Pro14: Thrilling Third Round Action

A fervent Rodney Parade crowd saw The Dragons comfortably see off Connacht 21-8 in a high-octane clash on Friday night, The Men of Gwent producing some scintillating attacking rugby to get their league campaign up and running following defeats to Leinster and Edinburgh.

Wales wing Hallam Amos scored his first try of the season, and hooker Elliot Dee added a second for the Welsh region in a man-of-the-match performance. Amos’ try was an absolute peach, centre Jack Dixon and South African full-back Zane Kirchner also catching the eye with some slick handling in the build-up. Sadly, Kirchner is now set for a lengthy spell on the side-lines after dislocating his shoulder during the Connacht game. That’s a real shame, because the Dragons are starting to play with the sort of swagger the likes of Kirchner and Gavin Henson can bring to the mix. Nevertheless, it’s great to see Rodney Parade absolutely rocking, and in Amos, Dixon, Dee and the injured Tyler Morgan, there is a core of young talent that can pose a real threat to other teams this season, and I’m tipping the Dragons to surprise quite a few people along the way.

It was a disappointing week for the other Welsh regions, with Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets all having to settle for losing bonus points.

The Scarlets faced Ulster in Belfast, and went into that game as favourites. Johnny McNiccol touched down for the visitors on 60 minutes to ignite a thrilling final quarter that saw the lead change hands three times. A Christian Lealiifano penalty levelled the scores for Ulster on 72 minutes, before a late John Andrew try secured victory for the hosts.

I was very impressed with the attacking play from both teams in this match, especially when the game was locked at 20 points apiece with just eight minutes remaining. Both teams threw the kitchen sink at each other, desperate for the win. It was brilliant to see.

From a Scarlets perspective, huge credit must go to Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones. The West Walians are absolutely purring in attack, they have dangerous runners right across the park, and show patience, intelligence and great variety in their play. It’s made them a very tough team to beat. At the centre of this is Rhys Patchell. I’ve always been a huge fan of Patchell, and in his second season as Scarlets fly-half he is really pulling the strings with deft kicking, precision passing and superb defence. I’m still mourning his departure from Cardiff Blues! After having been omitted for Wales’ summer tour, I certainly hope he will be on Warren Gatland’s radar come the autumn.

Scarlets next face Edinburgh in Llanelli as they hope to get back to winning ways.

Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues’ woeful start to the season continued, albeit in more stubborn fashion, as they were narrowly beaten at home by Glasgow on Saturday night.

A bright start saw the Welsh region’s record try scorer, Tom James, barge his way over through mid-field, Steve Shingler adding the conversion – and a later penalty – to open a commanding 10-3 lead. The Glasgow team sheet looked classy, but on the field the Warriors were unusually sluggish and scrappy in the first half, and were forced into errors by a resurgent Blues.

Scotland internationals Finn Russell and Henry Pyrgoes led the charge after the interval, Russell edging Glasgow into a 20-19 lead with a 75th minute penalty. A late, late Steve Shingler penalty drifted agonisingly wide to deny the hosts their first Pro14 win of the season.

Danny Wilson indicated an improvement in performance by the Blues after their defeat to Edinburgh in round one, and I will say they seem to be heading in the right direction. The mid-field combination of Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo continues to look dangerous when they get into space, and Alex Cuthbert continues to look for more and more work across the park. It’s great to see his form continue to improve after his Wales omission. Young second-row Seb Davies looks a great prospect, he was a right nuisance for Glasgow all night.

The Blues travel to Connacht in round four. An improved performance is one thing, but the Blues need a victory in Galway on Saturday afternoon as the likes of Glasgow and Munster are already starting to pull ahead at the top of Conference A. I just feel that a much-needed win has the potential to spark a successful campaign for Wales’ Capital Region, providing it comes sooner rather than later.

Another somewhat lacklustre performance from The Ospreys saw them lose at home to Munster, much to Coach Steve Tandy’s fury.

A flat second-half saw Munster dominate in horrendous weather conditions, which saw Tandy publicly criticize his team’s application and attitude.

The Ospreys have looked unusually shaky in the opening rounds of this year’s tournament. The Liberty Stadium is usually quite a stronghold, but it seems to me the Ospreys failed to execute their game plan, and would especially have hoped to get more out of the Sam Davies and James Hook combination at 10 and 12. Hook, indeed, went over for an early try, but the Ospreys generally lacked enough cutting edge and creativity to put Munster to the sword.

A touring squad of 30 players is now being assembled for away games against Benetton Treviso and The Cheetahs, with Tandy confirming Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Alun Wyn Jones will all be involved. This will be a very interesting period in the Ospreys fixture list, and could yet define their season. Treviso are certainly showing signs of improvement, having beaten Edinburgh away from home at the weekend, while The Cheetahs will try to dictate the pace of their match in Bloemfontein. These will be two difficult matches, and I really hope the returning British and Irish Lions will help crank up performance levels another few notches.

Game of the Week

An eye-popping score-line from the encounter between The Cheetahs and Zebre makes my game of the week. The Cheetahs ran in eight tries, while the Italians left Bloemfontein with a much deserved try-bonus point courtesy of five touchdowns of their own. What a way to celebrate the first ever weekend of Pro14 action on South African soil! If you haven’t seen this yet, I certainly hope you enjoy possibly the longest highlights reel in tournament history.

Team of the Week

It has to be the All Blacks for me, courtesy of an astonishing 57-0 victory over South Africa in Auckland. When New Zealand get enough momentum, and their tails are up, there isn’t a team on the planet that can stop them from absolutely running riot. The return fixture, in Cape Town on 7th October, will undoubtedly be a fiery one.

 

 

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Pro14 Catch-up: Rounds 1& 2

The new-look Pro14 tournament is now two weeks old. Here’s my verdict on all the action so far, and how the Welsh regions are shaping up ahead of round three.

Cardiff Blues

The Blues put their off the field problems to one side during pre-season, with two fine victories, one away from home against London Scottish, the other against English Champions Exeter Chiefs at Cardiff Arms Park. That second win was particularly impressive, with the Blues showing some real grit up-front and in the contact area. Wales defence guru Shaun Edwards seemed to have had an early impact on the intensity of the Blues defence, and there were also glimpses of a cutting edge and improved accuracy in attack.

Sadly, it’s been downhill from there so far for the Blues. The opening two Pro14 games have ended in defeat. A 37-9 loss against Leinster in Dublin last Friday was, in honesty, probably less galling than the home defeat to perennial strugglers Edinburgh a week earlier, especially as that game immediately followed the Exeter win.

The Blues are in desperate need of consistency, the lack of which, in my opinion, thwarted their own attempts to reach a Champions Cup qualification spot last season. They have lots of big-game players, individuals who can make a massive impact on a match. Their injury list is currently longer than my arm, with ten first-choice players side-lined through injury, including Gareth Anscombe, Sam Warburton and Club Captain Gethin Jenkins.

First things first, they need a win. This week they face a buoyant Glasgow team at the Arms Park in search of their first points of the season. Come on Blues!

Dragons

The Dragons re-building and re-branding continues both on and off the field, and while the Men of Gwent have, like the Blues, suffered two championship defeats to date, there remains an optimism and exuberance about the Dragons so far this term.

Gavin Henson remains a class act, and I believe he is an excellent signing for the Dragons. He is exactly the right kind of playmaker to get the Dragons exciting back-division firing and hopefully scoring a lot more tries. The Rodney Parade faithful can also expect to get a lot of value from new team Captain Cory Hill, who is a real workhorse in the second row.

Having lost to Leinster and Edinburgh so far, I dare say the Dragons will fancy their chances at home against Connacht on Friday. They have the back-room team and enough firepower to cause some teams problems this season, and will be looking to turn Rodney Parade into a fortress.

Ospreys

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for the Ospreys. The Liberty Stadium outfit lost their three warm-up matches, then laboured to an unconvincing home victory over Italian strugglers Zebre – a team they put over 60 points on last season.

This was followed by a hammering from Glasgow at Scotstoun, which did at least see an all-round better team performance.

There’s no doubting the Ospreys are missing the likes of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones in these early season exchanges. However, this is a team that hopes to – indeed, should – be challenging for domestic honours this season, as well as reaching the European Challenge Cup knock-out stages. I also have high hopes for James Hook and Corey Allen, both of whom have the vision and class to make a big impact.

Next up, the mighty Munster make the trip to Swansea, looking to extend their winning start to the season. Let’s hope the Ospreys turn on the style, they’ll certainly need it.

Scarlets

Living proof that it’s not all doom and gloom at the Welsh regions, reigning Champions The Scarlets have dutifully continued where they left off last season, playing an energetic, stylish and confident brand of rugby in their opening victories – albeit against two of the league’s weakest teams, Zebre and newcomers Southern Kings.

