Scarlets beat Ospreys in Swansea

A series of massive derby games between the Welsh regions began today with Ospreys against Scarlets. The Llanelli-based side had not won at the Liberty Stadium since 2007, but are in good form and are currently the highest placed Welsh team in the league. Today’s 25-16 win over the Ospreys sees the Scarlets consolidate their league position, and dealt a huge blow to the Ospreys’ chances of reaching the European Champions Cup next season.

This is big news. The Ospreys have, for many years now, been Wales’ best hope in Europe’s premier competition. While they are often seen to have underachieved in the competition, their general league consistency and quality personnel has meant, on paper at least, they should be competing at the highest level. Today’s result actually means that there is now a very real possibility that only the Scarlets will be representing Wales in the Champions Cup next season; the Ospreys now languishing in ninth position in the Pro12 table.

Despite an impressive victory today, I can’t help but feel the Scarlets still lack the strength in depth to go all the way in the league this season. The manner in which they imploded during this year’s European group games was huge cause for concern, although they were able to welcome back a number of internationals to bolster their forward pack today to continue their charge on the league.

Scarlets could be a very different animal next season, having recruited very well. Rhys Patchall and the returning Jonathan Davies are game breakers and relish the big stage. They will be part of an extremely potent back division, loaded with international experience, as well as heaps of genuine skill and flair. I’m going to make an early prediction that they will make next season’s Pro12 final, but I don’t feel they have quite enough in the tank to get them over the line this year.

Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues avenged last month’s away defeat to Treviso by beating the Italians 56-8 at the Arms Park. Today’s result at the Liberty Stadium means The Blues stay in seventh spot and, despite a challenging run-in of fixtures, their top-six ambitions are very much alive.

Pivotal will be the Blues v Ospreys game during Judgement Day IV next month. It’s looking set to be a cracker. Danny Wilson’s team selection for Cardiff Blues was spot-on yesterday; a dynamic back-row of Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins, complemented from the second-row by man-of-the-match Josh Turnbull, saw the Blues cut loose and run riot in the final quarter against Treviso. The Ospreys will hope to have Justin Tipuric back for that meeting: I felt his presence was missed at the Liberty Stadium today, as James Davies shone for the Scarlets in the No.7 shirt.

The run-in is looking intriguing. Whatever happens, let’s hope that two Welsh teams finish in the top six, and make it to next season’s Champions Cup.

 

England Grand Slam, Wales finish second with win over Italy

So there we have it, another Six Nations reaches it’s conclusion. Where have the last seven weeks gone? Sometimes I think they need to introduce home and away legs in order to lengthen the series and possibly make it even more competitive – then I look at the gruelling programme of fixtures as it already is, and think better of it.

England beat France in Paris to seal a (quite unbelievable) first Grand Slam in thirteen years. Needless to say, Emily was delighted, and rightfully so as they looked good value for it in this tournament. Wales have finished second, apparently for the first time since 1980, despite being crowned champions three times in the last decade – itself an interesting statement on a newfound consistency during Warren Gatland’s tenure.

Following a flat opening forty minutes against England in Twickenham last weekend, Wales came storming out of the blocks against the Italians on Saturday, recording their record championship winning-margin in a stylish nine-try victory. Superb scores from man-of-the-match George North, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies were complemented by a wonderful performance from young open-side Ross Moriarty. Replacing the injured Justin Tipuric early in the game, Moriarty already looks comfortable on the international stage, having made his Wales debut during the World Cup warm-ups last summer. He scored two tries on Saturday and has surely put his hand up for Wales’ summer tour to New Zealand.

While the 67-14 win over Italy was definitely reflective of the quality and attacking intent of the home team, I must point out that the Italians are at the end of a long and gruelling championship which has seen a couple of key injuries.

