And, the winner is…

So here we are! After weeks of drama, joy, tension, the odd upset, and plenty of tries, the Rugby World Cup final is upon us once more. It’s (amazingly) the first time the rugby heavyweights of New Zealand and Australia have met in the final, and it promises to be an absolute belter. Australia have actually been my tip as champions after watching their performance against England, although I must admit they were less than convincing against Scotland, and could easily have fallen to Argentina in the semi-finals too. The Kiwis, meanwhile, are looking to win back to back tournaments, and while they looked to have been in second gear for the group stages of the tournament, they have typically known when to pull a massive performance out of the bag. In other words, ladies and gentlemaen, we have a final on our hands. My prediction for the final score is Australia 19 – 15 New Zealand.

I enjoyed the bronze medal game last night. In the end, South Africa were deserved winners, but both teams truly put their bodies on the line, and were playing with true passion and pride. Like most people, I thought Argentina really lit up the tournament, showing great ambition in their style of play. They will definitely be a handful to play against in the future, having improved massively for their inclusion in The Rugby Championship.

Moving on to domestic rugby, the sporting headlines have been dominated in Wales this week by Taulupe Faletau’s proposed move to Bath, which was subsequently blocked by the WRU under the Rugby Services Agreement. The whole situation seems so complicated. From what I can tell, Faletau wants to leave Rodney Parade, and The Dragons want to sell him, but the WRU are reluctant because the RSA contractually restricts the number of players who play for “overseas” clubs that can play for Wales. In other words, Faletau could put his international career in danger by moving to play for a club outside of Wales. I can understand the WRU wanting to keep our most talented players in Wales, and in the long run this could massively help improve the regional game – at the end of the day, as supporters, we want to see our best players on the pitch for our regional sides week in, week out. It’s awful that Faletau (or any player, in fact) should be caught in the middle of this kind of power struggle, and I just hope it doesn’t end up affecting his performances on the pitch.

With the world cup drawing to a close, attention will now turn to the domestic leagues, the Pro12, and the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, and it’s a packed schedule between now and Christmas. The first of the this year’s Pro12 Welsh Derbies was played out last night, with The Scarlets beating The Dragons 25-15 in Llanelli. The West Wales Region have had a fantastic start to their season, and currently sit deservedly top of the league.

The Cardiff Blues face Zebre away this afternoon, in a game I’d love to watch, but which, as far as I can tell, isn’t being televised in the UK! I would have thought, given the competitive nature of television broadcasters, someone would have picked it up! Isn’t it time that every Pro12 game is broadcast on T.V? Anyway, hopefully the improving Blues can return to winning ways in Italy after four weeks on the road without a win. I’ll be at the Blues v Glasgow game next week with Emily (wifey) and my mate Karl, and hopefully Dan and Bek too, and I’m really looking forward to returning to the Arms Park! For today, though, I’ll have to make do with online score updates.

Here’s to a great weekend of rugby, and hopefully an epic conclusion to a fantastic World Cup.

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Wales lose out to Springboks

Wales bowed out of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday following a narrow defeat to South Africa.

Speaking to lots of our coffee-shop regulars in the build up to that game, I sensed an unusual level of optimism both from the press in Wales and amongst fans (including myself). History, of course was not on our side, although even the recent history of an eleventh straight loss to Australia during the final round of group games was not enough to dampen Welsh spirits.

It wasn’t to be, however, and despite an undeniably valiant performance from the men in red, the Springboks prevailed convincingly in many aspects of the game, the scoreboard perhaps adding a gloss to what was, for the later stages especially, a rather one-sided affair.

Wales can take heart from this world cup. The well-documented injury list is surely in double figures, although a few of the replacements drafted in have certainly staked their claim for a Six Nations berth. Gareth Davies has impressed throughout in a position that many felt Rhys Webb had made his own. I thought Scott Williams was outstanding prior to his own injury, too – long hailed as a ‘super-sub’, I now feel we really do have three world-class centres in Williams, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Sam Warburton has also had a decent tournament, and I couldn’t possibly compile this sort of list without mention of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones, both of whom have absolutely given everything, and who indeed make me proud to support Wales.

The semi-finals comprise of all four teams from The Rugby Championship (the southern hemisphere’s premier annual international tournament), and following heavy defeats of France by New Zealand and Ireland to the hands of Argentina, as well as Scotland’s painfully narrow loss to Australia, lots of media outlets have been questioning the future of international rugby in Europe.

