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Elfyn Evans raises the stakes in Monte Carlo

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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.

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Wales Women building cohesion at start of big year

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Cohesion was the focus for new Wales Women head coach Warren Abrahams during his first training camp of 2021.

Having been in post just over a month, Abrahams has spent time watching the Welsh performances in the Allianz Premier 15s and getting to know players and staff but the two-day camp was a welcome opportunity for quality face to face time with an enlarged training squad.

“We achieved our key aims on the weekend. The main thing was to learn more about the players. The more we understand them as individuals and as a team, that’s where we can make them better as players.

“The ultimate goal at the moment is to develop cohesion. We have to have the right people and make sure we work incredibly hard on those relationships between players and with management. Everything is tailored to making the team better and we also had some meaningful conversations around the legacy this team wants to leave for the next generation of Welsh women’s rugby and this team has to be the role model for that. That is a long-term goal.”

Abrahams is buoyed by what he’s seen so far. The vast majority of this training squad play in the Allianz Premiership and our players aren’t just making up the numbers. They’re putting down some big markers – just look at Kayleigh Powell and Hannah Jones who both earned a Player of the Match recently and Jaz Joyce who was Player of the Month for December. We’re really proud of how well our players are doing, it’s great for the programme and those experiences are just going to make them better.”

Siwan Lillicrap added, “It’s been nice to get together so soon in the New Year – the first step in a huge year ahead. The focus this weekend was on building a foundation and exploring what we’ve got as a squad.

“I think we absolutely achieved that, the relationships are developing along with a confidence in the squad . It’s been a tough, challenging camp but that’s what you want as we build towards the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup.”

Lillicrap welcomed the input of the new-look coaching team, former Wales captain and Colwyn Bay head coach Rachel Taylor coming in as national skills coach and former Ireland international and Penclawdd forwards coach Sophie Spence joining the set-up as Wales’ World Rugby coaching intern.

“Warren has been very inspirational for us already. It feels like he’s been in post much longer as we’ve done a lot of work on zoom already. It’s great to have Rachel on board. She’s a role model for many of us with what’s she’s done on the field as Wales captain and off it as a coach and Sophie too with her international experience and coaching knowledge.”

Training squad:
Forwards: Abbie Fleming, Alisha Butchers, Gwen Crabb, Georgia Evans, Cerys Hale, Cara Hope, Molly Kelly, Natalia John, Manon Johnes, Kelsey Jones, Beth Lewis, Siwan Lillicrap, Robyn Lock, Shona Powell-Hughes, Donna Rose, Caryl Thomas, Meg Webb, Teleri Wyn Davies
Backs: Alecs Donovan, Beth Huntley, Bryonie King, Courtney Keight, Jade Knight, Caitlin Lewis, Lisa Neumann, Hannah Jones, Jasmine Joyce, Kayleigh Powell, Paige Randall, Jess Roberts, Gemma Rowland, Lauren Smyth, Elinor Snowsill, Robyn Wilkins, Flo Williams

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Scarlets slay Dragons

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Pro-14 Conference BScarlets 20 – Dragons 3

SCARLETS started 2021 as they ended 2020 with a Welsh derby victory at Parc y Scarlets.
Tries from man-of-the-match Sione Kalamafoni and replacement Sam Costelow, combined with the boot of Dan Jones ensured Glenn Delaney’s side made it a festive double to move them up to second in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 standings.
The Scarlets weren’t at their free-flowing best and will be frustrated by the amount of handling errors and ill-discipline in their performance, but the winning run continues ahead of next week’s clash with Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital.
Despite a rare dry night in Llanelli, the opening 40 minutes was littered with errors from both sides and it meant the game had little flow.
The Scarlets enjoyed plenty of possession and territory, but too often passes failed to go to hand.
It was the Dragons who were first on the scoreboard thanks to a penalty from the boot of ex-Scarlet Josh Lewis.
Wales lock Jake Ball limped off moments later with a knee injury to be replaced by Tevita Ratuva, while Wyn Jones, on his 100th appearance, also left the field for a head assessment.
The outstanding Kalamafoni made a powerful surge up the middle of the field to put the Scarlets on the offensive, but again a promising move broke down.
Dan Jones levelled matters on 29 minutes, then added another penalty on the stroke of half-time after a quick tap from Kieran Hardy.
The Scarlets continued to enjoy the better of play in the second period, but had to wait until 57 minutes for the game’s first try.
More pressure led to Gareth Davies being taken out off the ball and Dragons lock Matthew Screech being shown yellow by referee Nigel Owens.
Scarlets went for the corner instead of the shot at goal and a well-worked training move saw Kalamafoni charge across the whitewash for his first try in Scarlets colours, a score converted by Jones.
With former Scarlet Rhodri Williams adding a spark, Dragons looked for an immediate response, but a brilliant turnover from Ratuva snuffed out the threat.
Then in the final play, replacement Sam Costelow picked up a loose ball, sped through the gap and around the final defender for a superb solo score, with the Wales U20s fly-half adding the conversion for good measure.
After the hard-fought win, Scarlets coach Glenn Delaney said: “I suppose it was a compelling contest of a different nature. You saw a lot of kicking battles going on, neither team wanted to give the other counter-attacking opportunities.
“I thought defensively we were very resolute, I never felt we were in danger on our goal-line, it was a bit stop-start with a couple of drop balls, but I am delighted to get the win and we did create a bit more in the second half.
“With these derby games, I am learning every time we play one, they all seem to be pretty much like this and perhaps bring out the best and worst in us because of the individual competition and contest.
“We would have liked to have done a bit more with the ball and the attacking breakdown with us was poor, the Dragons turned over a bit of ball there so we need to be better in that area and make sure when we make the breaks we are able to capitalise.”Attachments area