Italy are still an enigma. They lack the depth and resources of the other Six Nations teams, but on their day are capable of a big upset, having defeated Ireland and France (twice) in the last few years. In Sergio Parisse, they have not only a captain but a passionate talisman who, despite being a little past his best, is still the envy of most teams. He embodies the spirit of the Italian team. A true warrior, he leads from the front and fights to the end, even in a team which is too often on the back foot. I feel that Italy are ready for the management change that is coming over the summer and to start afresh.

It’s with this in mind that I think Wales will face a different calibre of opposition come June. A warm-up against England at the end of May is followed by three tests against World Champions the All Blacks (gulp). In many ways, Saturday’s try-fest was perhaps just the confidence boost Wales need ahead of their summer schedule. New Zealand will provide the sternest of tests in the most hostile of environments. And history is in their favour, too.

Wales, however, will be up for it. This is very much a transitional time for the All Blacks. The June test matches will be New Zealand’s first of the season, and their first without retired heroes Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Perhaps it’s now or never for Wales. We now have class in every position, and our replacements bench has been the strongest ever this season. George North is making a timely return to form. The signs are good.

So, as the Six Nations 2016 draws to a close, Wales can reflect on a campaign of mixed fortunes and performances, but can ultimately look forward with positivity to a massive summer of fixtures.

Wales Hope to Finish on a High

It’s the final day of the Six Nations. It always seems to go too fast! Wales will be hoping to right the wrongs of last weekend, in which an extremely slow start cost them dearly at Twickenham.

In an intriguing final round of fixtures, a resurgent Scotland will face Ireland full of confidence in Dublin, while England’s Grand Slam hopes rely on a powerful display against France in Paris.

From a Wales persepective, it’s important we finish on a high note after last week’s disappointing showing. It’s hard to believe that victory today would seal a second-place finish, which would be Wales’ best finish in the last three seasons, despite losing one game and drawing another. I think it goes to show that the competition has been more difficult this term, especially with Scotland right back in the mix.

With Jusin Tipuric in for the injured Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb starting, and live-wire Hallam Amos on the wing, I’m hoping for a high-scoring game to light up the Principality Stadium. We saw some Italy supporters arrive in Bridgend yesterday; lets hope for a carnival day of rugby!

An Interview with Lou Reed!

Being a coffee fan, giant Cardiff Blues and Wales lock Lou Reed calls into our shop from time to time, and last week he very kindly agreed to an interview for my blog! Here’s what happened…

Lou Reed is smiling after a busy day at the Vale training facility on what is a lovely Spring day. With a busy schedule approaching for the Blues, there is lots at stake and much to discuss! “Training went really well” he says, explaining that sometimes it can be difficult if the team is on a losing streak, or you’re not getting picked, but indicating there is a definite optimism in the Cardiff Blues camp at present.

The last few years the Blues have been rebuilding and, from the perspective of fans like myself, it looks as if we are starting to move in the right direction. Reed agrees, pointing out the impact new head coach Danny Wilson has undoubtedly had during his first season in charge. He indicates that Wilson is working towards having a smaller squad of greater quality, and is impressed by how well organized the set-up is at the Blues. “The players and coaches are on song now, which makes for a good team”.

What is a realistic target for this season, the Blues currently in ninth place in the Pro12? “We began this season aiming for the top four, and now everything is focussed on making the top six”. This would see a welcome return to Champions Cup rugby for the Arms Park outfit.

So, which teams and players have impressed him this season so far? I must admit I’ve been impressed with Connacht, currently topping the Pro12 table, backing up their performances week after week. Reed points out “[Connacht] has always been a tough place to go and get a win. In the past they’d maybe finish mid-table after winning their home games, but now they’re winning away from home too, and against some big teams”. Reed also points out Bundee Aki has been a superb signing for Connacht – apparently he’s a big guy, and very difficult to bring down!

As for the Blues’ new signings, the likes of Rhys Gill, Matthew Morgan and Nick Williams will bring huge confidence and experience to the Arms Park next season, and Lou Reed is expecting them to have a massive impact. Gill’s signing from Saracens seems like a major coup, having spent the last few years playing at the very highest level in Europe.

