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The Six Nations: Come on Wales!

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WITH new coaches in charge of Wales, Ireland, France, and Italy, there’s an air of change about this year’s Six Nations competition.

Only Eddie Jones and – for now – Gregor Townsend remain at the helm of their countries’ sides from last year.
Wayne Pivac, the former Scarlets coach, takes charge of Wales following Warren Gatland’s retirement. He has very big shoes to fill and his task is not made any easier by the failure of the WRU to retain the services of key backroom staff member Shaun Edwards.

There are five uncapped players in Wales’ 34-member squad for the tournament: Louis Rees-Zammit, Johnny McNicholl, Nick Tompkins, WillGriff John and Will Rowlands.

Rhys Webb also gained a recall having signed a contract with Ospreys following two years with Toulon which ruled him out of the Test arena.

It’s also a welcome return for prop Rob Evans, from Spittal, who was left out of Wales World Cup squad to widespread astonishment. Evans is a strong scrummager and powerful in the loose. He has been in destructive form on the loose-head side for Scarlets this season alongside his Welsh teammate Ken Owens.

Absent are the long-term injured Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, and Tomos Francis.

The absence of Jonathan Davies is likely to be keenly felt in midfield. While Owen Watkins is making a faster than expected recovery from his injury, Wales will need to reshuffle their settled three-quarter line which shone in the Rugby World Cup.

Among the options Wales are considering to replace their midfield general is moving George North inside from the wing to provide a physical presence and a different threat than the injured Lions centre.

Louis Rees-Zammit, the Gloucester winger, is one to watch out for; if he gets on the pitch, he’ll be the large red blur charging at the Italian defence. The eighteen-year-old flyer has been compared to George North in terms of size, speed, and predatory scoring ability. Despite representing Wales at U18 level, the Cardiff-born winger attended Gloucester’s rugby academy to fit in with his education at Hartpury College. Rumours that Eddie Jones tried to tempt him over to the dark side were quickly squashed when Rees-Zammitt was selected in the Wales senior squad.

At full-back, with Liam Williams ruled out of this weekend’s Italy game, Leigh Halfpenny is almost nailed on to start. The Scarlets number 15 has been in stellar form this season, offering threat in attack, solidity in defence, and reliability with his metronomic boot. His recovery from a serious concussion injury, which left him out of the game for a long period and ruled him out of last year’s Six Nations, has resulted in renewed determination from the Scarlets man.
“It only feels like yesterday I was one of the younger boys,” Halfpenny says.

“I’m one of the older ones now and it’s great for us as a squad to have fantastically talented youngsters coming through. It’s strengthening us as a team and there is a lot of competition.

“It does make me realise I’m probably in the latter stages of my career. When I look back on it, it has all gone so quick. It’s gone in the blink of an eye. It’s incredible. It’s always a privilege to hear your name read out for the Welsh squad and even though I am in the latter stages of my career, I’m still ambitious. I’m still hungry to achieve things, but I also want to enjoy every moment I have as much as possible at the moment.”

Leigh Halfpenny continued: “Last season the boys were absolutely outstanding. To achieve a Grand Slam was incredible and it’s now hugely exciting looking ahead to this Six Nations,” Halfpenny said.

“Our goal is to go and win the title again. That’s the challenge for us as a squad. We’ve got new coaches and management and that’s really exciting as well.

“It is a new era for the squad. What was achieved with the previous management was just incredible and the feeling in the group has been brilliant these last two weeks. The boys have come in full of energy and we can’t wait to get started with this Six Nations. Italy will be an extremely tough challenge. Both teams will want to get off to a positive start to the campaign. Having played Italy you know they do pose threats and they’re a tough team to crack. We’re going to have to be at our best to do that both in attack and defence. We want to get our Six Nations campaign off to the start we want which is with a win.”

Former Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac is the man tasked with filling the boots of fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland, who steered Wales to three grand slams and two World Cup semi-final appearances during his 12-year reign.

“The guys have been made aware of the style of game we want and the positional and role specifics they will have to play,” says Pivac.

“The expectation is we are going to move a bit more ball and what I’m seeing at the moment is a great reaction. We’ve got a good vibe in the group and if the training sessions are anything to go by, we’ve got guys putting their hands up to take to the field.”

Pivac continued: “The boys had a fantastic competition to win the Grand Slam last year. History says this year is going to be tough with England and Ireland away, but that’s the challenge.

“That’s what motivates the best players and coaches. We think we have a draw that lends itself to us building into the competition. With no disrespect to any opponent, I think it’s nice we’ve got a home game to kick it off and you can certainly sense there is a bit of excitement.

“We are going to evolve our attack and that will take a bit of time. It took a bit of time with the Scarlets and I’m sure it will be no different at an international level, except we have got a higher calibre of player to work with across the board.”

Wales haven’t lost to Italy since 2007 and the Azzurri have never won in Cardiff since joining the Six Nations. The 2020 tournament will be their 21st season in the Championship.

Italy are now coached by Franco Smith and captained by hooker Luca Bigi with Sergio Parisse – who has skippered the team for so long – absent for the Cardiff clash.

“I think there will be a lot of continuity. I think Wayne is very smart in the way he goes about things,” said Smith.
“He spent five years in Wales – there’s a reason why they’ve appointed him after Warren. It’s going to be again a big physical challenge, but I do think they will bring a bit of an attacking edge. The style Wayne played at the Scarlets will be noticeable in the new approach.

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Reds leave it late to beat Celtic

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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.

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Reds begin league campaign with win over Lido

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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.

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Reds bow out of cup after shootout defeat

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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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