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Scarlets’ late surge sees off Ospreys

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Pro-14 Conference B – Ospreys 14 – Scarlets 16 

A LATE try from Angus O’Brien secured the derby day spoils in a nail-biting Guinness PRO14 Boxing Day clash against the Ospreys.
The Ospreys, playing as the official ‘home’ team at Parc y Scarlets, had led for the majority of a tense contest.
But with 71 minutes on the clock, a superb off-load from replacement Blade Thomson paved the way for full-back O’Brien to slice through and dive over for the crucial score.
Man of the match Dan Jones added the conversion to put the Scarlets in front for the first time and the West Walians were able to finish the match on the front foot to claim the annual festive bragging rights and a crucial win to keep them in the hunt in the Conference B standings.
O’Brien hadn’t been named in the original match-day 23, but was brought in at the 11th hour as a replacement for Johnny McNicholl.
In blustery conditions, Scarlets enjoyed the early pressure, but despite hammering away at the Ospreys line were unable to come away with any points.
Instead, it was the Ospreys who were first on the board after 14 minutes through the boot of fly-half Stephen Myler.
The opening quarter was proving a cagey affair with both sides unable to get any momentum going.
A moment of individual brilliance from scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams, who dummied and sprinted clear from 40 metres, extended the Ospreys’ lead on 22 minutes, but the Scarlets’ response was swift with Jones landing a penalty straight from the kick-off.
Jones hit the upright with another attempt, then a pin-point cross-field kick from Steff Hughes just evaded the grasp of wing Steff Evans with the line at his mercy.
A powerful scrum on the stroke of half-time led to a long-range penalty chance, but O’Brien’s strike drifted wide with the Ospreys going in ahead 8-3 at the break.
Myler extended his side’s lead early in the second half, but Jones kept Scarlets in it with his kicking out of hand and off the floor.
Two more penalties from the Carmarthen fly-half to one from Myler made it 14-9 going into the final 10 minutes.
Then the Scarlets struck.
With Thomson having a big impact off the bench, the back-rower plucked a ball out of the sky as the Scarlets surged forward. He was involved again soon after, producing a sublime pass to O’Brien who cut a great angle to the posts.
With only two points in it, the Scarlets showed their composure to make their way downfield and set up camp in ‘home’ territory for the final minutes, denying the Ospreys any chance to snatch the win.Glenn Delaney reflected on the absence of fans from the stadium.“You go back 12 months and there were 15,000 people here and I don’t think I have experienced anything like it. This place was electric.“I say it every week, we are very fortunate to be in the position we are and we are only here by virtue of the supporters of this great club. We want the fans back here as soon as possible.“Hopefully, they found a chance to shout at the TV screens, get involved and share the experience. The derby season is passionate, the only thing we are missing is the people. We must get the people back into the game, they would have loved the occasion.”On the performance, while Glenn Delaney was ‘delighted’ with the win, he added: “There is plenty for us to work on. We stayed in the game and that’s what you have to do in a derby.“There were a lot of things we weren’t happy about in terms of our skillsets and penalty count, we were very ill-disciplined and we need to correct that. We were putting pressure on ourselves. We were trying to play and we were quite close on a couple of occasions, a couple of pass-kicks almost went to hand.“Probably not having a game for a week or so showed, our timing was a bit off; we have had a couple of disjointed weeks, we looked a bit rusty. I thought the Ospreys were excellent, put us under pressure and took their points well.”

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