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.
Nuemann set to make first start for Wales
FULLBACK Lisa Neumann will make her first start for Wales at Donnybrook this Sunday (Feb 25) (15:00) in Round Three of the Women’s Six Nations.
The 23-year-old from Pembrokeshire is the only new player in the starting line-up to face Ireland. Meanwhile, loosehead prop Cara Hope could win her first international cap from the bench.
“Lisa has been pushing hard for a place in the starting team and she deserves her opportunity this Sunday,” said Phillips, who has enjoyed the benefit of having former Wales international Gareth Wyatt coaching the backs since the start of the tournament. “We have a lot of talented back-three players in the squad, so we think Lisa will slot in well alongside Hannah Bluck and Jess Kavanagh-Williams – two players who pose threats from the wing.”
Phillips recently spoke about his team not being burdened by an “emotional hangover” from the result at the Twickenham Stoop, and insists that preparations for Ireland have been geared towards one thing. “We need to show that we’re improving in the areas that we’ve been working on this year,” said Phillips. “This will be a game between two very evenly-matched teams, and coming off the back of the last match we’re very keen to give a good account of ourselves.”
The last time both teams met in competition was during the Women’s Rugby World Cup in August – a game Wales won by 10 points at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. However, Phillips says that result won’t count for much come Sunday in Donnybrook, particularly after Ireland’s winning performance in a pre-Women’s Six Nations friendly with Wales in Ystrad Mynach earlier this year.
“Ireland were competing for a Grand Slam going into the final game of the competition last year, so we know how much of a strong team they are. The World Cup was a bit of an anomaly for them, so they’ve had a point to prove since then.
“They’ve got a lot of new personnel across the board, but the team is settled and experienced. It’s up for us to show what we’re about as a team. We’ll certainly be prepared for a hugely competitive match in front of a boisterous Irish crowd this Sunday.”
Wales Women team to face Ireland:
15 Lisa Neumann (Scarlets)
14 Hannah Bluck (Cardiff Blues)
13 Kerin Lake (Ospreys)
12 Rebecca De Filippo (Dragons)
11 Jess Kavanagh-Williams (RGC)
10 Elinor Snowsill (Dragons)
9 Rhiannon Parker (Cardiff Blues)
1 Caryl Thomas (Scarlets)
2 Carys Phillips (c) (Ospreys)
3 Amy Evans (Ospreys)
4 Siwan Lillicrap (Ospreys)
5 Mel Clay (Ospreys)
6 Alisha Butchers (Scarlets)
7 Beth Lewis (Scarlets)
8 Sioned Harries (Scarlets)
16 Kelsey Jones (Ospreys)
17 Cara Hope (Ospreys)*
18 Meg York (Dragons)
19 Natalia John (Ospreys)
20 Nia Elen Davies (Scarlets)
21 Jade Knight (Scarlets)
22 Robyn Wilkins (Ospreys)
23 Hannah Jones (Scarlets)
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)
Aber earn a point against Prestatyn
ABERYSTWYTH Town battled to a 1-1 draw against a resolute Prestatyn Town side, in a frantic JD Welsh Premier League clash at Park Avenue on Friday night (Feb 16).
Geoff Kellaway’s 78th minute header was enough to earn Aber a point after Damian Ketley had given the visitors a 20th minute lead, in a game where the home side saw a host of golden opportunities go begging.
Aber manager Nev Powell named an unchanged side from last weekend’s home victory against Llandudno, and his side got off to a bright start as John Owen struck his half volley narrowly over the crossbar after just 2 minutes.
Soon after, Aber were on the attack again as Declan Walker tried his luck from range, before Owen dragged his left footed effort wide of the post.
But it was the visitors who took the lead in the 20th minute with their first effort on target. After Noah Edwards’ corner kick was headed clear in the penalty area, the ball ricocheted for Damian Ketley who prodded the ball home inside the 6 yard box to make it 1-0.
Aber responded well to going behind, continuing to play the ball through the midfield trio of Tom Owens, Damien Allen and Malcolm Melvin, and on 30 minutes came close to finding the equaliser as Ryan Wade volleyed straight into the palms of Carl Jones in the Prestatyn goal.
The hosts continued to press for a way back into the game as Jones saved Tom Owens’ tame header, before Joe Phillips’ curling effort sailed just over the crossbar, but it was to remain 1-0 at half time with much work to do in the second 45 minutes.
Aber striker Craig Hobson was introduced at half time in place of Joe Phillips, as Town looked for an immediate impact from the target man.
Soon after the restart, the hosts saw another glorious chance go begging as John Owen chested the ball down in the penalty area before seeing his shot bounce off Jones and behind for a corner.
Then, on 54 minutes came the game’s most controversial moment, as the referee brandished a red card for Prestatyn sub Zebb Edwards after he appeared to use foul and abusive language.
This swung the momentum of the game in Aber’s favour even further, as Geoff Kellaway and Luke Borelli were introduced in place of Tom Owens and Ryan Wade.
On 70 minutes, Kellaway almost had an immediate impact as he scampered down the left flank before crossing dangerously, only for Dave Hayes to produce a vital block.
Then, on 78 minutes Aber finally found their equaliser, as Malcolm Melvin cut inside before providing an inch-perfect cross for Kellaway to glance home an excellent header beyond Jones to make it 1-1.
Suddenly the home supporters found their voices as they urged their team forwards to find the winner.
To their credit, the 10-man visitors were defending admirably, harrying and hassling Aber all over the pitch.
On 82 minutes, Town thought they’d found the winning goal, as John Owen deflected in Hobson’s glancing header, only for the linesman’s offside flag to deny the front man.
As the game entered the final minutes, Aber continued to huff and puff without blowing the house down.
In the dying seconds, the hosts pushed for one final opportunity, as Ashley Young launched the ball into the penalty area, where Declan Walker’s attempted overhead kick fell to Damien Allen, who’s right footed shot flew agonisingly wide of the far post.
Unfortunately it just wasn’t Aber’s night as they were forced to settle for a point, in a game that could have been so different had they taken their opportunities.
Nevertheless, Nev Powell’s side still remain 10 points clear of bottom side Prestatyn Town, and move to within 4 points of the Europa League play-off spot in the JD Welsh Premier League table.
Aber must now turn their attentions to Sunday’s (Feb 25) huge JD Welsh Premier League clash with west Wales rivals Carmarthen Town at Richmond Park, kick off at 5:15pm.
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