Two South African teams move closer to joining Pro12

Amidst the dizzy six weeks of a momentous Lions tour, I’ve been keeping a close eye on one story developing in South Africa that has really captured my imagination.

You may recall reports last year that Pro12 CEO Martin Anyai wishes to boost the league’s financial standing – and, simultaneously, its international reputation – by expanding into new and developing rugby markets. At the time, rumours were circulating that the league hoped to link up with one, or possibly two, North American franchise teams.

The USA experimented with its first ever professional rugby union competition in 2015, a five-team tournament which – on the face of things, at least –  got a lot of things right on the field, but a few things wrong behind the scenes. The tournament was sadly disbanded after just one season, and I feared this would be a huge setback to the development of professional rugby union in the States – a country which, let’s face it, has the athletes and financial clout to be a rugby superpower.

Simultaneously, a rumour was circulating that America could be ready to enter a team into the Pro12, taking the cross-border competition to uncharted, trans-Atlantic territory. To me, it seems like a match made in heaven: the USA would benefit from regular exposure to high quality professional rugby; meanwhile, the Pro12 could set up new lucrative broadcast rights and sponsorship deals in an upcoming rugby market. It would be even better if Canada could get in on the action, too, an idea I’m sure the Pro12 bosses wouldn’t object to.

Sadly, USA Rugby’s governing body quickly dismissed the notion, and although expansion into North America remains a possibility going forward, the Pro12 – for now – seems set to expand south, instead of west.

The southern hemisphere’s premier club rugby competition, Super Rugby, recently announced its intention to downsize from 18 to 15 teams from next season. Two teams from South Africa will be cut from the competition, along with one team from Australia. On Friday, it was announced that the Free-State Cheetahs, based in Bloemfontein, and Port Elizabeth’s Southern Kings will both lose their places in Super Rugby at the end of this season. As fate would have it, their final game in the competition will actually be against each other, on 14th July.

Both teams have released rather positive statements regarding the future of the clubs, outlining their intention to broaden their search for a quality, international club competition. And, although no official statements have yet been made by the Pro12 board, it is being widely reported across Europe that the league has approached both teams about joining as early as September, in time for the 2017/18 season.

This could be a huge moment for world rugby. The news has divided opinion among some fans, perhaps raising questions over geographical restrictions or the ability of these particular teams to compete (they are perennial strugglers in the Super Rugby competition). However, I believe their inclusion would be an excellent move.

This sort of expansion is ambitious and forward thinking. South Africa is a rugby heartland. Their fans are knowledgeable, passionate and territorial, and they take their rugby very seriously. They expect high standards from their teams, and will help drive standards forward in the Pro12. They could have a major impact on the brand of rugby played right across the league, encouraging faster, more open games. Furthermore, the time difference is never more than two hours between the British Isles and South Africa, meaning that, despite the lengthy flight times, it could be argued it actually makes more sense for these teams to compete in a European competition than against teams from Australia and New Zealand.

Finally, this move could form a long-awaited link between rugby in the northern and southern-hemispheres. I’ve long held a desire to see a world club competition, and this could very well be the first step towards making it a reality. The world rugby calendar is set to become more closely aligned in 2020, through a series of measures geared towards having one global season. I feel this could well be the beginning of something huge.

Lions and All Blacks draw nerve-shredding final test to level series

It’s difficult to know exactly how to begin this summary of Saturday’s final Lions fixture, mainly because I am still reeling from a quite extraordinary game that delivered excitement, drama and emotion in abundance – the sort of game that was befitting of the occasion.

The Lions and All Blacks threw the kitchen sink at each other in a brutal, uncompromising match which was possibly one of the most compelling test matches I’ve witnessed in many years. It wasn’t without a little controversy – most notably, the reversal of a penalty decision in the 78th minute which almost certainly would have gifted New Zealand victory. And, of course, with the final whistle blowing while the sides were drawing 15-15, there was a definite sense of frustration among the teams and the fans that the game should have continued until we had a winner!

