Wales Squeeze Past South Africa to Win Tour Opener

Wales recorded an uncomfortable and unconvincing win over South Africa in a drab encounter in Washington on Saturday.

The game, played on neutral ground in the USA as part of a perceived bid to expand the sport in the country, saw both teams field youthful, experimental squads. Cardiff Blues ace Ellis Jenkins captained Wales on the occasion of his eighth cap, with regional team-mate Tomos Williams earning his first international honours at scrum-half. South Africa unveiled seven debutants, with Ox Niche and Makazole Mapimpi familiar faces for Pro 14 fans after their impressive form for The Cheetahs this season (the latter having moved to The Sharks ahead of their 2018 Super Rugby campaign).

The inexperience showed right across the park from kick-off. The opening quarter was nothing short of abysmal, a shambolic test-match that played well and truly into the hands of the many pundits and critics who argued this game should never have gone ahead, falling as it did outside of the June international test match window. The actual TV coverage of the match didn’t help proceedings – dodgy camera angles and bizarre edits, it really felt as though the camera crew involved had never actually seen a rugby match before, let alone filmed one. The Wales summer tour fixtures have been seen as major coup for Channel 4, who will be broadcasting Champions Cup fixtures from September, but this was certainly a stuttering start. Let’s hope they iron out a few of the issues before next week!

Back to the rugby itself. Handling errors aside, the game did threaten to burst into life after the introduction of Hadleigh Parkes around the half-hour mark. The Scarlets centre was a real physical presence, and burst through a midfield tackle to help send Hallam Amos across the whitewash via some slick handling from Ross Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins. Tomos Williams powered over from close range shortly afterwards, showing his strength to stretch Wales’ lead to 14-3. Suddenly there was a strange sense that Wales could be on course for a comfortable victory.

However, Travis Ismaiel hit back for the Springboks following the restart, pouncing on a loose pass from full-back Amos, and the game was back in the balance.

Wales were struggling to put phases – or even passes – together, with both sides struggling in greasy conditions. The Boks soon struck again, after Owen Watkins had received a yellow card for deliberately knocking the ball out of play. Mapimpi struck with a five-pointer – a superb finisher, he has been fantastic to watch in the Pro 14 and in Super Rugby this year, and I believe he has a superb international career ahead of him.

An error strewn game concluded in bizarre fashion when, totally against the rung of play, the excellent Tomos Williams charged down a clearance kick for Ryan Elias to go over for the decisive score.

I feel Wales will have taken more from this game than the Springboks, with Warren Gatland’s experimental side allowing some fringe players and new combinations on the test stage. And, of course, a third win for Wales in their last four meetings with South Africa. It’s clear the Boks have some incredible talent coming through also, and many of their fresh faces will be hoping to add to their international appearances in a seismic three-test series against England, which begins next weekend.

Wales move on to South America for two fixtures against Argentina. They will need to show massive improvements next week to stand any hope of taking on a confident Pumas team in their own back yard, but they certainly look to be building strength in a squad that could, and should, be in a very good place come the World Cup in 14 months time.

 

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Cardiff Blues Win European Challenge Cup!

Gareth Anscombe’s 78th-minute penalty helped Cardiff Blues snatch a last-gasp 31-30 Challenge Cup Final victory over Gloucester on Friday night.

In an absorbing and absolutely breathless game of rugby, Gloucester and The Blues served up arguably one of the greatest European Challenge Cup Finals, the Welsh Region remarkably turning around a 20-6 half-time deficit to bring to an end an eight year wait for silverware.

Jarrod Evans slotted an early penalty for the Blues in an opening twenty minutes that really set the tone for the match, with both sides looking to play with width, power and at pace.

The Cherry and Whites soon responded when Billy Burns kicked cross-field for Harry Trinder to gather and score. The teams then traded penalties, before Mark Atkinson scored Gloucester’s second try, a beautifully worked team score down the left wing. The Blues looked out of the game.

Wales’ Capital Region looked a different team after half time, Gareth Anscombe’s delicious kick-ahead and Tomos Williams’ superb footballing skills saw the scrum half touch down under the posts in the 41st minute, launching the most thrilling of comebacks.

The game turned into a see-saw spectacle, with Gloucester briefly looking on the ropes before scoring a third try from a powerful catch and drive. And, when their lead was further extended by a Billy Twelvetrees penalty, it looked like the Blues’ European dream was over.

