An exciting final round of European group fixtures reached a dramatic conclusion on Sunday with Exeter Chiefs beating the Ospreys at Sandy Park and qualifying for last eight of the Champions Cup on points difference. It’s a result that compounds the Swansea-based regions’ frankly awful run of seasons in the premier European competition. I’m really disappointed, because I felt the Ospreys had produced some eye-catching performances recently. They are Wales’ strongest regional team at present, and, irrespective of what league standings suggest, I believe they are the team most capable of winning some silverware this term. It would be foolish to believe they will not be in the running for Pro12 honours at the business end of the season. Given their pedigree on the domestic front, it’s difficult to see why they continuously come up short in Europe. For the sake of Welsh rugby, I hope to see an upturn in their fortunes soon.
Cardiff Blues posted a hefty score line in a one-sided affair against Calvisano that was ultimately in vain, as Montpelliar overcame Harlequins to qualify ahead of the Welsh capital outfit. I am increasingly pleased with Blues’ progress. They almost managed a remarkable comeback against Harlequins in round 5, and are showing real fight and resilience. A European exit will now allow efforts to be concentrated on climbing the league table. On recent form, I’d back Blues to finish the year in the top six, and see a much awaited return to the Champions Cup.
Speaking of the Pro12, it’s very disappointing to see that so few teams have made it from this league into the last eight of the European competitions. Indeed, the Champions Cup quarter-finalists are exclusively from the English and French leagues, with only Newport Gwent Dragons and Connacht representing the Celtic league in the second-tier competition. The signs are ominous. Is the gap widening between the Pro12 and the premier leagues from England and France? If so, is it all down to money? Or is there an intrinsic problem with the Pro12?
I must say, I am envious of the English of French leagues for one reason in particular – the threat of relegation. It’s so important to sport. It gives teams something to fight for. The Pro12, however admittedly entertaining, holds no such threat to its participants. The recent introduction of meritocratic qualification to the European competitions from within the Pro12 has definitely helped improve the standard of rugby and the intensity of the games. However, I would propose this idea should go a step further: only the top six teams should qualify for the Champions Cup. Just look at Treviso’s record in Europe this season – they’ve been hammered in every game, outrageously outclassed by every team in their group. Wouldn’t it actually be more productive for Treviso to be in the second-tier competition until they actually improve enough to compete with the heavyweights from England and France?
I wish the Dragons all the best for their quarter-final tie against Challenge Cup holders Gloucester.
Gareth Anscombe is named amongst today’s replacements for Harlequins v Blues at Twickenham Stoop and I hope to see him add some extra flair to a Cardiff side brimming with confidence after two months of great performances.
Recent wins over Scarlets and Connacht will certainly set the Cardiff region in good stead. Looking at Harlequins’ team sheet for today, however, I can’t help but feel Blues are against a different calibre of opponent, boasting international heavyweights and hardened match-winners right across the park. Joe Marler, Nick Easter, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Jamie Roberts and Mike Brown all start as Quins look to underline their undisputed dominance in this pool to date, and cement their place in the quarter-finals. Following eye-catching victories for both Ospreys and Dragons on Friday night, however, I believe Blues are capable of a shock victory here.
One thing I’ve been impressed with this season so far is Blues’ determination to see out a game for the full 80 minutes. It’s taken a few seasons, but I feel like this squad are finally playing for each other. They look hungry for it, are attacking with confidence, and defending with real tenacity. I think Danny Wilson and Graham Steadman are doing a terrific job, and I look forward to further progress in these areas over the seasons to come.
Some shrewd signings were made over the Christmas spell which I believe can further bolster Blues’ options in two key areas; in particular, Nick Williams and Matthew Morgan. With Rhys Patchell leaving for Scarlets in the summer, Morgan is just what the doctor ordered. He’s fast, unpredictable, has the versatility of Patchell, and will undoubtedly want to push himself with his performances in the hope of furthering his international honours.
I feel Blues have been in need of an additional ball-carrying threat in the mould of Nick Williams for some time, and his signing will add some real grunt to the Cardiff pack. He reminds me of Xavier Rush, and I hope he will be every bit as fearless and uncompromising as the former Kiwi No.8. If his consistency for Ulster is anything to go by, I’m expecting him to be a hugely influential signing come the autumn.
Good luck to the Blues today!
As this is my first post of 2016, I’d like to wish everyone a very Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that Welsh rugby continues to go from strength to strength for the rest of the season and beyond.
The Six Nations is now on the horizon (!!!), and with the four Regions in derby action over the festive season, competition is heating up regarding selection for the national team. Many players – and fans, of course – will also have one eye on Wales’ forthcoming, three-test summer tour to World Champions New Zealand. On the domestic front, it’s been great to see Cardiff Blues hitting some form. They are starting to look like a stubborn team to beat, especially at home, and while Danny Wilson would be the first to admit there is still a lot of work to do, they are beginning to string some pleasing performances together, scoring some great tries, and looking a lot more solid and structured in defence.
Finally, of course, there’s the inclusion of Rugby 7s as an Olympic Event to look forward to in Brazil this summer. Who will make Team GB?
Here’s to another great year of rugby!