The Scarlets have been playing with explosive pace and great vision, doing the basics well, and we’re seeing the best from some of their most promising talents. Rhys Patchell is looking absolutely superb at fly-half, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing him get a Wales call-up in November. Johnny McNicholl has a quick step and is a deadly finisher, and Leigh Halfpenny looks to have settled in to his new club following his summer move from French high-rollers Toulon. Under the guidance of coaches Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones, I hope to see Halfpenny re-establish himself as one of Wales’ most potent attacking threats.

The Scarlets’ first real test of the season will come in Round 3, when they travel to Belfast to take on Ulster on Friday night. The atmosphere always looks amazing at the Kingspan Stadium, and I’d love to make the trip over some time! I believe Scarlets are serious contenders to defend their Championship crown this year, and a win this week would be a good measure of where they are as a team.

New Zealand edge England to Women’s Rugby World Cup Title; Wales finish seventh with victory over Ireland

The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup has been absolutely phenomenal, and the tournament reached a riveting conclusion this weekend with a pulsating final between holders England, and title rivals New Zealand.

A see-saw contest saw the Black Ferns take an early 5-0 lead, before two quick-fire tries seemingly saw England take control while New Zealand were down to 14 women.

A nervy second half yielded further tries for New Zealand through the forwards, with outstanding prop-forward Toka Natua notching up a hat-trick. England defended heroically through the likes of Emily Scarratt and outstanding centre Megan Jones, and even had Izzy Noel-Smith score a late try, but it was to be New Zealand’s night. Final Score: New Zealand 41 – 32 England

Earlier in the night, Wales put a disappointing championship behind them, beating hosts Ireland 27-17 to secure seventh place in this tournament and, crucially, automatic qualification to the next World Cup in four year’s time. Captain Carys Phillips and outstanding flanker Sioned Harries were among Wales’ try scorers. Harries has really caught my eye across the tournament with some deft handling and physical defending. She also certainly has an eye for the try line.

I am a huge fan of women’s rugby, and I have to say, this tournament has been a quite wonderful showcase for the sport. The support has been truly immense.

In a post match interview on Saturday, England fly-half Katy Mclean told BBC Sport how important it is that women’s rugby now “kicks on” after the success of this tournament:

“I just think we need more coverage.
“The support has been sensational but we have really got to start making sure we aren’t saying in 2021 ‘was this the one?’
“Let’s make it now, and let’s make a difference.”

I have felt for some time that women’s rugby is something of a sleeping giant, and I couldn’t agree more with Mclean’s sentiments here. WRWC2017 has been enthralling, exciting and immensely entertaining. The pace, passion and raw aggression of the final spoke volumes of the sport. Now we need to make sure the women’s game gets even more coverage in order to unlock its true potential.

An Interview with Kim Boreham, Director of Womens Rugby for Hong Kong Rugby Union

As the Womens Rugby World Cup 2017 exploded into life this week, I had the great pleasure to ask a few questions to Kim Boreham, who is Director of Women’s Rugby for Hong Kong Rugby Union. This is Hong Kong’s first appearance at the tournament – they beat Fiji to guarantee qualification – and they will face Wales in the final round of Pool A games on Thursday. We discussed the view from the Hong Kong camp leading into the tournament, as well as the world-wide growth of the women’s game, and the success and increasing popularity of the sport in Asia.

Congratulations to Hong Kong women on qualifying for their first World Cup. What a brilliant achievement, and an important milestone. What is the feeling amongst the squad ahead of their first appearance at the tournament?

Thank you. Qualifying for the tournament was a huge milestone for Hong Kong Women and Hong Kong Rugby as this is the first national team to qualify for a Rugby World Cup in XVs. The squad is determined to make the most of this incredible opportunity to play on the world stage. The squad have enjoyed their first few days in Ireland, are excited to finally make their first appearance and focussed on their first game against Canada.

How have preparations gone for the World Cup?

It has been a slow and steady build up over the last 8 months. In the last 2 months, Hong Kong played a training and test match against Spain and played Japan twice in the Asian Rugby Championship, which was an important part of our preparations. While the score lines were not in our favour the matches were invaluable for helping our coaching team try out different combinations and narrow down the final squad.

Are there any new, or surprise, inclusions in the Hong Kong squad? Who are the ones to watch in the team, likely to set the tournament alight?

A late inclusion to the team was our youngest player, Kelsey Bouttle, 18, who was only called into the training squad around 3 months ago.  Players to watch include the two wings Poon Pak Yan and Chong Ka Yan and centre, Natasha Olson Thorne.

