Wales v France: The Build Up

Less than 24 hours to this massive fixture in Cardiff, I can’t wait!

I was pleased to find Jon Davies restored to the starting line-up this week; less so to find that Charteris was ruled out; and outright horrified to hear that Corey Allen is out for the rest of the season after being stretchered off in the Blues game against Leinster last weekend. He’s had a terrible run of injuries, and hasn’t had enough time to establish himself in Blues’ midfield, let alone play any part in Wales’ Six Nations campaign. With Scott Williams also ruled out, it seems chances are James Hook will get a timely call-up. Having been perennially overlooked by Gatland, he seldom pulls on the red jersey nowadays, but there’s no denying the guy’s a class act.

Dan Lydiate has been preferred to Tipuric in the back row, too. So, the “experts” have got what they wanted, even though I’d have stuck with the Ospreys’ openside for one more game at least. Lydiate will definitely offer more grunt in defence if the game turns into an arm-wrestle.

It’s going go be a close one I feel, but we can do it! Come on Wales!!

Pro 12 Round-Up

A mixed bag of fortunes for the Welsh regions this weekend, then, with Scarlets earning a crucial and impressive win over Ulster in Belfast, while the Blues appear stranded at ninth position in the league table with a home loss to Leinster.

I managed to catch the first half of Ulster v Scarlets on TV before I went to work yesterday, and I must say it was entertaining stuff. The Llanelli-based region sure have some flair when they’re playing at their best, and with captain Hadleigh Parkes teaming up with the exceptional Reagan King in midfield, they secured an important win which consolidates their position towards the top of the league.

I must admit, I sometimes fear Scarlets do not have the required strength throughout their squad to see out a campaign, which may explain their collapse in the European Champions Cup this season. Now that they can concentrate on the league, however, it will be interesting to see if they can make the semi-finals. They certainly did themselves a huge favour yesterday.

Meanwhile, at the Arms Park, another frustrating and agonisingly close result means Blues are really up against it now. Any hopes of qualifying for the Champions Cup will almost certainly require some big wins over the likes of Ulster, Ospreys and Glasgow, and while they have absolutely shown more endeavour – and importantly, more heart – this season, I’m starting to feel that this will be beyond them.

Danny Wilson was understandably frustrated in his post-match interview. The last fortnight was crucial to Blues’ campaign, and could now prove costly. I believe he’s done a fantastic job this season, however, and I hope we at least get a decent run-in now and end the season on a high.

Charteris and Davies both doubts ahead of huge France clash

Worrying news from the Wales camp this week, as both Luke Charteris and Jonathan Davies will sit out games for their French club teams this weekend, following injuries obtained in the game against Scotland. Charteris has firmly established himself as first choice to partner Alyn Wyn Jones in Wales’ engine room, and rightly so in my opinion – his height in the line out and his disruptive work in the maul are both invaluable. His tackle-rate, and general work-rate, are massive too.

Similarly, Jonathan Davies has been crucial to Wales for his incredible footballing skills and his powerful defence. Intersetingly, with both players currently plying their trade across the English channel, the inclusion of both for the France game could have given Wales the edge thanks to their familiarity of the French players, teams and systems. Hopefully they will feature in that fixture.

On a related note, Leigh Halfpenny attended a training session with Wales this week in order to share a little insight of the French teams, possible tactics, and potential targets. He will definitely not feature in this Six Nations, but I wish him a speedy recovery, and hope that he will be on the aeroplane to New Zealand for the summer tour.

On the domestic front, Ospreys put on a powerful second half display to beat Edinburgh in Swansea last night. Dan Lydiate was yellow carded for a reckless tackle, which I fear may jeapordise his potential starting berth against the French. There has been a lot of talk about Wales’ back row options over the last few weeks, much of it accusing the Warburton/Tipuric/Faletau combination of misfiring. I love this combination, I think the balance is perfect, and believe Gatland should retain all three for next Friday’s game. They need more time to settle as a unit. I’m also a huge fan of Lydiate coming off the bench, tightening defence to see out the game.

Elsewhere, Treviso doubled their win count for this season at home against the Dragons – their second Pro12 win in as many weeks against Welsh opposition. I was devastated last week when Blues lost out in Italy, and I’m disappointed also for the Dragons.

I will say, however, despite their terrible form this term, Treviso are not a bad team. They appointed a new head coach this week, and with some further shrewd signings I’m sure they will be more competitive next season. I always believe we need every team to be competitive in order to advance the game, and for the Pro12 product to improve.

Cardiff Blues face Leinster at home this afternoon, and there’s a welcome return for several international players. This is a must win game now for Blues, as we enter the final third of the season. I still believe we can finish in the top six. Come on Blues!

Gethin Jenkins extends Blues Contract

In a week when Cardiff Blues suffered defeat to current Pro12 basement team Benneton Treviso in Italy, some good news was badly needed. I was very pleased to learn that Gethin Jenkins has decided to extend his contract with Blues until at least the summer of 2017. Battle-hardened Jenkins, who has made 121 appearances for Wales as well as 164 for the Blues, has a wealth of experience at the very highest level and is a welcome boost to the capital-city region.

