welsh Premier League second-phase programme with a valuable 3-2 victory over Newtown on Saturday (Feb 10) in a match that genuinely was the proverbial ‘game of two halves’.
With the accumulation of League points an essential requirement at this stage of the season the Old Gold, under the guidance of new interim Manager Neil Smothers for the first time, made a positive start with several incisive attacks that tested the visitors’ defence.
The only notable scoring chance in a fairly uneventful opening spell arose at the other end of the pitch – on 9 minutes, following a Ryan Kershaw free-kick, the ball rebounded off Town’s defensive ‘wall’ and fell nicely for Alex Fletcher who struck a 25 yard effort just wide of the far post.
However that heralded a thrilling and productive period of attacking football from the Old Gold which, as in last week’s Prestatyn match, heavily featured their recently-assembled triple strike-force.
In the 16th minute Luke Cummings, from the right flank, delivered a searching cross into the crowded goalmouth where Mark Jones set up the chance for Town’s all-time top goalscorer Liam Thomas to fire the ball home from close-range.
Then on 23 minutes a Cummings’ corner-kick was claimed by Jones who released a crisp drive that was blocked by ‘keeper Jack Perry – the loose ball was quickly played back to Aidan O’Kelly who from 20 yards struck a stunning volley that flew through a pack of defenders and into the back of the net.
Moments later, following a swift break out of defence the ball was sent upfield to Jones who took it forward to the edge of the penalty area then released a fierce drive that went just narrowly wide of the post.
During this spell Newtown had their fair share of possession but, with the Old Gold defence performing soundly, they were unable to create any serious goal threat from open play – their best opportunity arose after 33 minutes when Jay Denny hit a 30 yard free-kick that ‘keeper Lewis Thomas was forced to block before the ball was cleared safely away.
Then in the 39th minute Carmarthen’s refreshing attacking play was further rewarded – Cummings sent a fine pass through to Luke Bowen who, from close to the by-line, sent an inviting cross into the goalmouth where Liam Thomas, rising high above his marker, produced a firm header that went beyond Perry’s reach and into the roof of the net.
This concluded what had undoubtedly been Town’s best 45 minutes of football this season.
After the interval Newtown, unsurprisingly, were straightaway totally committed to attack as they monopolised possession and kept the home defence under sustained pressure. As before, the Old Gold were defending with composure and discipline and it was not until the 61st minute that any meaningful scoring opportunity arose – Kershaw moved forward to the edge of the penalty area before releasing a fierce strike that Lewis Thomas denied, turning the ball aside with an impressive full-length save.
Shortly afterwards Kershaw again suffered as he watched his long-range drive defeated by another spectacular flying save from Town’s on-loan ‘keeper.
Eventually on 68 minutes Carmarthen’s resistance was broken when Ethan Jones broke into the penalty area and fired a sharp cross into the goalmouth where Nick Rushton stabbed the ball home from close-range.
This inspired the visitors to swarm forward with even greater intensity and after 79 minutes Rushton, from the by-line, fired a dangerous in-swinging free-kick into the goalmouth where Thomas, surrounded by a number of players, managed to punch the ball safely away.
That was just one of several instances, with the Old Gold under serious pressure in their own penalty area, where the young ‘keeper bravely dived down amongst opponents’ feet to claim or clear the ball.
Ahead of him Town were fully committed to defending their lead, often with only Jones operating upfield as an isolated attacking force – and they were successful up until the 90th minute when Kieran Mills-Evans, with a close-range header, converted Rushton’s right-wing cross.
Even more anxious moments followed for Carmarthen supporters as they endured several minutes of added time before the referee blew the final whistle to confirm that three precious League points were secure and another step towards WPL survival had been achieved.
The Old Gold must now make the long journey up to Llandudno for their next League fixture on Saturday, February 17, (k/o 2.30pm).
With the Seasiders having gained just two points from their last four matches, Town have reason to hope that another decent performance will further boost those survival prospects.
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