What do you make of Hong Kong’s group opponents? Who are you most looking forward to facing?

It is a daunting pool but if you are coming to the World Cup you want the chance to play some of the best teams in the world.  This will be the first time that Hong Kong plays Canada, NZ and Wales so we are looking forward to each of these games for different reasons.

Aside from obviously lifting the trophy, what will HKRU hope to achieve from the women’s team’s first world cup appearance?

We hope to raise the profile of women’s rugby within Hong Kong and Asia and showcase the kind of opportunities that rugby can bring you. Not just in terms of playing on the world stage against the best teams in the world. We want to highlight the hard work, strength and determination of our players as well as the team spirit, inclusion, camaraderie and fun that rugby has to offer.

In the last four years, I feel the women’s game has quite rightly gone from strength to strength and is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. I think the women’s sevens tournament at the Rio Olympics last year, in particular, put the spotlight on women’s rugby and captured lots of people’s imaginations. What do you think are some of the next steps in growing the women’s game even further?

Agreed. I think this years Women’s Rugby World Cup will also help showcase and highlight the strength of the women’s XVs at the top level. The Olympics have certainly helped galvanise interest in rugby for young girls around the world.  Some of the next steps in growing the women’s game further would be to better promote and develop the girls and women’s game, at grassroots level particularly in non traditional rugby countries to bring greater awareness of the sport and its benefits to girls. There is some great work being done already within Asia on this but as always there is more work to be done. Try to increase number and support for international competitions  and test matches including across regions – the statistics about the number of tests played by some of the women’s teams in the WRWC make for some interesting reading.  It is important that development of the VIIs and XVs game for women’s rugby proceed concurrently and not be seen as a choice of one or the other – allocation of resources may vary at times but growth and development of both games should be supported.

How exciting is it to be involved with rugby in Asia at the moment? I’m so pleased to see the game blossoming in the region at present. Japan’s victory over South Africa at RWC 2015 was a huge moment. Japan came close to beating Wales in Cardiff in November, too, and of course they will be hosting the next world cup.

Very exciting.  Japan is a great example of the growth and development of rugby in Asia both in the men’s and women’s game over the last 20 years. The fact they are hosting the World Cup will be a huge boost for the game in Asia.

Finally, I’d like to wish you and everyone involved with Hong Kong women’s team all the very best for the world cup!

Cheers!

*

Thank you so much for answering a few questions for my blog, Kim! I also wasn’t previously aware of the Welsh contingent involved with Hong Kong Rugby Union, with Dai Rees, Leigh Jones and Paul John all currently involved with managing and coaching the National teams.

Here’s wishing Hong Kong all the best in their next match, against New Zealand this afternoon, and indeed for the rest of the tournament!

You can watch live coverage of Wales v Hong Kong on Thursday 17th August at 5:15pm on ITV4.

 

Excitement Builds ahead of WRWC2017

The Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 kicks off in Ireland tomorrow, and with twelve nations battling it out for the title, sell-out crowds and more TV and media coverage than ever before, the eighth edition of the tournament has all the ingredients to be the biggest and best yet.

Three groups of four teams will first contest the pool stages, and here’s how the draw is looking:

Pool A

Canada, Hong Kong, Wales, New Zealand

Pool B

England, Italy, Spain, USA

Pool C

Australia, Ireland, France, Japan

World Rugby advances leadership at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017

England begin their title defence as tournament favourites, having beaten the mighty New Zealand away from home in June, although the Black Ferns will, as always, be a formidable force, and will be looking to climb back to the summit of the world rankings in the next three weeks. Expect a strong-looking Canada to be right in the mix come the business end of the tournament, too.

Wales find themselves in arguably the toughest and most physical pool, facing New Zealand in their opening round tomorrow afternoon, as well as Canada and Hong Kong. Wales Coach Roland Phillips, and daughter and Wales Captain Carys Phillips, are excited and upbeat about the coming three weeks, describing their pool draw as a “pool of opportunity”, and will be aiming to approach the group stages with “control and chaos”.

https://www.facebook.com/WelshRugbyUnion/photos/a.10151658758363722.1073741850.18825758721/10155009054113722/?type=3

The tournament is a huge milestone for Hong Kong, the first time the region has qualified for a major 15s tournament, and they will undoubtedly relish the challenge ahead in a very tough group.

Ireland will also fancy themselves to go the distance this year in front of their home crowd, in what will be a real festival of attacking rugby.

Here’s wishing Wales all the best in their opening game against New Zealand tomorrow.

 

The New-Look Pro14: Reaction from the Welsh Regions and beyond

Tuesday’s announcement about the expansion of the old Guinness Pro 12 has been largely met with approval from fans, coaches and players alike. For many, the prospect of facing The Cheetahs and Southern Kings from South Africa represents a much-needed shot in the arm for the league, as well as increasing the profile of the tournament, and generating much needed financial investment in the competition.

The ambitious move to include two southern-hemisphere teams for the European season represents brand new territory for the sport. Early reports suggest expansion won’t stop here; teams in Canada and USA are being tipped to join as early as the 2018/19 season, with other rumours pointing to the likes of Georgia, Romania and Germany as growing rugby markets with huge future potential.

I’m pleased to say I believe The Kings and the Cheetahs also stand to benefit. The Pro14 has handed them a lifeline at a time when these teams were cut from the Super Rugby tournament, and I feel they will enter this new chapter with gusto. They are certain to add a fast and entertaining brand of rugby to the competition, and will not be merely making up the numbers. I, for one, cannot wait to see Cardiff Blues take on The Cheetahs at the Arms Park this season!

For a taster of what’s to come, here are the highlights from when Southern Kings hosted The Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth in the Super Rugby competition just last month.

Cardiff Blues fans may recall that Wales’ Capital Region faced the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in 2012 – an invitational game which formed part of their pre-season programme. The Blues emerged victorious that day, edging the hosts 32-31 courtesy of a late Ceri Sweeney penalty.

The Blues and The Cheetahs will re-ignite their rivalry this season, with both teams drawn in Conference A. Blues Head Coach Danny Wilson is relishing the challenge ahead:

http://www.cardiffblues.com/news/9021.php#.WYNzzYWcH4g

Versatile Blues back-rower Macauley Cook recalls their last encounter with the Cheetahs:

Cardiff Blues second-row powerhouse George Earle, formerly of The Cheetahs, outlines what the Arms Park outfit can expect from the South African teams:

Scarlets Head Coach Wayne Pivac is excited for the challenges the new Pro14 will bring, as the West-Walians begin defence of their championship crown in September:

Elsewhere in the league, new Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill describes the Pro14 expansion as “ground-breaking”, as he prepares for his first season in the championship:

Glasgow Warriors scrum-half Henry Pyrgos is a big fan of Super Rugby, and believes the Cheetahs and Kings will add an exciting new dimension to the league:

And finally, Cheetahs Head Coach Franco Smith – a former coach at Treviso – describes his determination to hit the ground running when the Bloemfontein outfit make their Pro14 debut in September:

The fixture list for the Pro14 is due to be confirmed on 7th August.

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Pro14 Tournament Officially Announced

The landmark expansion of the Pro12 was finally confirmed today, together with an official explanation on the format of the tournament, as well as details of European qualification.

The announcement ends weeks of speculation as to whether a conference system would be adopted, and whether the South African teams will be involved in the European Champions and Challenge Cup tournaments.

As had been rumoured, the tournament will now be split into two conferences of seven teams. Each conference is made up of two Welsh teams, two Irish teams, and one team each from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Teams will play a round robin of fixtures against the other six teams in their own conference, plus one game (either home or away) against all seven teams in the other conference. There had been concerns that the format would sacrifice certain high profile derby matches in Wales and Ireland, but an additional two rounds of matches have been added to ensure those games remain. To account for those extra rounds, The Scots, Italians and South Africans will face each other a total of three times during the season – bragging rights at stake, or what?

As for European qualification, it has been confirmed the South African sides will not be involved at this initial stage. Therefore, the top three sides in each conference at the end of the season will qualify for the Champions Cup, along with whichever fourth-placed team has the highest points tally (all discounting the SA sides).

I absolutely love this new format, and I absolutely love the expansion to include the Cheetahs and the Kings from South Africa. This cross-border competition has just got even more vibrant and exciting, and with the vision to expand into the southern hemisphere, this is a massive statement of the ambition of the Pro14.

Chief Executive of the tournament, Martin Anayi: “The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 as a global rugby Championship.
“South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.
“This is a natural evolution for the Championship… and we aim to be at the forefront of the game’s growth around the world.”

My dream is to see a world club competition launched at some point in the future, and with this announcement, it feels a little bit closer today. I truly believe this new chapter in the competition will be a resounding success, and I am so excited for the new season to start!

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