Warren Gatland recently revealed that Jenkins will almost certainly not represent Wales at the next world cup, with the New Zealander already planning for the future of Wales’ front row options. I just think what Jenkins has achieved as an athlete has been astonishing, both on the domestic and international front. He even played during Toulon’s victorious Heineken Cup Final of the 2012-13 season, during his brief stint in France. I sincerely hope that, when the time comes, he pledges his future beyond his playing career to Cardiff Blues also.

Wales Battle to Ninth-straight Victory Over Scotland

It was a tough encounter, that’s for sure – and I’m not just referring to making it on board a packed train into Cardiff on Saturday. A pulsating start gave way to a nervous hour in which Scotland battled into a deserved lead at the Principality Stadium.

Tries from Jamie Roberts and George North in the final quarter were (just about) enough to see Wales home and dry, although Scotland scored a try of their own as the clock turned red, meaning Wales’ victory was a more slender one than perhaps they hoped.

Jamie Roberts had another colossal game in national colours, this time picking up the man of the match award that many Welsh pundits believed he had deserved in Dublin also. There’s no doubting he’s hit some real form recently, his powerful running and bravery in defence complemented by a try in Saturday’s game. I believe the breakthrough moment though was North’s return to scoring ways. His dazzling run past a handful of Scottish defenders provided the game with a decisive moment of magic. Going into this game, I sensed Scotland were really up for their Cardiff showdown. They perhaps rolled over too easily against England, and were out for blood. Scotland have finished in the bottom half of this competition for far too long – we need all the home nations teams, all the Six Nations teams in fact, to be strong, if European rugby wishes to reduce the chasm between itself and its sothern-hemisphere counterpart.

I felt George North really provided the difference for Wales on Saturday. Scotland sadly lack a player like North in their ranks at present: while they are undoubtedly laying some solid foundations, and have a great captain in Greig Laidlaw, it seems to me they currently have no-one who is capable of providing a moment of true individual brilliance in order to sneak the win they so desperately need. Wales, I would argue, are currently blessed with a number of players who, on their day, fall into this bracket – Liam Williams, Justin Tipuric and indeed North to name a few. These are the game changers, the match winners. I hope there is more to come from the likes of these players in the coming weeks, as Wales look to reinvent themselves, and throw off the shakles against France, England and Italy in search of the Championship title.

Bigger to start against Scotland

Wales were today able to name an unchanged side to face Scotland on Saturday, with news that Dan Biggar is fit to start the game. Together with Gatland’s decision to keep Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric at numbers 6 and 7 respectively, this is just the kind of consistency required if Wales are to gain some momentum from this game to take into the rest of the tournament.

Gatland has said he wants to see more from some un-named individuals. While there was definitely a collectively solid performance from the team in Dublin, I’d love to see Tom James come into the game more this week, and pose more of a running threat. His form has been superb this season so far, and I’d love to see him score a try on his long-awaited return to Cardiff in international colours.

Elsewhere, Liam Williams deservedly retains the 15 shirt, with Gareth Anscombe starting amongst the replacements. He too needs a big attacking game against a Scotland team who I feel will finish the tournament with a couple of wins to their name. There is no doubt that Williams’ return to fitness has been a massive boost to Wales, and I back him to be one of our most potent attacking weapons as the Six Nations progresses.

This will be the first game at the newly-named Principality Stadium. It’s going to take some getting used to! To commemorate the many years of drama, excitement and emotion at the Millennium Stadium before the new sponsorship deal, the BBC put together some great highlights from the last 17 years. Enjoy!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/wales/35497523

 

 

 

What’s next for Wales after Dublin Draw?

So Sunday’s afternoon fixture was a brutal, breathless affair and, despite being 13-0 at one stage, I feel a draw was a fair outcome for a game which, overall, felt pretty evenly matched. Call me an optimist, but I’d go as far as to suggest Wales emerged slightly better off, considering it was one of only two away games, and against an Ireland side who I’d expect to be title contenders.

There were, however, a couple of concerns to emerge post-match. I can’t help but feel – on paper at least – our Wales team was stronger than the team Ireland put out for their championship opener. There was some experimentation of selection amongst both ranks, but Wales’ team arguably had a more familiar look to it. Therefore, I feel a win in Dublin should have seemed within reach.

It was, of course, hugely disappointing to see Dan Biggar leave the field so early on. I’m a huge fan, and I’m quickly running out of superlatives to underline his mercurial talents. Personally, I feel that Wales missed the sense of direction he brings to the team following his premature departure. Priestland’s workman-like performance surely answered some of his doubters and (frankly harsh) critics, but Biggar is without question Wales’ number-one Number ten. Providing he returns against Scotland this Saturday, I feel we can get our Six Nations campaign back on track.