As the dust settles, though, it seems to me a drawn series (both teams one a single test match each) is somehow quite befitting of what has been an epic test series, and a momentous tour. In some ways, this result has ensured the 2017 pride of British and Irish Lions a very special page rugby’s history books.

The All Blacks started the third test the brighter of the two sides, carrying with purpose and finding space out wide. Several uncharacteristic handling errors from the hosts, however, meant they led by only six points at half time.

It was a night when the pressure was apparent, and the big game players on both teams took centre stage. New Zealand fans may be outraged by referee Roman Poite’s decision to downgrade a late Lions sanction to “accidental offside”, denying the hosts a late opportunity to steal the win. However, there is no denying superb fly-half Beauden Barrett had a disappointing night with the boot, and the Kiwis could well have been out of sight at half time were it not for some explosive Lions defending.

Jonathan Davies produced a stunning, try saving tackle to cement his place as one of the tour’s top performers. The Scarlets centre has been in scintillating form, and has been hugely influencial in attack and defence across all three test matches. He went on to win the Player’s Player of the Tour award – deservedly so.

I was so impressed with the composure shown by Owen Farrell in slotting a 76th minute penalty from 50m, a kick which ultimately sealed the draw. He, too, has impressed on tour, and has shown a maturity in his game that complements well the more aggressive facets of his game. The combination of Farrell and Sexton in the 10/12 channel has grown game by game, and they fired on all cylinders in this game.

A special mention needs to go to Maro Itoje. I’ve admired him as a player for some time, but it’s nice to actually support a team in which he plays for a change! What a legend! The youngest member of the touring party is an absolute beast, and has shown a strength and athleticism which I think epitomises a modern rugby player. He is also a fierce competitor. Itoje is surely a Lions captain in waiting. His pairing in the second row with Alun Wyn Jones was simply a masterstroke from Warren Gatland: an explosive blend of youth and experience. Both played their hearts out on Saturday.

Here’s the post-match press conference for your viewing pleasure! SPOILER ALERT: Gatland shows up in a red clown nose in response to a cartoon in the New Zealand Herald last week, which aimed to lampoon and belittle the Lions head coach – can’t fault him!

So…that’s a wrap for another incredible Lions tour. Next up for the tourists: South Africa, 2021.

I’m Home From Travelling!…(and the Lions have a chance to make history!)

Hello everyone! It’s been a while since my last post… Emily and I are finally back in the UK after an incredible couple of months backpacking around South-East Asia! Fortunately we were able to keep ourselves up-to-date with what has been an absolutely enthralling Lions series! It’s certainly had it’s highs and lows over the last couple of weeks, but with the series tentatively poised at one apiece going into the final test game, and The British and Irish Lions are on the brink of making history, this Welsh Rugby Man could hardly be more excited!

Despite a real mixed bag of results against a handful of New Zealand’s provincial and representative sides, I was very optimistic gong into the first test match in Auckland. That game, I felt, suffered from a lack of impact by the Lions replacements, who seemed to slightly lack the same bite and purpose of the starters, and were also unable to exact the game plan efficiently. The All Blacks were typically able to capitalise on our disarray, ultimately easing to a comfortable 30-15 victory – a score-line made decidedly less ugly for the Lions thanks to a late Rhys Webb dart for the line.

On the plus side, the Lions did score undoubtedly one of the greatest team tries of the season, perhaps even one of the best the Lions have scored in the professional era.

The Lions needed a response.

Game two was played in horrendous conditions at the Cake Tin in Wellington, and after a tense opening twenty minutes, Sonny Bill Williams found himself at the centre of one of the games’ defining moments. A reckless tackle on Anthony Watson saw SBW plough his shoulder into Watson’s head, and with strict new protocol introduced to protect players against head injuries, the All Blacks centre was dismissed with a red card.