However, a Blaine Scully try kept their hopes alive and, although Anscombe missed with the resulting conversion, leaving the Blues two points adrift, he was gifted a second shot at goal when the Blues forced a penalty in the dying minutes.

This time he made no mistake, showing nerves of steel to slot the ball over from out wide.

The Blues still had work to do, however, and had to gather the restart through the forwards before Anscombe could kick the ball into touch, sending the Blues fans into raptures.

Massive congratulations to everyone involved at the Blues, it’s been a truly remarkable season. Brilliant to see Head Coach Danny Wilson leave on a massive high, and I’m sure this will always rank among his greatest career achievements, and will be a game that he will always remember.

The Blues march on to the Champions Cup for next season!

While the Blues can hang up their boots and think about the summer break, Ospreys and Scarlets season continues, with Scarlets the sole Welsh side in the Pro14 knockout stages. This week they will face a determined Glasgow in Scotstoun in the first semi-final. One of those teams will meet Leinster or Munster in what will undoubtedly be a colossal Final in Dublin in two weeks time. Scarlets will be without Leigh Halfpenny, but will hope to take momentum from their 43-8 hammering of Cheetahs in the quarter final stages.

Ospreys are in Belfast on Sunday to face Ulster in a Champions Cup Qualifier play-off match – the first of its kind in the league, as a result of the new conference system. Ulster prevailed 8-0 when the sides met in the league last month, but this time will be without lock Iain Henderson and Captain Rory Best. Ospreys will be fully-loaded, and arrive having most recently beaten the Blues in Judgement Day at the end of April, so will be confident and ready to go. Victory will guarantee three Welsh sides in next season’s Champions Cup, and it’s been too long since that last happened. All the best, lads.

 

Who Will Prevail at Judgement Day VI?

Welsh regional rugby’s showpiece event makes a welcome return at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday. Back to back fixtures between Dragons and Scarlets, and Blues and Ospreys, promise to signal the end of the regular Pro14 season in style.

This is how the two conferences look going into Round 21 of this year’s competition:

Conference A

Team  Pld  W D  L  For  Against  Diff  BP Pts
1  Glasgow 20 15 1 4 595 342 253 13 75
2  Munster 20 13 0 7 544 337 207 15 67
3  Cheetahs 20 11 0 9 580 534 46 14 58
4  Blues 20 11 0 9 479 456 23 9 53
5  Ospreys 20 8 0 12 364 464 -100 8 40
6  Connacht 20 6 0 14 398 467 -69 10 34
7  Zebre 20 6 0 14 386 576 -190 8 32

Conference B

Team  Pld  W  D  L  For  Against  Diff BP  Pts
1  Leinster 20 14 1 5 591 327 264 12 70
2  Scarlets 20 13 1 6 495 357 138 11 65
3  Edinburgh 20 14 0 6 470 356 114 8 64
4  Ulster 20 12 1 7 514 458 56 10 60
5  Benetton 20 11 0 9 398 429 -31 10 54
6  Dragons 20 2 2 16 370 639 -269 8 20
7  Kings 20 1 0 19 358 800 -442 7 11

Dragons v Scarlets

Following the disappointment of their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Leinster last weekend, the Scarlets will be looking to light up the Principality Stadium with some trademark attacking rugby on Saturday afternoon. Coach Wayne Pivac has outlined his desire to earn a bonus point victory over the lowly Dragons this weekend, which would put a second-place finish in Conference B beyond doubt, therefore securing a home quarter-final, which, barring a miracle result in the South African derby, will be against The Cheetahs.

The Dragons have endured a horrid season. Last summer’s WRU take-over was met with a deserved optimism which has all but evaporated following the Gwent region’s worst season ever. They have notched only two wins in the league this term, and have seen their abysmal away form plummet to new depths: they haven’t won an away league fixture in three years. Wow.

I can only see one winner in this fixture, but it’s not all doom and gloom. In the likes of Hallam Amos, Tyler Morgan and Corey Hill the Dragons do have the backbone of a promising team, and reinforcements will be arriving over the summer, with Aaron Jarvis, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard and the excellent Ross Moriarty all set to make an impact and add some grunt to their forward pack.

My prediction: Dragons 19 – 35 Scarlets

Cardiff Blues v Ospreys

After the elation of last weekend’s victory over Pau, and with one eye on their approaching European Challenge Cup Final, Blues Head Coach Danny Wilson has – perhaps wisely – opted to rest a swathe of perceived first choice and in-form players for Saturday’s clash with the improving Ospreys.