Why?

It’s no secret…the big three of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have been far superior to the Six Nations teams for many years. The gap is closing, but the fact is none of the home nations regularly beat any of those teams. Wales’ tactic during Warren Gatland’s reign has been strength, and power. It’s helped win us three Six Nations titles, and become one of the most consistent teams in Europe. To me, it’s how we combine strength and power with skill, game management and flair that represents the difference between the north and the south. Teams like the All Blacks know how and when to change from using a power game to relying on personal skill. And you see this instinct from 1 to 15, not just amongst the backs, not just amongst the leaders.

I believe we are not far from the complete package in Wales. This group of players will learn a lot from this experience, as many of them did from the last world cup. At the final whistle, I sensed they now know what is required of them to progress further next time. Whether as a squad they are capable of producing such a performance, we shall see, but with Gatland at the helm until 2019, hopefully we will have enough consistency in our ranks to give us a fighting chance.

Wales and Australia reach Quarter Finals

Wales had to dig deep to beat a stubborn Fiji side in Cardiff on Thursday, meaning that an Australian victory on Saturday was enough to see both nations through Pool A to the quarter finals of RWC 2015, at the expense of England.

Thursday’s Millennium stadium encounter was a pulsating match, and Welsh fans will be relieved to see no further injuries (although Dan Biggar worryingly limped from the field). Fiji have proved themselves to be a real force in this tournament, and when the game started opening up around the hour mark, Wales had began losing their defensive shape and the Pacific Islanders looked threatening. It’s pleasing to see another gritty display of determination in defence from Wales, embodied by what I felt was a huge performance from captain Sam Warburton.

The question is, with a quarter-final berth in the bag, do Wales choose a strong team to face Australia in the hope of topping the group, or should they rest some of the key players in key positions for what will be a massive encounter between either South Africa, Scotland or possibly Japan? Personally, I’d rest Falatau, or at least have him start amongst the replacements. Our scrum has been on the back foot for much of this tournament, but he has brilliantly negated any opposition momentum from the number 8 position, and could be vital should we face South Africa in particular.

Australia’s back-row combination of Pocock and Hooper was so effective against England on Saturday. I’d love to see Warburton, Tipuric and Ross Moriarty face them in the final pool match.

With the final round of pool matches commencing this week, it promises to be an explosive end to the group games, in what has been an incredible tournament so far!

 

Wales win at Twickenham

What…a…game!!

After an unbelievably tense eighty minutes of frantic rugby, Wales emerged from Twickenham victorious, putting us in the driving seat in Pool A, albeit with two very difficult games remaining.

I was so impressed with the performances of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones. With sheer determination, pure grit and nerves of steel, they confidently marshalled the Wales team back into contention in a game which almost seemed lost when the excellent Owen Farrell struck a penalty shortly after half-time. Biggar’s own monstrous penalty from near the half-way line turned out to be a match-winner, and dispelled any fears I had about Wales missing the long-range goal kicking abilities of Leigh Halfpenny.

And, how about that Wales try? Engineered by Lloyd Williams’ grubber kick from the left wing, scored by the chasing Gareth Davies. Just sublime, and a real turning point in the game. Given that by this point we had suffered yet more injuries, and a host of players were having to play out of position, this was such an assured and well worked try. I think the fitness of the Welsh team also became a factor in the final quarter.

Lots has been made of the final twenty minutes of Saturday’s game, which saw England surrender a ten point lead and Chris Robshaw decide to shun a kick at goal in favour of a driving lineout which could have snatched victory but instead resulted in defeat. The press have torn Robshaw to shreds for that decision, but personally I think he made the right decision – it’s the sort of confident leadership that can make a captain a hero or a villain.

So, next up for Wales, it’s Fiji, a game which kicks off in just under five hours time! There’s certainly belief in the Wales camp, but we have come unstuck in these situations many times before. We are by no means through to the quarter finals yet. Fiji looked fast and physical against England and Australia, and we can expect more of the same this afternoon. I’m pleased to see an extremely strong team selected. It’s a game we must close out. If it becomes an open game, we could be exposed and vulnerable in the wider channels. I’ll be hoping to see more superb game management from Biggar and Wyn-Jones too.

Come on Wales!!