As happens so often, the host rallied, opening a 18-9 lead as the Lions seemingly struggled to make their one-man advantage count. This was turning into a game New Zealand looked likely to win, against the odds.

The tide turned in favour of the visitors, however, when the outstanding Taulupe Faletau showed his strength to cross the whitewash on the left wing while the visitors were also (temporarily) down to fourteen men. Faletau has had an incredible Lions tour. I remember him scoring a similar try against New Zealand for Wales last summer. He is a relentless carrier and defender – exactly the sort of number 8 you need against the All Blacks.

Connor Murray scored a second try for the Lions, the canny scrum-half showing his class with a delicious dart through a gap at a ruck – last seen in The Big Book of Rhys Webb Tries.

With the game tied at 21-21, New Zealand conceded a penalty for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air, and Owen Farrell calmly took the three points. With four minutes remaining, the Lions – for once – kept their cool, and ground out a famous victory on Kiwi soil. Needless to say, I went pretty crazy when the final whistle went!

I am immensely proud of this superb victory. I’ve always had the confidence that this excellent squad has enough talent grunt and determination to beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. Now, they have a chance to win the series, as both teams return to Auckland for the deciding match on Saturday. Warren Gatland has stuck to his guns and named the same 23-man squad for the final test, and who can blame him? The Lions coaches and players alike feel they still have an extra gear, and let’s be honest, they’re going to need it this week, against a wounded All Blacks team that, up until last week’s game, hadn’t lost a game since 2011, and hadn’t failed to score a try in a test match since 1993.

Let’s hope more records tumble on Saturday!

Come on Lions!!

Lions Tour Begins with Narrow Victory

The waiting is finally over: Saturday saw the opening game of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

The game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians – which had been billed as being, on paper at least, the least challenging fixture of the tour – proved a testing 80 minutes for the tourists, whop eventually scraped through 13-7, Anthony Watson’s second-half try proving decisive.

The visitors struggled to contain the Baa-Baas in a first half played at ferocious pace. A team largely built of Provincial stars and Super Rugby fringe players caused havoc, running the ball from deep, kicking out of hand, off-loading with style, and asking serious questions of the Lions defence.

It took a quite remarkable last-gasp tackle from Taulupe Faletau to deny the hosts their first try after 20 minutes. The Wales back-rower caught Inga Finau around the ankles a mere five metres from the whitewash, and showed his strength to hold the ball-up to prevent a score that had seemed inevitable.

The Baa-Baas soon took the lead, however when the excellent Bryn Gatland – son of Wales and Lions Herad Coach Warren – sent an inspired up and under into a pile of bodies on the Lions ten metre line. Barbarians Captain Sam Anderson-Heather took advantage of the resulting chaos to crash over with the ball, Gatland Jr. duly adding the extras.

The lions simply could not get a foot-hold in the game, and were held up over the line on four occasions. Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty before half-time compounded the tourists’ frustrations.

The Lions finally turned pressure into points on the 60 minute mark with Watson completing a slick move down the right wing, ensuring a nervy final quarter, but the visitors held on to claim a highly unconvincing, but very important, victory.

It was a disappointing opening game from the Lions. This great touring team has only once lost their opening tour fixture, but this game truly hanged in the balance until the final whistle. I realize the team arrived in New Zealand just three days beforehand, and there is no denying the brutality of the schedule, but ultimately this is the cream of the crop in the UK and Ireland. While there were a few noteworthy contributions, from the likes of Faletau and Ross Moriarty, I felt others, like Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones, failed to make an impact on the game. It’s early days, but this will need to be ironed out, and fast.

I must commend the Baa-Baas in this match. From 1 to 23, they were brilliant, they took their chances, and really gave it everything. They looked hungry, and it made for a great fixture. Bryn Gatland certainly made a huge impression internationally, with great kicking and slick handling. He may well be an All Black waiting in the wings.