Reed was full of praise for Rhys Patchell, who “has put his body on the line every week for the Blues, long after signing for the Scarlets [for next season]”. I must say, I’ve continued to be hugely impressed by Patchell’s performances. He seems like a true professional, and I hope he continues to go from strength to strength.

It didn’t take Reed long to answer when I asked him which are his favourite rugby grounds or cities at which to play. “I absolutely love playing Ulster in Belfast. Their supporters are so proud of the team. Their song – ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’ – it gives me goosebumps when the crowd starts singing it”. He tells me of a brilliant away trip right at the end of one season where the Blues team where invited to join a Wedding Party at the hotel where they were staying! He also loves playing Leinster at the RDS, in front of a packed house.

Speaking of away games, I wanted his thoughts on Super Rugby. He enjoys what he sees, but doesn’t follow it as much as fellow Blues lock Jarrad Hoeata (who signed from the Highlanders in 2014). And, as much as he likes the idea of a world club league, he concedes that no change of that scale is likely to happen in rugby union any time soon.

The Blues, of course, played a one-off invitational match in South Africa against the Cheetahs in Summer 2014, a game in which Reed was involved. He describes it as “a tough old game, but a brilliant experience. It was at a university with a proud South African rugby history. There were no stands – the crowd were stood pitchside”. He speaks fondly of their brief time in the country. The Blues won the game 32-31.

What was his opinion of Wales’ loss against England on the weekend? He watched the match at “my old rugby club in Treorchy”, and even did a spur-of-the-moment question and answer session at half time. What a legend. Of the game itself, he was full of praise for Taulupe Faletau, a phenomenal athlete. The media made his battle with cousin Billy Vunipola a focal point of the build-up: “It must be difficult to play against family like that”.

Reed is really excited for the remaining regional derbies this term, as well as, of course, Judgement Day IV, which looks set to be a sell out event for the first time – a massive milestone for the regional game. “There is more bite when you play against a local club. I’m hoping we can turn the Ospreys over. Selection for the Wales summer tour will be up for grabs. The young boys will be after places. These are the biggest games”.

And finally, my wife Emily insisted that I asked him whether he was named after the singer Lou Reed. With a smile, he confirms that, yes he was. Apparently he’s even got a pretty decent singing voice, with Lionel Richie’s “Hello” being a favourite: He first belted it out following his very first Wales cap, against Scotland, after Al Kellock had presented him with a bottle of Famous Grouse.

Here’s wishing Lou Reed and the Cardiff Blues a successful end to the season – and thank you so much for the interview!

 

England v Wales: The Key Battles

Eddie Jones has kept faith with England’s starting XV that defeated Ireland at Twickenham on their last outing. So, what does this mean to Wales?

The prospect of the Vunipola v Faletau battle is already making headlines this side of the Severn Bridge. Two huge performers – Vunipola in attack, Faletau in defence – it seems this back-row tussle could prove pivotal. Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton will need to be equally alert as England’s powerhouse No.8 will take some stopping once he’s on the move. I’d certainly agree that he plays a central role in England’s ability to break the gain line and get on the front foot.

Elsewhere amongst the forwards, George Kruis is having a storming breakthrough season for the men in white. However, I feel Wales will have the upper-hand in this department, with the wiley Alyn Wyn Jones marshalling proceedings.

Out wide, it’s time for Wales to really step up a notch, as I feel the likes of George North and Liam Williams haven’t shifted beyond second gear so far. England will hope to exploit every inch of space on the field through exciting backs Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell. Joseph in particular has tremendous footwork and will provide a stern test for Wales’ proud defence.

It’s shaping up to be an epic, but I believe that the experienced core of Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and Alyn Wyn Jons among others will provide enough of a difference to see the men in red escape Twickenham with the points.

Bring it on! Come on Wales!!

Wales Team For Massive England Game!

Here we go…!

