Friday night’s play-off clash between Llanelli and Pontypool has brought plenty of sympathy for the losers as Pooler were yet again denied promotion to the Welsh Premiership following a 27-16 defeat. But as Paul Jones reports, this was a game with so much to lose for two of the most famous names in Welsh rugby.
All the pre-match talk had been about whether or not Pontypool’s three year dream to reach the top tier of the semi-pro game would become a reality at the end of their second unbeaten season in the Championship, but few had considered what the play-off game at Aberavon meant to Llanelli.
Head coach Paul Fisher was in no doubt about the importance of keeping his side in the Principality Premiership, but he didn’t want to overburden his players ahead of what was a cup final for both great clubs.
“If we had lost and been relegated to the Championship we might have gone out of existence,” admitted Fisher. “We would have had to have gone to the local clubs to try to raise a side and that would have been difficult for us.
“In 14 years of coaching at this level that has to have been the hardest week of them all. We only had 18 players available to us the day before the game and it wasn’t easy getting a team together and all the paper work in order.
“By the time we got to game day I was fed up of thinking about Pontypool. We had done so much analysis on them and we knew that they had been building towards this game for the past three seasons.
“We knew what to expect from them and we knew from their cup ties against Bridgend, Cross Keys and Merthyr what they were capable of. We had to match them up front, run them about behind and hope our fitness told in the end.
“It was more a case of relief than elation at the end – I was emotionally shattered.”
Even though the Pontypool dream came to a shuddering halt, they pledged to be back in the race for promotion next season.
Their players have been almost unbeatable for three years and their fans have been fantastic in their support of their efforts.
— Pontypool RFC (@PontypoolRFC) May 18, 2019
Whether or not they should have been forced into a play-off game for a place in next year’s Premiership is a mute point, especially with Pooler chief executive Ben Jeffreys, but there was no bitterness in defeat, just a grim determination to continue to fight for top-flight status.
Next season will be harder for them with Neath, Cross Keys, Bargoed and Bedwas dropping down to the Championship, but it is going to take a good side to finish ahead of them next winter.
“The Welsh rugby public knows this game was a farce. We’ve won the league three years in a row and have only lost once,” said Jeffreys.
“We are a great team and we will come back even stronger. We’re going to have a party because we’re going to celebrate three fantastic seasons.
“I said before the game we couldn’t lose. There were 2-3,000 members of the Pooler army out there.
“We were beaten by the better team on the night, but that doesn’t take away the pride and passion we feel. We will be back next year, we won’t be giving up.”
Llanelli’s 27-16 victory at the Talbot Athletic Ground featured tries from Taylor Davies, Ryan Conbeer, Kallum Evans and Lee Rees, plus seven points from the boot of man of the match Tom Prydie. They had to hit back after falling behind to a Kieran Meek penalty and it was tight all the way up to the final quarter.
The first quarter was a ferocious affair with both sides going hammer and tong at each other. Fisher’s side handed Pontypool a numerical advantage with Chris Long sent to the sin bin for an intentional knock on.
Llanelli were reduced to 14 men for the second time in the half when full back Kallum Evans was sent to the sin bin for intentionally killing the ball on the floor. Pontypool opted to take the three points with Meek putting the Gwent outfit into the lead.
But for all Pontypool’s power up front Llanelli had more firepower out wide and had a try disallowed with Ryan Davis spilling the ball forward as he crossed the line. Meek doubled Pontypool’s lead with a straightforward penalty from in front of the posts.
It’s safe to say the lads enjoyed that victory last night!!🍻
Premiership Status 19/20 Secured ✅ pic.twitter.com/eaNlxJk5EE
— Llanelli RFC (@LlanelliRFC) May 18, 2019
Conbeer gave Pontypool another fright when he exploded through a gap to run 30 metres only to be denied by a terrific cover tackle by Geraint Walsh. But Llanelli finally got their noses in front on the stroke of half-time with Davies scoring from short-range after a well-worked driving lineout with the conversion from Prydie giving the west Walians a 7-6 lead at the interval.
Pontypool started the second-half strongly and got their noses back in front with Meek nailing another penalty after Tom Price was pinged for not rolling away. But thereafter Llanelli’s class told with Prydie nudging over two further penalties to give them some breathing space.
Llanelli took complete control of the game when a neat grubber kick from Steffan Hughes was gathered by Wales under 20s speedster Conbeer who touched down for a try which Prydie converted. The west Walians put the result beyond doubt with Wales cap Prydie launching a counter attack before offloading to Evans who put Rees clear to run in from 45 metres out.
Pontypool grabbed a late consolation try with former Wales under 20s loose forward Mathews powering his way over from short range. Full back Evans had a late try disallowed for Llanelli due to Prydie’s pass being forward but Fisher’s side were already home and dry.