Gareth Anscombe makes an increasingly rare start at fly-half, in a side showing thirteen changes to last week’s line-up. Legendary Tongan front-rower Tau Filise is also back from injury at tight-head and, at forty, surely this will be one of his last outings in a Blues jersey (although I sincerely hope not). Elsewhere, Matthew Morgan and Blaine Scully will look to cause havoc in attack, while Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson will provide a stern challenge in defence.

The Ospreys arrive in the Capital with all guns blazing, looking to avenge last year’s Judgement Day hammering by the same opposition, while also hoping to build some momentum ahead of a winner-takes-all Champions Cup qualifying match against either Ulster or Edinburgh, depending on which of those teams finish fourth in Conference B.

The imperious Alun Wyn Jones leads the Liberty Stadium outfit, who also boast Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric amongst their armoury. This will be Biggar’s final league appearance for the Ospreys, as he departs for Northampton Saints over the summer. What a tremendous servant he has been for the Swansea based region – a true warrior.

I can’t help but feel the Ospreys will pinch this one, given the strength in the match day 23 they are fielding. This one has the potential to be a great spectacle, and I think it could go right down to the wire, so I’m predicting a two point win to the visitors.

My prediction: Cardiff Blues 26-28 Ospreys

 

 

Brilliant Blues Beat Pau to Reach Challenge Cup Final, but Scarlets are Blown Away in Dublin

Cardiff Blues are through to the European Challenge Cup Final having produced an extraordinary defensive display to hold out French giants Pau in an epic tussle at the Arms Park on Saturday.

An early try for Gareth Anscombe was soon cancelled out by a touchdown from former All Black Conrad Smith, the centre crashing over following a charge-down on an Anscombe clearance kick.

The sides traded penalties, only for the Blues to go into half time with a slender 13-10 lead.

A nail-biting second half saw Pau show more composure in a bid to take control of the game, but a remarkable defensive effort from the likes of Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Josh Tunbull, and man-of-the-match Ellis Jenkins kept Pau at bay, and sent the sell-out crowd into raptures at full time.

The Blues have really looked the part over the last three months. While scoring tries has never been an issue for Wales’ Capital Region, some disorganised and lacklustre defending has, at times, restricted their ambitions in recent years and condemned them to mediocrity. Not any more. Wales defence guru Shaun Edwards has the Blues well-drilled, and on Saturday they put in yet another gritty performance, and, crucially, they really do look as though they are defending for their lives, and for each other. As Ellis Jenkins pointed out in a post match interview at the weekend, they really are enjoying their rugby, and it certainly shows.

The Blues will travel to Bilbao to face Gloucester on Friday 11th May in the Final, the Cherry and Whites having seen off Newcastle Falcons in impressive fashion in the other semi-final at Kingsholm on Friday night.

Sadly, in the Champions Cup, the Scarlets were unable to make it a Welsh double, collapsing to a 38-16 defeat against European heavyweights Leinster. Three first-half tries put the hosts in complete control, and they continues to dominate after the break too, the Scarlets having absolutely no answer to the Dubliners’ raw power, skill and aggression.

https://www.facebook.com/EuropeanRugbyChampionsCup/videos/1675837582471717/

There is no doubting Leinster’s credentials, especially with Johnny Sexton masterfully at the helm. However, few would have predicted such a one-sided affair. Indeed it was a sobering afternoon for the current league Champions. They simply never clicked into gear. Amid something of a back line crisis, they chose to play Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Patchell outside of perhaps their best positions – Halfpenny at wing, Patchell at full-back – and Sexton’s razor sharp tactical kicking ensured the Scarlets struggled to launch a meaningful attack all afternoon.

I have little doubt that Wayne Pivac and co. will learn a lot from this experience, and with the talent and skill currently at their disposal, I have little doubt they will be back in the knockout stages very soon. I really hope so.

There were two re-arranged Pro 14 fixtures at the weekend also, with a young and inexperienced Ospreys side going down 37-14 to Zebre in Parma on Saturday night. Both Zebre and Benetton have impressed this season, both proving tough to beat, especially at home.

It was nevertheless a disappointing result for the Ospreys, who I have no doubt will already have one eye on their Judgement Day meeting with The Blues on 28th April. The Dragons will also host the Scarlets at the Principality Stadium in the early kick-off. 

 

Scarlets and Blues Flying High in Europe

As we head towards the business end of an enthralling domestic season, all eyes turn to the European club semi-finals this weekend, where Scarlets and Cardiff Blues will be flying the flag for Wales.

The four Welsh regions have a troubled history in the European competitions. Indeed, since the regions were formed in 2003, only The Blues have lifted silverware, tasting success on French soil against Toulon back in 2010. The hosts had the likes of Johnny Wilkinson and Sonny Bill Williams in their ranks at the time, while a vintage Blues team included Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Ben Blair, Casey Laulala, and of course the outstanding Martin Williams.

Saturday will see the Blues face-off against Pau in a European Challenge Cup semi-final at the Arms Park. I’ve been very impressed with the Blues’ performances in Europe this season, and having won nine of their last ten games in all competitions, they have confidence and momentum going into this encounter. The quarter-final against Edinburgh at Murrayfield was a massive scalp, with the Scottish outfit themselves on an impressive run of form. I’m backing the Blues to make the final in Bilbao, especially looking at their form in this competition over the year, which has already included doubles over French big-hitters Toulouse and Lyon.

Meanwhile, buoyed by their excellent quarter-final win over La Rochelle at a fervent Parc-y-Scarlets, the current Pro 14 Champions must now travel to Dubiln to face the mighty Leinster for a coveted place in the European Champions Cup Final.

The Scarlets may be in unfamiliar territory, their last European semi-final coming in the 2006-07 campaign, but they are playing some majestic rugby at the moment. Having formed the backbone and provided the blueprint for a rejuvenated Wales team in this year’s Six Nations, the Scarlets continue to play a fast, expansive, attractive brand of rugby that few teams can handle at present. They have threats right across the park, and play with real intensity. Leinster in Dublin will be admittedly be a huge challenge, but the key here is the Scarlets have done it before, having seen off both Leinster and Munster in the knock-out stages of the old Pro 12 tournament to be crowned Champions.

Here’s hoping the Blues and Scarlets will make it a Welsh double this weekend.

 

Six Nations 2018: The Story So Far

After two superb rounds of the 2018 tournament, this year’s Six Nations is certainly proving as tense, entertaining and unpredictable as hoped. Wales presently lie in third place, on six points, having taken Scotland to the cleaners in round one with an emphatic bonus-point victory in Cardiff.

Tries from Steff Evans, Gareth Davies, and a brace for Leigh Halfpenny – his first touch-downs for Wales since 2013 – secured a stylish, accomplished, memorable victory over the much-fancied Scots.

What perhaps impressed me most about this explosive start was the freedom with which Wales played. The familiarity of the Scarlets contingent no doubt helped proceedings in this department – no fewer than ten made the starting line-up. Key to the way Wales played was Rhys Patchell, who was absolutely electric – his passing was pin-point accurate, he was excellent with the boot, and ran with width and pace, picking out holes in the Scotland defence.

I have huge admiration for Scotland, and the way they have been playing under new coach Gregor Townsend has been superb. Emily and I watched them beat Italy in a one-off summer test match last year, a game in which they were quite brilliant. They have some serious talent right across the park, and the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell can trouble any team. Scotland quite rightly went into this game with some confidence, and despite the result, I believe their Six Nations campaign is far from over: I’ll back them to finish in the top half of the table this year, especially as they overcame France in round two.

Meanwhile, Wales lost to England in Twickenham in round two, escaping a tense and bruising encounter with a losing bonus point. The hosts took a very early lead through two Johnny May tries in the opening quarter, but failed to score again. Wales grew into the match, but thanks to some pretty extraordinary defending, were unable to cross the whitewash, and were restricted to two successful penalty kicks.

Let’s get one thing straight: Gareth Anscombe’s try was disallowed by the television match official, can we get over it now, please? The Welsh media has been awash with seemingly endless replays, photographs, angles, analysis, opinions, accusations…I mean, come on. Wales lost, let’s move on. Let’s focus on getting our campaign back on track: the next game, a Dublin showdown with Ireland on 24th March.

England took their chances early on and then defended brilliantly for the win. They next travel to Murrayfield for a blockbuster fixture against Scotland, hoping to keep alive their hopes of an historic third successive Championship title.