The Lions face The Blues in Auckland tomorrow. Arguably the weakest of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, The Blues still boast the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and ex-Scarlet Michael Collins among their ranks. This will be a huge step up for the Lions. Gatland has named an entirely new starting XV for this match, key inclusions being Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes at second row; a formidable back-row of Haskell, Tipuric and Stander; plus Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb feature at half-back. The excellent Ken Owens captains the side.

This will be a tough one, but we have some serious fire-power on the bench too, including Liam Williams, arguably in the form of his career to date. Best of luck, lads!

 

 

Ospreys and Scarlets reach Pro12 Semi-Finals

Lots of big rugby news to round up this week, including:

  • Scarlets thrash Ospreys in Llanelli on the final weekend of the Pro12 regular season, but both teams make it to the Championship semi-finals
  • Ben Youngs pulls out of the Lions tour to New Zealand
  • The draw is made for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan (and it looks pretty tasty, too)

Wins for Blues and Scarlets in Round 22 of the Pro12

The final weekend of regular season action saw six fiery derbies, including Cardiff Blues taking on the Dragons, and the Ospreys travelling West to title rivals Scarlets.

The latter was a pulsating, high-scoring encounter, with the Scarlets showcasing some sensational attacking rugby, utterly overwhelming their Swansea-based rivals. It’s been a very long time since this fixture was, ultimately, so one-sided, Wayne Pivac’s men outscoring the opposition by five tries to two. Indeed, it was a record win for the Scarlets, and it was no more than they deserved. They looked aggressive and clinical from the word go, attacking from deep, offloading with style. Their slick passing in attack was matched with a real grunt in defence. The Ospreys had no response, curiously looking a shadow of the team that began the season like potential champions.

The Scarlets will now travel to face Leinster in Dublin and, if they can recreate this sort of form away from home, I can certainly see them making the final of this year’s competition. The Ospreys, however, limp into their semi-final, away to Munster. They certainly have the talent to compete, but have a mountain to climb to be in with a shout of lifting any silverware this year, especially having shown such inconsistency, and indeed vulnerability, over the last two months. Still, it’s great to see two Welsh teams in the semi-finals, and who knows, we could yet see an all-Welsh final.

The Dragons v Blues was a rather low-key affair in comparison. There was no lack of endeavour or passion, but at times a curious lack of quality. The Dragons are undoubtedly glad to reach the end of the season (they were leapfrogged by Treviso on the last weekend, finishing the season in eleventh place). The Blues showed flashes of brilliance but were guilty of being drawn into a pretty scrappy affair, and edged themselves clear to an uncomfortable victory in this final league game. More consistency is needed from the Blues next season. I’m looking forward to Kiwi centre Willis Halaholo getting a full pre-season with the team under his belt. Some of his statistics have been amazing this year – only Ulster’s Charles Piutau beat more defenders in the Pro12 this season, and Halaholo only made his Blues debut in November!

The Dragons voted in favour of the proposed WRU takeover this week, which I’m very happy with. This new deal will see all the club’s debt written off, and will hopefully see a fresh start for the region. It’s of paramount importance that all four Welsh regions are competitive, and the Dragons have not been firing. With the right people in place, let’s hope matters move in the right direction, on and off the field.

The Blues go into a Champions Cup qualifying game against Stade Francais on the back of three wins and half a dozen decent performances. The Parisians, however, have just been crowned European Challenge Cup winners, having seen off Gloucester in the final at Murrayfield. It will be a huge ask, but Lions captain Sam Warburton should be available for selection, and with the right team, I fancy Wales’ Capital Region can prevail.

Ben Youngs pulls out of the Lions tour

The England scrum-half chose to pull out of this summer’s tour to New Zealand because his sister-in-law is terminally ill. Very, very sad news. I have the utmost respect for Ben Youngs in making this decision. Family is always the most important thing. He is England’s number one scrum-half, a huge talent in the game, and an absolute gentleman. Thoughts go out to the Youngs family, from all the rugby community.