Warren Gatland today announced the Wales team for Saturday’s huge match at Twickenham! No real surprises, but certainly what many will see as a welcome return to the international fold for Rhys Webb, who is amongst the replacements. A product of Bridgend, the guy’s a livewire and it was gut-wrenching to see him injured in the World Cup warm-up against Italy. He was riding a rich wave of form when he seriously injured his ankle, and Wales could do with his sniping runs and elusive footwork should he come off the bench this weekend.

Luke Charteris is back – also on the bench – with Bradley Davies deservedly retaining his starting berth. Both top quality locks, Charteris is as dynamic as Davies is powerful, and hopefully will make a real nuisance of himself in the lineout in the later stages of Saturday’s game.

It’s been strongly rumoured this week that Bradley Davies may be on his way back to Cardiff Arms Park for next season, with the Blues apparently trying to sign him on a National Dual Contract. I think he’s really improved as a player during his time at Wasps, and I feel his discipline has improved too. What’s more, this form has definitely translated onto the international stage. Davies is just the sort of signing the Blues need now: a real marquee player, a highly experienced international and enforcer around whom to reshape the squad.

Paul James is the other change on the bench for the Twickenham showdown, replacing the injured Gethin Jenkins. James is another big-game player and I must say I’m happy with his inclusion. He’s another who has undoubtedly benefitted from an extended spell in the Aviva Premiership, and could be a key inclusion to the match-day squad.

I must say, I’ve been impressed with the Wales replacements this Six Nations. We are so fortunate to now be in a position where virtually everyone on the bench this week could just as easily be starting this game, and our team would look equally as strong. I do still feel that Thomas Francis and Gareth Anscombe have more to prove on the international scene but, of course, that will only come with more game time and experience.

And games surely don’t get much bigger than England v Wales.

On a final note, I read a really good article by former All Black second row Ali Williams earlier on the BBC website, and I wanted to share it with you. It revolves around the Northern Hemisphere v Southern Hemisphere “divide”. (Am I becoming obsessed with this subject?!) It centres around the argument that the Six Nations is high-stakes rugby in which all the teams are afraid to express themselves. An interesting arguement, although who can forget the 2015 final day try-fest? Anyway, here it is:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/35682546

Oh, and one more thing, S4C are showing a documentary on Jonah Lomu tonight at 9:30pm. I will certainly be tuning in as they pay tribute to an icon, and one of the game’s true legends.

Wales win sets up huge Twickenham game

Wales and England were both victorious last weekend, meaning that both teams go into their round-four clash unbeaten, with England currently top on three wins from three. As if this fixture wasn’t already exciting enough, it looks set to be the pivotal game of the tournament.

England seem to have taken a few steps in the right direction throughout February. It’s still early days for Eddie Jones and his team, but there are signs that the England squad are rejuvenated and are beginning to string together some improved performances. Chris Robshaw appears to have benefitted from relinquishing the captaincy – something I sometimes feel Warburton would benefit from. I remember his performance was outstanding in the 2013 meeting with England, in which the pressure of captaincy had been removed and handed to the granite-like Gethin Jenkins.

Speaking of Warburton, I felt he had a superb game against France last Friday. He would have been my choice for man-of-the-match. He was close to has rampaging best; solid in defence, like a bulldozer in attack, and responsible for at least one key turnover in the Wales half. We will need him to replicate this kind of form at Twickenham next Saturday.

Having watched the French game in an extremely noisy pub, one thing I hadn’t realized was the negative reaction of the pundits to the Cardiff showdown. Personally, I really enjoyed the game – it was at times ferocious, a chess game, an arm wrestle. I saw a number of articles describe the game as a pale imitation of the high-scoring, high-tempo Super Rugby matches from that day (which was the opening day of that competition). Perhaps I’m a purist, but I felt it was a tight, tense, enjoyable game.

A win next Saturday will undoubtedly put Wales in the driving seat in the bid to become Six Nations Champions. The question on everyone’s lips is, can Wales reproduce their World Cup antics at the home of English rugby?

Let’s be honest, it’s always a cracking game! Come on Wales!!