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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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Swans grab last gasp play-off spot

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WAYNE ROUTLEDGE’s last-gasp header saw Swansea City secure a play-off spot with a handsome away victory over 10-man Reading on a dramatic Wednesday night (July 22).

Steve Cooper’s side knew they had to win at the Madejski Stadium to have any hope of a top-six finish, and Rhian Brewster’s 10th goal of the season gave them an ideal start.

The sending off of Yakou Meite then gave the Swans a man advantage, but the Royals equalised before the half through a George Puscas penalty.

The Swans restored their lead through a classy finish from substitute Routledge, before Liam Cullen showed great composure to steer in his first goal for the club.

And when Routledge popped up at the death to complete his brace it put the Swans into the top six as Forest suffered a 4-1 defeat at home to Stoke, meaning Swansea got into the play-offs on goal difference.

The Swans started on the front foot, with centurion Connor Roberts having particular joy down the right-hand flank.

Brewster then nearly threaded Conor Gallagher in on goal after fine work by Andre Ayew, before Roberts hit a strike into the ground and over the bar after Jake Bidwell had made the overlap on the opposite flank.

The hosts responded by having a good spell of possession, probing and asking a few questions of their own.

But the visitors hit the lead in the 16th minute through Brewster. The striker picked the ball up some 30 yards out and got the ball out of his feet before smashing a long-range drive that completely deceived Rafael in the Reading goal.

John Swift curled a free-kick over at the other end, while more good work by Roberts could not quite end with Bidwell getting on the end of a deep cross before Rafael made a hash of dealing with a Gallagher cross.

Swift headed straight at Erwin Mulder from a good counter on the half-hour mark, with Ayew quickly advancing up the field to work Rafael again.

Opportunities were coming at both ends, with Mulder called into action again as Meite took aim from the left side of the area.
Swansea were riding their luck a little and had a let-off when a sliced clearance landed on top of the bar.

Matt Grimes had a free-kick pushed away by Rafael before the home side were reduced to 10 men after Meite had pushed Mike van der Hoorn in the face after a tussle for the ball.

But the hosts made light of the numerical disadvantage by levelling after Bidwell was adjudged to have fouled Andy Rinomhota, with Puscas beating Mulder – who got a hand to the strike – from the spot.

However, the Swans should have led at the break. Ben Cabango’s shot was blocked and fell to Jay Fulton, but the Scot pulled his shot wide of the target.

Rafael pushed away an Ayew drive right on half-time, with Swansea frustrated that referee Stephen Martin did not award them a penalty of their own as Fulton went down under a challenge from Omar Richards.

With Cardiff winning and Nottingham Forest losing, Cooper knew goals were needed and he made two changes at the break.

Yan Dhanda came on for Fulton, while Routledge replaced van der Hoorn, and they were immediately on the front foot.

With Swansea committing so many players forward, Reading looked to sit deep and play on the break and they proved resolute as the visitors battled to find a way through.

Grimes curled a free-kick wide of the target and Gallagher also threatened from distance, but the hour mark came and went without any clear-cut chances to show for their dominance of possession and territory.

However, when they did craft a sight of goal they took the chance clinically. Grimes produced a lovely ball, and Routledge controlled superbly to loft the ball over Rafael and into the net.

Unfortunately for the Swans, that goal went in moments after Forest had equalised against Stoke, which appeared to put a sizeable dent in their playoff aspirations.

Nevertheless, Cooper’s side continued to search for more goals in the hope events in the East Midlands would turn back in their favour.

They so nearly made it 3-1 with 17 minutes to play as lovely link play from Rutledge and Bidwell ended with Ayew steering just wide.

The situation was changing all the time, and Stoke retook the lead at Forest to leave the door ajar for the Swans.

And, when Stoke scored a third at the City Ground and Cullen coolly fired home his first senior goal for the club with six minutes remaining, they suddenly only needed a goal to finish in the play-off places.

Grimes had a deflected shot tipped over but the Swans then got the goal they needed in stoppage time as Routledge popped up to nod in at the far post, with Stoke’s fourth goal putting the matter beyond doubt a few moments later to spark delighted celebrations among Cooper, his players and his staff.

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Glamorgan launch new kit

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GLAMORGAN Cricket has unveiled its new Vitality Blast playing kit for the 2020 season.

Designed by the Club’s official kit supplier, Masuri, alongside Glamorgan’s management, players and coaches, the brand-new Vitality Blast strip contains a subtle Welsh twist.

Fitting Glamorgan’s traditional colour schemes, the top is dark navy with a tonal dragon across the front – a nod to the old Glamorgan nickname and the Welsh identity – while a sharp yellow trim on the neck and sleeves frames the top.

The famous ‘Daff’ sits on the heart of the shirt, with MiPost’s strong Welsh brand centre-stage. Appearing on the collars are the logos of ‘Official Players Car Partner’, Mon Motors and Welsh company, Philtronics Solutions, with Discover Leeks on the right sleeve and SA Group on the back.

The famous Aston Martin logo features on both side of the Glamorgan T20 cap, as they continue their ongoing support of the club.

Head of Commercial, Huw Warren, said: “We’ve enjoyed working with Masuri throughout the design process and together developed an exciting new kit we’re sure our supporters will love with its strong connections with Wales.

“Our Masuri kits have always been hugely successful with players and fans alike and we look forward to continuing our commercial partnership with them.

“We can’t wait to see our players wearing the new kit when the Blast gets underway later this summer.”

Masuri CEO, Sam Miller, said: ‘’Once again it has been a pleasure working with the team at Glamorgan to bring this year’s kit to life, and we are looking forward to seeing it in use during the much anticipated Vitality Blast this year.’’

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Wembley trip for Giggs’ men

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CYMRU will travel to Wembley Stadium on Thursday 8 October for a home nations international against England.

Ryan Giggs’ side will return to action this autumn for the first time in 10 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, kicking off with the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League campaign. The match against England will be one of two additional international matches scheduled as triple headers in October and November. In keeping with current Government guidelines, this fixture is scheduled to be played behind-closed-doors.

Since their first encounter in 1879, England are Cymru’s second oldest opponents with 102 matches in total producing 14 wins, 21 draws and 67 defeats. Cymru’s last visit to Wembley Stadium was in 2011 for a UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier, with Ashley Cole scoring in a 1-0 defeat.

Ryan Giggs’ side will be using this match to prepare for the rescheduled EURO 2020 finals next summer where they hope to return to Wembley, one of the host stadiums, for the latter stages of the tournament.

Looking ahead to the autumn, Cymru are in Nations League Group B4 alongside Bulgaria, Finland and the Republic of Ireland with fixture dates as follows:

Thursday, 3 September – Finland v Cymru (7:45pm)
Sunday, 6 September – Cymru v Bulgaria (2:00pm)
Sunday, 11 October – Republic of Ireland v Cymru (2:00pm)
Wednesday, 14 October – Bulgaria v Cymru (7:45pm)
Sunday, 15 November – Cymru v Republic of Ireland (5:00pm)
Wednesday, 18 November – Cymru v Finland (7:45pm)

All fixtures are scheduled to be played behind-closed-doors for the foreseeable future.

The FAW will continue to adhere to relevant Government guidelines and supporters will be notified should arrangements change and tickets become available.

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