As for the tour, Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw has been called up to the Lions squad in Ben Youngs’ absence. A great player himself, Laidlaw also echoed the words of support to the Youngs family.

Rugby World Cup 2019

On Wednesday, he draw was made for Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. The stakes will certainly be high, and there are some mouth-watering clashes taking shape in the group stages.

Screen showing who is playing who

Pool C had lots of people talking, with England drawn against a resurgent France and an increasingly competitive Argentina, who reached the semi-finals of the showpiece event two years ago. Other key clashes include the All Blacks against the Springboks in Pool B; hosts Japan meeting Scotland and Ireland in Pool A; and Wales again facing the Wallabies in Pool D.

I feel that rugby’s landscape is changing dramatically, with the likes of Japan and Georgia set to really lay down a marker, and impose themselves as big forces in world rugby over the next couple of years. Looking at their respective groups, these two teams in particular look capable of a huge upset come 2019 – watch this space.

Saracens win European Rugby Champions Cup

One last word simply must go to the mighty Saracens. They were crowned European Champions for the second year running after overcoming Clermont Auvergne 28-17 in a brutal, nerve-shredding and pulsating encounter. Sarries quite rightly form the back-bone of this year’s Lions team. Ruthless and efficient, they are champions in the All Blacks mould. Huge congratulations on this amazing achievement!

Scarlets book their place in Pro12 semi-finals

There were mixed fortunes for the Welsh regions this weekend with Scarlets and Ospreys registering impressive wins, while the Blues struggled to an uncomfortable and unconvincing win against bottom-of-the-table Zebre. Meanwhile, the Dragons’ disastrous run continued when they surrendered a 17 point lead to Edinburgh in the last ten minutes of their Friday night fixture.

I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen from the Scarlets this season. It took them a while to get going, having lost their first three games of thee season, but this week’s comprehensive dismantling of Connacht in Galway sends the West Walians roaring into the Pro12 semi-finals with a game to spare. I have felt for some time that the Scarlets do not have the depth in their squad or the resources required to compete both domestically and in Europe, and sadly this season was no exception. Under Kiwi coach Wayne Pivac they have, however, certainly developed, having improved their final league standings year on year (they finished sixth in the 2014/15 season, then fifth in the 2015/16 campaign). This year they will definitely finish no lower than fourth, and will play either Leinster or Munster in Ireland in the semi-finals later this month.

The Ospreys will travel to play the Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday, and need only one match point from that game in order to secure their own place in the semi-finals. A stirring home performance against Ulster on the weekend saw them end a four-match losing streak, and they will be as determined as ever to outplay their closest rivals in the final round of the regular season.

Ospreys scrum-half and captain Rhys Webb put in a great shift against Ulster. He went straight from that match to be best man at his best friend’s wedding too! What a legend!

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/wales-international-manages-play-rugby-10326359

The Ospreys v Scarlets game will also determine which of those teams will be the highest ranked Welsh region, something which Scarlets coach Pivac has stated as one of their goals for this campaign. This will also have a huge bearing on the pool draw for next season’s Champions Cup, with both teams already having secured qualification to European rugby’s premier club competition.

Cardiff Blues could also join them in the Champions Cup, by way of a series of play-offs which will take place between teams in the Pro12, England’s Aviva Premiership, and France’s Top 14.

The Blues played host to Italian strugglers Zebre on Friday night. The Arms Park outfit were looking to maintain momentum after registering a handful of gutsy performances in the last six weeks, culminating in the Judgement Day victory over the Ospreys last month.

Unfortunately the Blues were drawn into a slow, drab slug-fest of a game, with Zebre succeeding in containing the Blues running threats in the second half. Indeed Wales’ Capital Region survived a late scare to scrape home 30-24. A win is always pleasing, but after the stellar performances over the last few games, this was a disappointing result as ultimately the Blues failed to record a bonus-point try against a team which has conceded 754 points this season, and won only three league games. Admittedly, Zebre are on a bit of a run, having won three of the four games leading into this fixture. They also boast the inclusion of superb Italy fly-half Carlo Canna, who is showing lots of promise for the future. Nevertheless, Blues will need to show much more grit and ruthlessness to beat the English and French teams to the last Champions Cup spot.

