On Easter weekend the Pontypridd RFC Under 16's travelled to Belgium to compete in the prestigious Gent Rugby Festival. It was the 18th year of the tournament and the under 16's category this year consisted of Gent, Pontypridd, Garryowen (from Munster), Milton Keynes, Dover, Basingstoke, Chipping Sodbury and Yevko from the Ukraine.
Pontypridd were grouped with Milton Keynes, Dover and Yevko in the pool stages, and produced some sparkling rugby to dispose of Milton Keynes 21 - 0 and Dover 35 - 0, whilst Yevko withdrew from the competition, forfeiting all their matches. In the pool stages the team performances were magnificent, with Gareth Capelin and Dean Maissey constantly destroying the opposition throw-ins to the lineout's, whilst accurate throwing was giving Ponty endless possession.
The Ponty scrum was rock solid throughout the tournament, and the back line led by Fly half Lewis Smith played its best rugby since the victory over the Worcester Warriors academy in November. The Ponty backs defended aggressively, and when attacking were outstanding, with some season best performances from Danny Jordan, Jarod Scaplehorn, Lewis Egal, Rhys Simms and Lewis Williams.
As a result Pontypridd qualified for the final where they faced Garryowen of Ireland who scored over 40 points in each of their three pool games. Garryowen were a real threat and their backs were very quick, demolishing each of their pool opponents with ease and were the pre-tournament favourites, having had an excellent season where they have recently beaten Shannon to get to the final of the Munster under 16 cup, sitting proudly at the top of the North Munster under 16's league.
Come the final Pontypridd knew they had to try to keep the ball with their forward strength and not miss tackles behind the scrum.
Gent Rugby Festival Under 16's Final:
Garryowen 7 - 14 Pontypridd
In a tense first half of the final, Pontypridd dominated the forward exchanges and territory, but fantastic defence from the Irish side prevented Pontypridd from opening the scoring. Pontypridd had come close to scoring the games first try after a brilliant run from Dan Jordan had resulted in an ugly high tackle by the Irish Fullback, Ponty no.8 Dean Maissey reacted quickly taking the quick tap penalty and feeding prop James Sullivan who drove over only for the referee to disallow the score as he wanted to yellow card the Irish 15 and Ponty missed the subsequent penalty kick. However Ponty had nullified the threat of the Irish backs, and Jarod Scaplehorn, Danny Jordan, Lewis Smith and Lewis Egal had smashed down every back move Garryowen attempted.
In the second half Ponty continued to exert their forward pressure, and after a series of powerful forward drives, Lewis Smith darted blind off quick ruck ball for the opening try. But with only five minutes remaining Ponty started to become a little complacent and a quick tap penalty move by the Garryowen no.8 caught Pontypridd disorganised as he crossed for a soft try.
With the score at 7 - 7, Pontypridd led with their trademark driving line out, and excellent work saw Nathaniel Williams and Marc Jones drive for the line. As Garryowen seemed to have stopped the maul, Richard "Rhino" Powell peeled away and although tackled short, stretched out his arm to claim what appeared a good try, only for the referee to again deny Ponty as he had been unsighted. This was the last move of normal time and with the scores tied the match went into ten minutes each way of extra time.
Again the first half of extra-time was scoreless, with Ponty applying most of the pressure and flyhalf Lewis Smith magnificent, however time and again Garryowen managed to pull off a last ditch tackle to save a score.
In the second half of extra time, Pontypridd were in the ascendancy and the long periods of defence had taken their toll on the Garryowen players who started to tire. Smith continued to run the show and switched to a territorial game forcing the Irishmen back deep into their own half, where Ponty used Blues lock Gareth Capelin to great effect in totally disrupting the Irish line out. Eventually Ponty forced Garryowen into conceding a five metre lineout and a great take from Capelin set up a superb driving maul, that powered over the try line for Pontypridd's second score claimed jointly by replacement hooker Cai Daniela and flanker Dafydd Gristock.
This time Ponty were not going to let the lead slip and again from kick off, Smith punished Garryowen with a long raking kick that their wing was forced to take out of play. Once again Ponty went for the driving line out and again powered over the Irish line, this time the referee couldn't see the grounding but blew for full time, sending the Ponty players and fans delirious with their 14-7 win.
This was a magnificent performance from all the squad, but the Ponty player of the Tournament was undoubtedly the outstanding Lewis Smith at Flyhalf. Ponty were rewarded with the Gent festival trophy and also picked up the accolade of "Team of the Tournament" as voted by the tournament officials, which was a credit to this young Pontypridd side as there were also under 14's, under 19's and adult competitions being held on the day.