Players across Gwent are chalking up their cues and taking part in local pool matches, as PAUL CAREY discovered.
IF YOU want to take up a new sport then you could do a lot worse than chalking your cue and joining a local pool team.
It may not offer you the most physical workout, but it’s as fun and popular now as it’s ever been around Gwent.
Whether it’s seeing the black ball disappear to give you victory, the taste of a pint passing your lips or simply the excuse to go and see your mates, pool offers something for everyone.
There are numerous leagues, teams and players around Gwent with leagues in Pontypool, Cwmbran, Newport, Ebbw Vale and Monmouthshire all boasting an array of pub teams.
One of the most feared opponents on the circuit is Andrew Corten, 44, from Newport, who was crowned British Pool champion in 2009.
Mr Corten represents Riley’s in Newport and still plays – as he has done for 25 years – on a regular basis, competing in singles tournaments as well as team matches across Gwent.
“I started playing pool when I was 14,” said Mr Corten. “I’ve been playing ever since really. I absolutely love the competitive side of playing, trying to beat your opponent.
“There’s also a very good social side to it, especially when you play in tournaments with your team as everyone is there and you get to know the people who play.
“Since I started playing I’ve won the Newport singles 17 times which is something I’m very proud of.
“I’ve also been Wales’ number one in 1999 which is great as there’s always been a very good standard in Wales overall and Gwent.
“There are some great players coming through at the moment such as Jake Phillips and Luke Sangees.
“I’m starting to get really pushed by the youngsters coming through but it’s great for the future of pool in Gwent and I love the competitive nature.
“I don’t get a chance to practice as much as I used to now as I have children but pool is very much a game where you can pick it up after a while away and carry on playing as you were before.”
Mr Corten has also won the Newport doubles tournament 10 times, was a Welsh international for 15 years and has two Welsh Open titles.
Having seen it all down the years, he believes the sport took a dip a few years ago but is now back at its peak.
“I noticed it started to get a bit quieter,” he added. “A few years ago you might struggle to fill leagues but now it’s really picked up and you can play most nights if you want to.
“Where I play there’s eight teams and it is heaving whenever you go there which is brilliant as it makes it a really good experience and a brilliant social event.
“If anyone is interested in playing then they should come down and give it a go. Just by playing a few times a week you can get to a decent level and there are teams here for everyone.”
Unlike some other pub sports, there isn’t a huge drinking culture in pool, with many players opting not to drink.
Steven Norton, 42, from Liverpool, will be captain of the the Six in Hand’s pool team, Cwmbran, from next season.
“There’s not much drinking involved as people have to drive or are in work the next day,” he said. “A few people choose to have a few drinks to relax but it's nothing rough.
“It’s just really good socially. I’ve been playing for over 20 years but I’ve never played at a high level and I wouldn’t class myself as one of the best players.
“That’s not why I go. We all go just to see each other and have a good laugh. I wouldn’t say there’s less people playing pool now but there are probably fewer teams simply because of the amount of pubs that have closed down over the past few years.
“But it’s still going strong with a lot of leagues. I’d encourage anyone to join a team as there’s always a brilliant atmosphere and it’s a great way of seeing other pubs and meeting new friends.”
However, the social side of the sport isn’t the main lure for everybody that competes in the Gwent leagues, with many enjoying the healthy competition.
Pool can often be like a game of chess, with one wrong move gifting your opponent the opportunity to move into a very strong winning position.
Stephen Jackson, 42, is captain of the Green Lawn Social Club, Pontypool and is one of the players that loves the challenge of tactically outplaying his opponent.
“Pool is a lot more attacking these days than it’s ever been,” said Mr Jackson. “There are new rules and the standard is higher due to people playing a lot more so it leads to much more competitive games.
“Our team is flying in the league at the moment but the games are competitive which is what you want.
“We have two teams so if a new player comes in then they join the ‘B’ team and have an opportunity to impress; if you do well then we give you a chance in the ‘A’ team.
“We have some good players at the moment which is why we’re doing so well. One of our players, Gary Meehan, has been selected for Welsh trials in a few weeks time.
“I think that shows that the standard around Gwent is very strong at the moment.”
One of the main advantages of pool is that it isn’t restricted by age. People can play from a young age and if they practise enough, match a player that has been playing for 30 years.
As long as they are with a guardian, they can play in pub leagues even if under the age of 18.
Daniel Howells, 19, from Cwmbran, has played pool since he was taught by his father at a young age and is now captain of the Pontnewydd Legion Club.
“I’ve played all my life,” he said. “I learnt off my dad and now I play in the same team as him which is great.
“We like to win but it’s not the end of the world, our main focus is on having a good time, a bit of banter and a laugh.
“There’s sometimes food put on and the game’s always played in the right spirit so it’s a great laugh that you struggle to get in other sports where it’s more serious.”
Despite there being an array of leagues in Gwent with highly skilled players that have represented Wales at all levels, it seems that the friendly nature of pool is the main attraction.
Whereas in football or rugby it can often get heated amidst the competitive nature of the sports, pool manages to maintain the competitive edge whilst being played in a welcoming atmosphere.
That is what prompts Owen Gaywood, 31, from Abergavenny to pick up his cue and return to the table every week.
Mr Gaywood started playing when he was 18 and has played for a variety of teams in Gwent ever since, and he now represents Sebastopol Social Club, Pontypool.
He said: “It’s good just to go out and see people that you wouldn’t normally see.
“When there’s a team match on there’s a really good atmosphere and it’s good fun.”
However, if a league format isn’t your idea of fun then you can always play a casual game – such as CJ de Mooi, the professional quizzer of Eggheads fame.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of cue sports,” he said. “I’m a member of Riley’s and often go down for a game as a bit of fun.
“I enjoy playing when I can, which is only three or four times a year now but it’s still as thoroughly enjoyable as it always is when I manage to play.”
So whether you want to commit to a club which will probably improve your social circle as much as your pool ability; or whether you just want to play a few casual frames with a mate, pool is a game that can certainly become addictive.
You should give it a try – with a bit of practice you could be rubbing shoulders with Gwent’s best.