The Dragons welcome Cardiff Blues for the final round of the regular season. This campaign has been woeful for the Men of Gwent. They have won only four league matches, can finish no higher than tenth in the table and, to make matters worse, they could be leapfrogged by either Treviso or Zebre in the standings if they lose to the Blues on Saturday.

I just don’t understand why the Dragons are in such a rut. Financial issues of the field are certainly not helping matters, with a vote due to take place on 9th May to decide on whether to allow a takeover by the Welsh Rugby Union (who are already 50% stakeholders). I can’t help but feel they will be glad when this season is over and they can start building towards next year’s campaign.

Edinburgh had lost ten matches in a row before they took on the Dragons at Myreside, the Gunners scoring three quick-fire tries in the dying minutes to overhaul a 17 point deficit and heap further misery on Kingsley Jones’ Dragons. The Head Coach was understandably shell-shocked. It was a catastrophic end to the game. It’s clear much needs to change during the off-season.

Their final home game of the season will be held at Caerphilly RFC due to a fixture clash at Rodney Parade, and while it is absolutely brilliant to host such a big fixture (Dragons v Blues) elsewhere in the region, I can’t help feeling disappointment that the Dragons were forced out on the last day of the season by one of the other teams with whom they ground-share. It’s time for the Dragons to really stand up and be counted. In my opinion the WRU takeover – if, indeed, it goes through – would be the best available outcome, and would help offer the financial support and the sort of recruitment needed to turn the Dragons into the competitive force that the rugby-mad Gwent region deserves.

One final word, this week on the Army v Navy Rugby game at Twickenham, which took place on Saturday. This was the 100th meeting between these two sides, and it’s a game which is growing bigger and bigger each year. I had an unforgettable time at this fixture several years back, and now it truly has become a highlight of the rugby calendar. The Army won this year’s contest 29-20, seeing them lift the inter-services cup. I can’t speak highly enough of this great event, which now sees in excess of 80,000 people descend on Twickenham for a celebration of the marvellous work and dedication of our armed forces. Long may it continue.

 

Sam Warburton named Captain as the British and Irish Lions Squad is Announced

All eyes were on London today as Warren Gatland and his coaching staff revealed the identities of the 41-man squad chosen to represent the British and Irish Lions on this summer’s massive tour to New Zealand.

Sam Warburton is named as Captain for the tour for the second time, having led the team on their successful tour of Australia in 2013. He joins Martin Johnson as the only two players to captain the Lions on more than one occasion – what an amazing honour. Warburton is, in my opinion, a superb choice: a great player, truly committed to the cause, he is also a brilliant ambassador for the game. A true professional, he is also a great role model, and is respected in rugby circles the world over. He’s also an absolute gentleman. I trust he will be outstanding in this role, especially since he experienced the Lions carnival four years ago, and knows exactly what to expect.

The Lions team is absolutely jaw-dropping. The announcement has been met with some controversy, particularly from the keyboard warriors on social media, who seem disgruntled by what they see as a lack of Scottish players included (two), and moreover, an excess of Welsh representation (twelve). While I must admit that even I was surprised to see so many Welsh players involved, I do believe those chosen have qualities that justify their selection. Equally, I had hoped to see the likes of Richie Grey, Johnny Grey and Finn Russell representing Scotland, – although there’s no doubting the Grey brothers had a huge task on their hands to make the squad, with the Second-row position being arguably the most competitive it has been for many, many years.

The full squad can be viewed here:

http://www.lionsrugby.com/2017tour/squad/index.php#.WPfX_YWcGP8

The tour explodes into life with a match against a Provincial XV on June 3rd.

I cannot wait!