As part of our special preview to Finals Day 2017, Caerphilly Observer spoke to Penallta RFC ahead of a big day out in the capital…
Muscles ached, battered and sore, fuelled to the last by adrenaline and determination.
The sky above the Principality Stadium was grey, the clock within it red, and the blue and yellow kits of Penallta’s players were lined five metres from their own try-line.
One more phase. Another one. Again. Bedlinog were not done, and caught whiff of the blood in the water with the 80 minutes up.
The scoreboard showed they were a point behind their rivals, and Liam Jones readied himself in the space behind the ruck, guarded by forwards.
The ball was spun in the full-back’s direction. He planted his right foot, dropped the oval onto his left, and struck it with pinpoint accuracy to sail between the posts.
Bodies littered the field. The black and maroon of the Foxes piled together like magnets, their opposition scattered, slumped in disbelief, struggling to pick themselves up after victory was snatched from their grasp.
But that’s exactly what Penallta have done, and are ready to make amends on April 16.
Since their last-minute defeat at the Principality Stadium last spring, the Pitmen have worked quietly and efficiently to secure themselves another crack at winning the National Plate.
It’s not unrealistic to say this final would represent the peak of Penallta’s season.
Their hopes of promotion from Division 1 East look slim – sitting third, 17 points off the top, albeit with three games in hand on Nelson in second – but silverware from a third final in five years would certainly mark a stylish finish.
There have been changes since the 10-12 loss to Bedlinog, with Matthew Tucker taking the reigns from former head coach Steve Richards – who now leads the backs – and the new man in charge believes it’s important not to dwell, but learn from that painful defeat.
Tucker said: “Penallta are a great cup side, and it’s always an objective at the start of each year to go on a good cup run.
“Subconsciously, I think the players are always focusing on last year’s final in the back of their minds, but I see it as a learning curve.
“We’ve learnt from that experience, of getting to a final and losing as disappointingly as we did, but we’ve been in a number of semi-finals over the years where we’ve lost too, and it’s about moving forward.
“Ten or 11 of this team were a part of the side that beat Nant Conwy in 2012, so that wealth of experience puts us in the best position for Sunday, and hopefully we’ll get the result we want.”
The Pitmen have had to overcome not only the mental hangover, but a series of tough opponents on their path to the capital, facing several fellow Division 1 sides from across Wales.
Tucker added: “We were fortunate enough to progress quite well in the first two rounds against two sides in our division [Caerleon and Brecon].
“We realised that the cup opportunity was there again for us and we had a big draw with Treorchy at home, which we saw as the big test really.
“We thought if we won that game then we’d definitely be in with a shout this year.
“We won that comfortably [36-9] and now we find ourselves in a final appearance on Sunday.
“We’ve had a very tough run this year, and we’re confident that after beating the best, we can go the next step and win the final and bring the Plate home.”
Penallta’s Route to Finals Day
Round 1: Penallta 25-17 Caerleon; Round 2: Penallta 41-6 Brecon; Round 3: Penallta 36-9 Treorchy; Round 4: Aberavon Quins 10-23 Penallta; Quarterfinal: Penallta 20-16 Nelson; Semifinal: Penallta 18-13 Nant Conwy.
Richards, the man who had to formulate the consolatory post-match speech in 2016, believes the attitude within Penallta’s camp could be the difference.
He said: “I’m certainly looking forward to the final, having been the head coach when we went down and lost last year.
“But that’s done and dusted. We’re never retrospective, we’re always looking forward, and I absolutely think that we’ve beaten the best teams already this year.
“That’s not to say that Ystalyfera are not going to give us a tough test, but all of the years that we’ve ever been down to the Principality Stadium, I think that this has been the toughest pathway.
“It’s a merit well-earned just to get to Cardiff, and hopefully we’ll end up with a win.
“The resilience in our squad is allowing us to fight on a couple of fronts, and that’s testament to what we see, week in, week out, at training.
“Our mini and junior sides are part of our production line that we keep creating, so we’re self-sufficient in that respect, and they’ll be going down to support the boys.”
Penallta have a rich history in the National Plate competition in recent times, having reached three finals and a semi-final in the last five years.
Preceding last year’s capital loss, the Pitmen tasted defeat at the semi-final stage in 2015 as they fell 23-15 to West Walians Newcastle Emlyn.
Three years earlier, in the 2012 final, Penallta held off a second-half comeback from Nant Conwy to lift the Plate after a 21-15 victory (pictured above).
Despite leading 21-3 shortly after the interval, a concession of 12 points and two yellow cards meant the 13-man Pitmen side were forced to defend with resilient determination to clinch the silverware.
It was another tightly-fought clash between the two sides when they met in this year’s semi-final at Newtown RFC on Saturday March 25.
The North Walians took a 10-6 lead into half-time, but tries from second-rower Corey Tucker and outside-half Joe Scrivens – who scored all but five of Penallta’s points – provided the foundation for the impetus they needed to win 18-13.
Flanker, Rhys Stevens, described the atmosphere at the club as reaching boiling point after that victory.
He said: “That semi-final meant the world to us. We’ve worked so hard in the cup this year, and when that final whistle went, there was a lot of joy.
“Nant Conwy came back at us in the last ten minutes and nearly snuck it at the end, but we stuck at it, the boys gave it a really good effort, and thankfully we took the victory.
“After last year’s final and the way it ended, we wanted to come out fighting this year. While the league hasn’t quite gone the way we would have wanted, we’ve made it to a cup final.
“It’s been a tough journey this year, but we’ve got there and want to lift the trophy. The atmosphere at the club is just bubbling in anticipation.
“We’ve worked so hard to get to Cardiff. We’ve got nine buses of the youngsters coming to watch and support us, and it’s great for the community and club as a whole.”
But is there danger that a desire for vengeance will take hold in the tunnel?
“I don’t think so. We’re focused, and haven’t spoken about last year yet. I don’t know if we will, but I think it’s in the back of our minds.
“A lot of us were in tears with the way it ended last year, and that’s what’s driving us.
“We want our hands on that title more than anything.”
This article forms part of Caerphilly Observer’s four-page pullout previewing Finals Day 2017, as seen below: