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).

European Cup Reaches Final Group Stages

Hello! It’s been a while! Happy new year!

2018 has started with a series of epic clashes between the four Welsh regions. The Scarlets emerged unbeaten, and are showing definite signs they have what it takes to defend their Pro14 crown. The Ospreys registered wins over the Blues and Dragons, while the Blues managed a slender victory over the Dragons, but endured narrow defeats to both West Wales rivals.

The Dragons, meanwhile, continue to show lots of promise, talent and potential, but failed to beat any of their Welsh counterparts during a barren festive period. There is no doubting something special is brewing at Rodney Parade, however, with the Gwent region having made some eye-catching signings over the last few months. Richard Hibbard and Ross Moriarty are heavily rumoured to be joined by mammoth Wales wing George North down east for the 2018/19 season – quite a coup for the region which has underperformed for far too long, and a sure statement of intent.

Attention now turns to the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, with all four regions involved in some big-name tussles this weekend.

The Scarlets are first up, needing a vital win over Bath at The Rec to keep themselves in the race for qualification. Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny McNicholl are out for the visitors, who can at least call on Paul Asquith and Tom Prydie to continue their impressive December form in the back line. Rhys Patchell has been absolutely magnificent at full-back – in fact, I always preferred him in this role back when he played for Cardiff Blues. A class act, he always seems to have so much time on the ball, and cuts a neat angle with his running and footwork. The Scarlets will need to throw the kitchen sink at a fully-loaded Bath, teeming with internationals. There’s sure to be fireworks.

The Ospreys face the mighty Saracens in Swansea tomorrow night. Despite their poor league form, Ospreys find themselves in a brilliant position to qualify for the knock-out stages of this competition – although, should they down the current European champions at the Liberty Stadium, they must then face Clermont away from home in round six. As daunting as it seems, they dispatched Northampton with ruthless efficiency in the double-header last month, and if they play with swagger and belief, they have the tools to be right in the mix. Expect Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb to turn on the style.

The Dragons face a daunting trip to face Bordeaux, most likely battling for second place in what has been a very tight and fiercely competitive group. The visitors will be boosted by the welcome return of the sublime Elliot Dee, who has been a revelation this season. The young front-rower is having a colossal season, earning himself a well-deserved Wales call-up in the autumn. He knows his way to the try-line, too. Dee leads from the front, and will relish being back in the thick of the action in France.

Cardiff Blues round off the weekend with a huge, huge game against Toulouse. The French giants find themselves in the second-tier Challenge Cup competition this season, and the Blues recorded a most famous away win in the reverse fixture back in October. Fantastic stuff! Toulouse will be out for revenge and, with the Blues currently sitting pretty at the top of Pool Two, anything less than a victory would probably see the four-times European Champions knocked out of the tournament. The Blues have named a dynamic back-row of Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams, and will need to play with intelligence and heart to secure victory at the Arms Park on Sunday night. Bring it on!


Wales Show Promise in All Blacks Defeat

Wales fell to a 30th consecutive defeat to World Champions New Zealand in an entertaining encounter in Cardiff on Saturday night.

The hosts failed to convert pressure into points, and were made to pay dearly as, true to form, the All Blacks made the most of every half-break, and pulled well clear in the final quarter.

Wales delivered a bright start, but had only three points to show for their efforts when, somewhat against the rung of play, gargantuan winger Waisake Naholo received a looping pass from Aaron Smith and squeezed just inside the corner flag to touch down. It was an opportunist score that demonstrated just how devastating the All Blacks can be on turnover ball.

Naholo added a second on 38 minutes, before Wales finally breached the whitewash as half-time beckoned. Hallam Amos bamboozled the New Zealand defence with a rapier angle, and quick hands saw Scott Williams dive for the line to register a much-needed seven-pointer to keep Wales in touch. This is probably the best try I’ve seen Wales score in 2017.

The game’s decisive moment came on 61 minutes when Kiwi superstar Reiko Ioane intercepted a loose pass from Dan Biggar and scorched under the posts, unopposed. Wales had butchered several try-scoring opportunities by this point, and Ioane’s score signalled the game was probably safe for the visitors. Indeed, Gareth Davies’ late reply was soon cancelled out by Ioane’s second, handing New Zealand a 33-18 victory.

The World Champions showed their superiority on Saturday, but overall I am very pleased with Wales’ contribution to this game. Few would argue there are real signs that Wales are trying to reinvent their attacking game, and if they can improve on accuracy and cut out the handling errors, they have the right players to deliver a feast of exciting, attacking rugby. With England, Ireland and Scotland all having enjoyed very successful autumn campaigns, Wales are likely to go into the Six Nations as underdogs come February. However, with one game remaining for Wales – against South Africa, this Saturday – there is still time to experiment with some new player combinations and further develop their new style. A victory would certainly be a big statement from Wales following a gruelling November series.

Player of the Week

Hands down, Josh Navidi. The lynchpin of the Cardiff Blues back-row is finally enjoying his first real breakthrough into the Wales squad after making his first appearance in 2013, and waiting four years to win his second cap, against Tonga earlier in the year. With Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins all out injured at the beginning of the autumn, Navidi has grabbed his chance with both hands and has created a real headache for the selectors with a series of barnstorming, abrasive performances. Of course, he’s being doing this for the Blues for years. Long may he continue.

Team of the Week

Scotland put 53 points on Australia on the weekend, Gregor Townsend’s men running riot after the Wallabies had prop Sekope Kepu red-carded for a shoulder barge on Hamish Watson. The Scots take my team of the week award – expect them to take their rich form into next year’s Six Nations campaign.

Wales Ready For Huge All Blacks Test

Game three of an especially bruising Autumn Campaign sees Wales face the mighty New Zealand on home soil, continuing their search for a first victory against the All Blacks since 1953.

An unconvincing victory over Georgia last Saturday is perhaps not the ideal platform from which to launch an assault on the back-to-back World Champions. That said, a somewhat experimental side did well to hold out against the Eastern Europeans, and – having been fortunate enough to have been at the game – it was pleasing to see Wales showing a desire to be creative and really make the most of talents like Hallam Amos. It was a bonus to witness the Dragons winger cross the whitewash for the second time in as many games, and there’s no doubting his ability to spot and exploit a gap. He cut a devastating angle to score the game’s only try, and (in my opinion) ought to have been awarded a second shortly afterwards when the excellent Leon Brown made a charge down midfield.

I can also confirm it was a bit of a nerve-jangling finale from where I was sitting.  Georgia gave a superb account of themselves, and came agonisingly close to snatching a dramatic draw right at the death, Wales clinging on by virtue of uncontested scrums being called following injuries to the front row contingent. Still, the Georgians earned a great deal of respect on their first ever meeting with Wales, and calls to include them in The Six Nations will grow louder in the coming months, I’m sure.

The All Blacks had a narrow escape themselves last week, a last-ditch tackle from Damien McKenzie denying the regal Stuart Hogg a potential match-winner as the clock turned red on Scotland v New Zealand.

Some critics have accused the All Blacks of mediocrity this term and, by their own lofty standards, defeats to Australia and The British and Irish Lions perhaps add weight to this argument. Don’t be fooled: they remain the most clinical and streetwise team in rugby union – perhaps even in any sport. Their showdown with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is their last opportunity to underline their authority in 2017.

Wales will be up for the challenge, and could have the tools to push them all the way. They will need to be creative and physical, and will miss full back Liam Williams in these departments. However, with a back three of Amos, Leigh Halfpenny and the outstanding Steff Evans, I am expecting a gutsy performance that will see Wales really throw the ball about. If we can show some of the cutting edge that was lacking in the defeat to Australia earlier in the month, who knows what could happen?