Here’s the Six Nations table as it currently stands:

Pos Team Pl W D L PF PA Diff TF TA TB LB Pts
1 Up (3) Ireland 2 2 0 0 71 32 39 8 4 1 0 9
2 Down (1) England 2 2 0 0 58 21 37 9 2 1 0 9
3 Down (2) Wales 2 1 0 1 40 19 21 4 3 1 1 6
4 Up (5) Scotland 2 1 0 1 39 60 -21 3 6 0 0 4
5 Down (4) France 2 0 0 2 39 47 -8 3 2 0 2 2
6 No change (6) Italy 2 0 0 2 34 102 -68 5 15 0 0 0

Ireland are looking good. Very good, and very strong. Their round five meeting with England is starting to really look like a Championship decider.

Italy, meanwhile, seem in complete disarray. I do hope they defy their own recent form, and rip up the rule book, by registering at least one victory in this campaign (hopefully not against Wales). Unfortunately, having already shipped 102 points in the first two rounds of fixtures, it looks like it could be a long tournament for the Azzurri.

Interestingly, the club form of the two Italian teams in the Pro14 has been on an upward curve of late, with both Zebre and Benetton notching up several notable wins. Indeed, the latter raised a few eyebrows by beating Pro14 Champions Scarlets at the weekend, registering their seventh win of the season.

The Ospreys also slipped to a disappointing defeat to Connacht in Galway, their hopes of securing a top three spot in Conference A taking a big blow in the process.

The Dragons fared much better, starting brightly and securing a valuable home draw against high-flying Glasgow. It was especially great to see Wales full-back Hallam Amos produce some great running lines. I’d expect to see him involved in the Wales v Ireland match next weekend.

The Blues picked up four very valuable points with a hard-fought home win against The Cheetahs. The Superb Nick Williams led the charge with a typically destructive display, scoring a try in a man-of-the-match performance.

 

Six Nations 2018: Ten Scarlets named in exciting Wales team for opener against Scotland

The Six Nations, my favourite rugby tournament, is once again almost upon us, and the 2018 edition promises to be as nail-biting and unpredictable as ever. Wales go into the tournament as title outsiders, and are looking to expand their squad and experiment with their playing style a mere two years out from the next World Cup. A resurgent Scotland will aim to climb the championship table and build on a strong autumn series, and will face Wales in Cardiff in what promises to be a tasty tournament opener. Meanwhile, England look to create history by winning a third consecutive Six Nations crown.

With an injury list as long as my arm, it’s no surprise Warren Gatland has named a match day 23 laden with Scarlets players. The Llanelli region has been playing champagne rugby over the last couple of months, having put Toulon to the sword and crushing Bath in the Champions Cup. Two years ago the Scarlets absolutely folded in that same competition; now they are playing a breathless brand of free-flowing, attacking rugby that few – if any – can handle in Europe right now. You’d have to say, they are serious Champions Cup contenders.

With established squad members such as Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies Rhys Webb and Taulup Faletau on the long list of casualties, Gatland has chosen a team based on form, and it could well be just what the doctor ordered. Rhys Patchell, the former Cardiff Blue, has been instrumental in the Scarlets’ recent success, and will deservedly start at fly-half against the Scots. He is a box of tricks, and I can’t wait to see what he serves up, especially as he combines here with club-mates Gareth Davies at scrum-half, and the excellent Hadleigh Parkes at 12.

Worcester wing Josh Adams makes his Wales debut on Saturday, the English Premiership’s leading try-scorer of the season getting the nod ahead of Hallam Amos. Adams is an exciting prospect in imperial form, and I fully expect him to grab this opportunity with both hands. Indeed, this looks like a side that’s going out there to attack the line and score some tries – something, one could argue, Wales have struggled with of late. With the likes of Stuart Hogg, Ali Price and Huw Jones lining up for Scotland, this could be a high scoring humdinger of a test match.

One final word must go to Josh Navidi, who is quite rightly rewarded for his incredible autumn form with a test start at open-side flanker, ahead of Justin Tipuric. He combines with Aaron Shingler and Ross Moriarty to form a dynamic and potentially formidable back-row. Hamish Watson dominated the breakdown for the Scots in the reverse fixture last year, and this will once again be a fascinating tussle.

The Six Nations 2018. Let battle commence!

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Josh Adams (Worcester), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Steff Evans (Scarlets); Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester).

Replacements: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Bradley Davies (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Aled Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Owen Watkin (Ospreys).

Scotland: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Gordon Reid (London Irish), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray, John Barclay (Scarlets, captain), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Cornell du Preez (Edinburgh).

Replacements: Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), Murray McCallum (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens).