ELFYN EVANS’ bid to add further success to his history-making win on last year’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB blasts off with next week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo (25-28 January).
As tradition dictates, the FIA World Rally Championship commences with the notoriously challenging Alpine classic – a wintry event that always throws up an ultra-testing cocktail of ice, snow and slush making the already demanding mountain roads among the trickiest on the 13-round WRC calendar, which reaches Wales in early October.
Evans has contested Rallye Monte-Carlo four times previously and has never finished outside the top eight. His best result to date is sixth place on his debut in 2014 and again last year.
“It’s never an easy event,” admits the 29-year-old from Dolgellau. “There are so many factors that come into play that you don’t generally get on a more normal round of the championship but it’s an iconic way to start the year. The stages themselves – if you take away all the snow and ice – are absolutely fantastic.”
Since taking his maiden WRC win in Wales – the first for a Welsh driver, and the first for a British driver on home soil since the late Richard Burns in 2000 – Evans has been promoted by his title-winning M-Sport team. For 2018, he and co-driver Daniel Barritt line up alongside five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier in one of the Cumbrian outfit’s pair of front-line Red Bull-liveried Ford Fiesta WRCs.
“It’s a good place to be alongside Seb again this year,” he enthused. “We worked together well last year – albeit on different tyres – so to continue that on now with identical equipment is a fantastic opportunity.”
While clearly keen to make the most of his coveted seat alongside the French maestro, Evans is by no means overawed by his illustrious team-team. “He’s a fantastic benchmark to have in the team, has a lot of experience and is the best in the world at the moment, so you’d be a fool not to capitalise on that and learn from him. My aim, though, is always to try to beat him if we can.”
And the Welshman is certainly brimming with confidence after his break-through season in 2017 when he not only posted his first WRC victory but also two impressive second place finishes en route to fifth place in the final WRC championship standings.
“We made some good steps forward and found a happy place with the car – hopefully we can continue improving from there,” he disclosed.
Evans, though, will need to be at his brilliant best not just to beat Ogier but also to fend off some world class opposition in what promises to be another thrilling world championship series. Last year’s introduction of new technical rules not only introduced faster, more exciting cars but also created renewed rivalry between the top teams.
M-Sport might have won both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ crowns in 2017 but the opposition from Citroën, Hyundai and Toyota will be even stronger in 2018. Evans, however, believes the M-Sport technicians – now benefiting from increased support from Ford – will keep the Fiesta in front.
“There are small improvements but ultimately, with the regulations as they are, it doesn’t give anyone the scope to make massive changes. More a case of tweaking here and there,” he explained.
“We already had a strong platform, we just need to keep nibbling away to find gains in performance. Hopefully, the guys have been doing that over the winter and we all will continue pushing hard with the support of Ford this year. There’s always been a Ford connection with some engineering support but that’s now stepped up a level – that should help us to improve and stay at the top.”
While next week’s famous Rallye Monte-Carlo will provide a stern opening test, the WRC calendar throws up numerous challenges before the intrepid teams encounter the legendary Welsh forests in early October. As ever, the calendar is an epic adventure ranging from the snow packed tracks of Sweden to the rock-strewn mountain passes of Mexico and Argentina.
“To be honest, there are no rounds that I’m not looking forward to,” continued Evans. “I now have fond memories of just about all of the events. My focus this year will be to enjoy them all and to get the most out of each one, rather just targeting a handful.
“It will, of course, be special to be back in Wales,” he grinned. “The DMACK tyres obviously helped to put us in good position last year, now we’re equal Michelins to everyone else. Let’s wait and see. It’s a few months away but, obviously, we will be looking for another great result.”
In the meantime, all those wanting to follow Evans’ fortunes on television are spoilt for choice with both live and highlights coverage of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship on Channel 5, BT Sport, S4C and Red Bull TV.
Tickets for the 2018 Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (4-7 October) will go on sale when the competitive route is revealed in April.
Reds leave it late to beat Celtic
WHILST never quite emulating the performance of their opening JD Cymru South league fixture against Afan Lido, Llanelli Town were again competent in going about their business on the occasion of the visit of Cwmbran Celtic, but left it late before finally clinching the win through an 84th minute Tim Parker header.
Their opponents made it difficult for the hosts to settle into any meaningful rhythm although they did offer a threat going forward, with an early chance created by a Ryan Bevan corner which led to a hectic goalmouth scramble before the danger was cleared.
Keane Watts was crudely brought down by Joshua Rippon which earned the visiting player an yellow card, and from the subsequent Bevan free kick, goalkeeper Lewis Watkins was forced into a full length save to direct it away from goal.
Celtic were also looking menacing on the break, and when Isaac Powell and Alex Bonthron combined, the latter unleashed a shot on target which forced Scott Coughlan in the home goal into action to divert clear with an outstretched leg.
The Reds` defence was looking impressively solid, with Sean Cronin and Jamie Baker dominant, and Lewis Iles was denied by a timely tackle by Baker when he lined up a potential threat, while the same player then forced Coughlan to safely grasp a shot from distance.
A sweeping home attack involving a number of players culminated in Miles John seeing his effort deflect off a Celtic defender and narrowly off target, and when a Bevan set piece was headed down into the path of Watts, he could only fire into the side netting.
With neither side able to achieve a first half breakthrough, the visitors began on the offensive after the restart with Baker halting Bonthron in his tracks with a solid challenge as he made a run up the left flank, before Jack Martin was afforded too much space to launch an attempt on the home goal which sailed just wide.
The hosts made a couple of changes, with Thomas Hillman and Adam Robbins replacing John and Dylan Williams, and they went close to scoring when another Bevan corner led to a melee in front of the net with the ball bobbling about but with nobody able to get the vital final connection to force it home.
Then came a golden chance for the home side when Watts was bundled over in the box and referee Tom Bevan pointed to the spot on 77 minutes, but the kick by captain Josef Hopkins lacked power and direction, and Watkins dived to his left to keep it out.
Almost immediately, the visitors were then reduced to ten men with the dismissal of Kian Bodenham for a second caution, and within minutes of this the Reds finally achieved the lead when some good play by Eli Phipps, who had come on as a substitute, led to his chipped cross into the middle being met by Parker from close in to direct his header past Watkins on 84 minutes.
With time running out, the Reds pressed forward in their efforts to put the contest beyond reach, and Watkins did well to deny Parker from close range before the final whistle signalled the close and another three points for the home side in an encouraging early season start.
Another difficult outing awaits them next Friday evening, with a large crowd expected for the visit of local rivals Ammanford, with a 7.30pm kick off.
Reds begin league campaign with win over Lido
THE disappointment of exiting the Nathaniel MG Cup in the first round did not seem to impact greatly on Llanelli Town as they kick-started their league season with a thoroughly deserved win over doughty opponents who pushed them all the way, but who had to admit defeat at the final whistle.
Both sides contributed in an entertaining encounter and an-end-to end contest, with the visitors always posing a threat but being capably dealt with by a home rear-guard whenever danger threatened, while the hosts always seem to have the edge when it came to goal threats, and the eventual tally could well have been more.
The Reds made a number of changes to their initial line-up, with Louis Gerrard, Dylan Williams and James Parry starting, while Nathan Logan and Owain Phillips-Taylor dropped to the bench, and they were the first to threaten with Ryan Bevan firing wide of the visitors` goal.
Josef Hopkins was close to connecting with a ball on the edge of the Lido area, before it was safely gathered by goalkeeper Aaron Jones.
When the visitors broke, it took a saving tackle by Jamie Baker on former Llanelli player, Chris Jones, to prevent a potential threat at the expense of a corner, and when Jones himself took it, he drilled the ball low across the face of goal without anyone able to make a connection.
Both Miles John and Parry were constantly pushing forward as wing backs causing plenty of problems for the Lido defence, and from one of these forays, John forced a corner taken by Bevan and met at the far post by Sean Cronin whose header was fractionally off target.
Another chance then fell to Keane Watts from an assist by Parry, but he could only loft his finish over the top.
A run up the right by Williams and a cross into the Lido box deflected for a corner, before the hosts deservedly took the lead on 36 minutes when another Bevan flag kick found Tim Parker whose downward header went in via the underside of the crossbar.
Encouraged by this success, the Reds continued to press with Hopkins firing narrowly over the Lido goal, before their opponents drew level with a rare attack involving Carlos Indjai whose contribution led to the move and ended with Sean Hanbury meeting the ball in the box to beat Scott Coughlan in the home goal three minutes from the interval.
With both teams all-square, it was all to play for in the second half, and again it was the home side who were quickly off the mark, with both Parker and Hopkins chasing down a through ball by John, but neither was able to make a connection and the move fizzled out.
However, the Reds did not have to wait long before regaining the lead in the 53rd minute with a spectacular 35 yard strike by Williams who gained possession in midfield, and spotting Jones some way off his line, lifted his finish over him into a vacant net.
Comfortably in the ascendancy, the home side were playing some easy-on-the-eye football with every individual intent on doing their utmost to ensure they kept their opponents quiet, typified by a run from Watts into the Lido box before he was closed down and had to settle for a corner.
A raft of changes by both sides did nothing to alter the tempo of the contest which continued to entertain at a fast pace, although it was again the hosts who were looking the more likely of adding to their advantage.
They did just this, but had to wait until two minutes from the final whistle to do so following a free kick awarded on the edge of the visitors` box after a foul on Eli Phipps, and Bevan stepped up to hammer home a well-struck finish which gave the goalkeeper no chance to seal a well-deserved victory for the Reds, who, if they can maintain this level of performance, can look forward to a successful campaign.
They are without a game this weekend, but await another tough challenge with a mouth-watering home derby clash with Ammanford on Friday, 12th August, kick off 7.30pm.
Reds bow out of cup after shootout defeat
LLANELLI Town’s interest in the Nathaniel MG Cup failed to clear the first hurdle as after managing a rather fortuitous 1-1 draw on 90 minutes they made a complete hash of the subsequent penalty shoot-out, with four players failing to find the net, while their opponents were not much better, but did manage to score twice and claim their place in the next round of the competition.
The hosts introduced no fewer than ten new players to the squad, either in the starting line-up or on the bench, but on this evidence it will take some time and hard graft to blend them into a side capable of making a real impact for the forthcoming season.
Once again, a lack of goal-scoring prowess seems to be the main problem, and apart from a few near misses, the visitors` goal was seldom under any real threat with goalkeeper Connor Christie having a relatively quiet game, in contrast to his opposite number, Scott Coughlin, who kept the Reds in contention with a string of crucial interventions, and but for his efforts, the tie would have been out reach by the final whistle.
Abergavenny were on the offensive almost from the off with a ball driven low into the box by Joseph Ogugua deflected narrowly wide for a corner.
This pattern continued for much of the half, although the hosts were unlucky when an effort by Nathan Logan took a deflection off a defender before rebounding off the crossbar and over.
The visitors were eventually rewarded for their efforts when they took the lead on 21 minutes following a ball hoisted high into the goalmouth which led to Coughlin and Rhys Tandy challenging for it with the latter emerging victorious by forcing it home on the line.
Stung by this reverse, the Reds hit back through a Ryan Bevan free kick driven towards goal which led to a melee in front of the net with the loose ball rebounding off the foot of the post before being safely gathered by Christie.
The visitors were still in the ascendancy, and Coughlin did well to push clear a well struck shot on target by Tandy, before the hosts were thrown a lifeline with the award of a penalty in the 37th minute when Keane Watts was brought down in the box, and Josef Hopkins made no mistake from the spot to send the sides in all square at the break.
The second half largely followed the pattern of the first, with Abergavenny for the most part dictating play, with the Reds living off scraps of possession.
I took a saving tackle by Jamie Baker on Greg Preece on the edge of the area to prevent the visiting player from homing in on goal, while Coughlin was forced to dive low to his left to divert a Daniel MacDonald free kick away from goal.
A rare chance for the home side was spurned when Watts headed wide at the far post from a Hopkins delivery, before they survived another close call when Baker got in a tangle with Preece
breathing down his neck, forcing Coughlin to again save the day by throwing himself at the feet of Preece to prevent a certain score.
Jack Evans fired into the midriff of the Reds` keeper when he volleyed goalwards a Drew Heffernan assist, and when Ogugua was put clear through the middle Coughlin again came to the rescue by grabbing the ball at his feet in the area.
With time running out and penalties looming, Abergavenny created another couple of chances which would have won the contest, with Tandy being guilty of a bad miss firing over when in space and a decent shooting position, while MacDonald also failed to make the most of another potential winner.
With the tie all-square at one apiece, the result then had to be decided by way of a penalty shoot-out, which when taken developed into something of a farce.
Of the seven kicks taken by each side, the Reds failed to find the net with their four attempts with the culprits being Bevan, Hopkins, Sean Cronin and Louis Gerrard, while the visitors also failed with their first kick by MacDonald before Preece and Joshua Bell eventually sent them through to the next round.
Not the start visualised by the Reds, and some serious thinking needs to be done prior to the opening league fixture at Stebonheath next Friday evening when their opponents will be Afan Lido. Kick off is at 7.30pm.
The Reds have another home league fixture versus Cwmbran Celtic on Tuesday, August 2, kick off also at 7.30pm.
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