WALES TEAM TO PLAY NEW ZEALAND (Saturday 25 November KO 17.15)
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (72 Caps)
14. Hallam Amos (Dragons) (13 Caps)
13. Scott Williams (Scarlets) (49 Caps)
12. Owen Williams (Gloucester) (2 Caps)
11. Steff Evans (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
10. Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (58 Caps)
9. Rhys Webb (Ospreys) (29 Caps);
1. Rob Evans (Scarlets) (18 Caps)
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets) (51 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (25 Caps)
4. Jake Ball (Scarlets) (27 Caps)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (Ospreys) (111 Caps)
6. Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) (11 Caps)
7. Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues) (5 Caps)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath) (68 Caps)

16. Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues) (6 Caps)
17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
18. Leon Brown (Dragons) (2 Caps)
19. Cory Hill (Dragons) (8 Caps)
20. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (51 Caps)
21. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (26 Caps)
22. Rhys Priestland (Bath) (49 Caps)
23. Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) (93 Caps)

Derby Wins for Blues and Scarlets ahead of European Competitions

The Welsh regions played out two superb derby matches in round six of the Pro14, Cardiff Blues defeating Dragons in an Arms Park thriller last Friday, before The Ospreys fell to a fifth defeat of the season against The Scarlets in an unpredictable, nail-biting encounter at The Liberty Stadium.

Blues v Dragons was just an awesome game of rugby. The Dragons were excellent in the first half, scoring three tries to deservedly lead 21-10 at the interval. The Blues, however, were not to be denied, and replied with some sensational rugby, scoring five scintillating tries to see off their East Wales rivals. The Dragons did manage to add a fourth, bonus-point try to their tally, and it was no more than they deserved for their contribution to a pulsating match – probably one of the best Welsh derbies I’ve seen in a while.

Matthew Morgan deserves a mention here: the Blues replacement full-back was at his counter-attacking best on Friday, slicing through the Dragons defence for two tries in the second period, and made the game safe for the Arms Park outfit. Tomos Williams also helped increase the tempo of the game from scrum-half, and looked to link up brilliant with fly-half Jarrod Evans. They read the game well, and their opportunism makes them dangerous attackers. All three have earned a starting spot for tonight’s European Challenge Cup opener against French pace-setters Lyon in Cardiff.

The Dragons simply ran out of steam in last week’s game, but they are making discernible progress under new Coach Bernard Jackman. He is starting to get the best from Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos, both of whom have struggled to assert themselves in the past seasons while the team has been going backwards. Their performance on Friday typifies the feel-good factor at the club following the WRU takeover, and it’s only a matter of time until they string some results together. Perhaps the European Challenge Cup is just the right environment to get some momentum: they begin their campaign at Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.

Unlike Blues and Dragons, The Ospreys and Scarlets have both qualified for the European Champions Cup, and it’s the former that have undoubtedly been drawn in the tougher pool, alongside Northampton Saints, as well as Champions Saracens, and last season’s losing finalists, Clermont. What a group!

The Ospreys put in a reasonable performance against the Scarlets on Saturday, although they once again failed to score a try and they seemed to be a lack of a game plan. With Cory Allen and Jeff Hassler on the wings, the hosts were clearly hoping to out-muscle the Pro12 Champions. However, despite some brutal defensive sets, Steff Evans and Johnny McNiccol showed too much pace, power and footwork. All-action scrum-half Gareth Davies scored two crucial tries just after the break, and if Rhys Patchell wasn’t having an off day with his kicking, the scoreboard would have looked a lot more convincing at the final whistle.

The Ospreys were, at least, looking a lot more competitive in this match. It was great to see Dan Biggar pass the 1500 point milestone for the club, too. He has been such a talisman at the Ospreys, and in my view, has re-established himself as the region’s key playmaker following the emergence of the excellent Sam Davies last season.

I’m sure the Ospreys will welcome the start of the Champions Cup this week as a distraction from a pretty dire start to their Pro14 campaign. They take on Clermont in Swansea on Sunday.

The Scarlets, meanwhile, hit the road this weekend, to face three-time European Champons Toulon. The return of Leigh Halfpenny will be a welcome boost for the West Walians, and Halfpenny himself will surely relish an outing against his former employers. If I’m honest, it’s been quite a while since any of the Welsh regions have began a European campaign with any confidence, but the Scarlets are playing some incredible rugby at the moment, and the optimism surrounding the club is tangible. They will not fear the task facing them in the South of France, and have the tools and the attitude to take the Stade Felix Mayol by storm.