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Wales ready for Six Nations

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By Jonathan Twigg

THE 2018 Six Nations Rugby Championship kicks off on Saturday (Feb 3) when Wales, captained by Alun Wyn Jones, welcome Scotland to the Principality Stadium in a match to be refereed by Frenchman, Romain Poite.

Coach Warren Gatland’s squad has been hampered with many high profile injuries, the latest being former Scarlets full back Liam Williams alongside scrum half Rhys Webb and his half back partner Dan Biggar.

The Welsh nation’s attention will be focused over the next seven weeks on the rugby and local interest has been heightened due to the Scarlets progressing to the European Cup quarter finals where they play La Rochelle on Friday (Mar 31).

The opening game against a Scottish side who have revelled in attacking flair under coach Gregor Townsend in the Autumn Series will offer a test which Gatland’s charges will have to meet front on to secure a victory. Winning will set down a marker by which the side will be judged.

They travel to Twickenham a week later to take on England before crossing the Irish Sea to take on the Emerald Isle in Dublin at the end of the month.

Both England and Ireland are at the top of their game at present, where any positive result will see euphoria amongst rugby followers. Gatland has changed his blueprint of direct rugby through hard running centre partnerships now opting for a more creative player at 12 which follows the way the Scarlets have developed this season.

Rhys Patchell could well have the nod to partner Gareth Davies at half back and the back division would feature fellow Scarlets, winger Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny, although neither have played a lot of ruby in recent weeks.

The centre partnership may be pivotal, with Osprey bound Scott Williams linking with adopted Kiwi Hadleigh Parkes after both impressed in the Autumn Series.

Prop Rob Evans should pack down on the coal face alongside Scarlets captain Ken Owens and fellow prop Samson le has returned to full fitness and may become the third player in the front row.

Back row dynamos Aaron Shingler and newbie James ‘Cubby’ Davies, brother of injured centre Jonathan, are also probable starters for Gatland meaning the Pivac influence of ‘expect the unexpected’, albeit abstractly, could well influence how well Wales perform.

Following the two testing trips on the road, Wales return to the Principality Stadium to take on Italy on Sunday (Mar 11) when the fixture follows the Women’s international between the two countries, before the finale of the season when France take on the ‘Men of Harlech’ a week later.

Predicating any result in sport is precarious at the best of times and the Six Nations championship often depends on which country has the key fixtures at home. Wales would be looking to secure three home victories, where the toughest encounter will be the opener against our Gaelic cousins.

Travelling to Twickenham and Dublin are daunting for any side where realistically a positive result will be an outside chance at best.

England, with colourful Aussie hooker Eddie Jones in charge are hardworking and Wales may have to live off limited possession, although the Scarlets faced such a scenario when they travelled to the ‘Rec’ and comprehensively dismissed Bath in front of Jones watching eyes.

Where there is a will there is a way as veteran second row Alun Wyn Jones leads the side knowing it could present a title showdown against Ireland, possibly the toughest of opponents in their own back yard.

With some optimism the prediction is for four victories, the three home fixtures and an exhilarating performance to light up the return journey down the M4 for those die hard supporters making the trip to HQ.

England will also return with four victories, beating Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield and France in Paris as recompense for their humbling at Wales hands.

Ireland, with a win over Wales may find the final game at Twickenham one step too far as the ‘Rose’ will find it unbearable to lose two home games meaning they also end on four victories.

Italy will pick up the wooden spoon without securing a win, ahead of France with Scotland in fourth position.

Representing Wales on the referee’s circuit will by Nigel Owens, who has a long association with Pontyberem RFC in the Gwendraeth Valley, taking centre stage when Ireland take on France.

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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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