Judgement Day IV: Team News

With anticipation reaching fever pitch, the fourth instalment of Welsh Rugby’s Judgement Day is almost here, and with over 65,000 tickets sold so far it seems set to be a great festival of rugby at the national stadium.

Game one sees Blues take on Ospreys, whom they haven’t beaten since 2010. With both sides aiming to claw their way into the top six, this should be a cracker of a contest. Key injuries for Ospreys see them without stars Justin Tipuric and Alyn Wyn Jones, although Dan Lydiate starts at No.8. He’ll need to be at his defensive best, as he faces the dynamic trio of Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi, as well as my player of the season, Josh Turnbull. Ospreys start with Dan Biggar, and have the superb Sam Davies on the bench in case they opt to play for territory in the closing stages. Blues have scored some scorching tries recently, playing with real width, but will be without the brilliant playmakers Rhys Patchell and Lloyd Williams.

Game two sees the return of Dragons’ young centre Jack Dixon, replacing the injured Tyler Morgan. Dragons will be determined to put on a show at a packed-out Principality Stadium, and put to bed their worst ever run of league results. Scarlets, meanwhile, have top four ambitions, and welcome back the superb Scott Williams. With an extremely powerful front-row, the Scarlets will be looking to dominate in the scrum, although I feel the Dragons have enough in the tank to produce one more upset this season, and it just may happen tomorrow.

All in all, it should be an awesome day in Cardiff tomorrow. I’ll be sure to get a few snaps on here!

 

Can Dragons defy the odds against Montpellier?

Newport Gwent Dragons travel to face a star-studded Montpellier side today in their second Challenge Cup semi-final in as many years. The Dragons have been in the news a lot this week, firstly due to news that they are looking for a new ownership deal, then because of Lyn Jones’ departure.

It’s clear the Dragons are seeking a new direction. I know the last few years have been inconsistent – disappointing, even – at the Newport region. However, I really felt the duo of Lyn Jones and Kingsley Jones had the mind-set to turn around their fortunes in the long term. The former has already been linked with the vacant Harlequins job, although nothing has been confirmed at present. Kingsley Jones will now see out the rest of this season, and looks set to take up the role full time, if he’s offered it. His post-match interview following defeat at Cardiff Arms Park went a long way to showing his dedication towards that group of players.

I always enjoy watching the Dragons play. Often labelled the underdogs, there is a tenacity in their style of play which makes them a dangerous opponent. On their day, they can beat any Pro 12 side – especially at the cauldron of Rodney Parade. With youngsters Hallam Amos and Tyler Morgan set for a bright future, they will undoubtedly form the core around which the Dragons team is built over the coming seasons.

They have the ability to surprise and can cause problems for any team, and their enthusiasm for knock-out rugby saw them beat an experienced Gloucester team to reach this year’s Challenge Cup semi-final – probably their best result of the season so far.

I hope the Dragons can defy the odds tonight to reach their first European final. From there, anything could happen.

Does the Pro12 Need a further Shake-up?

It seems the dust is still settling from European rugby’s most recent restructure, which saw a much revamped (and, in all honesty, much fairer) system of European qualification from the Pro 12. As it stands, each participating nation is guaranteed that, as a minimum, their best performing team in this league is represented in Europe’s premier competition.

However, this year, Italian outfits Zebre and Treviso currently occupy positions 11 and 12 in the league. Therefore, it now seems almost certain that the 11th placed team will qualify for the Champions Cup ahead of the team that finishes 7th.

I’ve said many times, I think the inclusion of the Italian teams is very important in this league – not only for their long-term development, and that of their national team, but also for the vibrancy of this cross-border competition. However, I firmly believe only the top 6 teams from the Pro12 should reach the Champions Cup, irrespective of which nations are consequently excluded. It is, after all, the “Champions” Cup, and at present, the likes of Zebre and Treviso are simply unable to compete at that level. Several seasons in the Challenge Cup would no doubt be better for their development, and I believe would actually make them more competitive in the long run.

It’s a debate which has been circulating in the Welsh media since Italy’s hefty loss in the final round of this Six Nations. Indeed, some quarters have questioned Italy’s inclusion in that tournament, too. There have been calls to introduce promotion and relegation to the Six Nations, with both Georgia and Romania having performed consistently well in Europe’s second-tier tournament in recent years. I’m not sure if straight promotion/relegation would work, but perhaps a play-off to determine who is included would work going forward. Perhaps this would drive up standards in the tournament.

That said, I’d hate to imagine a Six Nations tournament without Wales. Is there not a place for tradition in modern sport? Right or wrong, I almost see the Six Nations as a separate entity, steeped in tradition. Perhaps further expansion would be the answer? Only time will tell.

With a mere few weeks of the regular season remaining, it’s the Dragons who remain Wales’ last hope of European silverware, having impressively  defeated Gloucester away from home. They now face a trip to Montpellier in the Challenge Cup Semi-finals, and I wish them every success.

Judgement Day IV is also around the corner, a feast of rugby action. We’ll be there!

 

Blues complete Scarlets double

What a brilliant game, and a brilliant result for the Blues!

Having dominated the early exchanges at Parc-y-Scarlets yesterday, Blues went on to record a deserved 28-22 victory over their west Wales rivals. The hunt for Champions Cup qualification continues.

Meanwhile, Scarlets will rue their slow start, and with Glasgow their next visitors to Llanelli, things are now looking very tight at the top of the table.

I was so impressed by Danny Wilson’s tactical changes to the Blues front row. The experienced trio of Jenkins, Rees and Filise put in a huge shift and laid a solid platform for the likes of Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Tom James – all of whom scored superb touchdowns as the Blues outscored the opposition three tries to one. Anscombe’s sublime dummy pass allowed him to canter between the posts in the game’s pivotal score, on 62 minutes. He’s starting to show some real class at club level now.

Credit also to the Blues back-row forwards who set and maintained a high tempo early on that the likes of Hadleigh Parkes and Regan King were unable to deal with. Sam Warburton was an excellent choice for man-of-the-match, having made a real nuisance of himself all afternoon.

The game highlighted to me that Scarlets are still missing enough depth to see out the season. The arrival of Rhys Patchell in the summer will be huge for them. I am truly devastated that he will be leaving the Blues. It’s been reported that he prefers playing fly-half, but his recent performances at full back have been outstanding. He is a superb natural footballer, and combines so well with Anscombe, it’s a real shame the partnership won’t continue beyond this season.

Another great result. Next up: the Dragons at the Arms Park.

Dragons lose out in fiery Ospreys clash

I really enjoyed last nights meeting between Dragons and Ospreys (the first Pro12 Welsh derby of the weekend). It was an important game for both teams, with Ospreys bidding to claw their way back up the table in the scramble for European qualification, and the Dragons hoping to turn around a disappointing league season and turn around a poor record against their rivals from West Wales.

I’ve never been to Rodney Parade, but I really want to. It looks old-school. The crowd are noisy and fiercely loyal. It looks an unforgiving place for away teams. This is what home advantage should be!

It was a high tempo game, with plenty of quality on show, but sadly too many errors from the hosts. A frantic opening ten minutes saw one try apiece, but Ospreys soon established control and deservedly led 19-8 at the break. A late Hallam Amos try – his second of the game, and fourth in the last two matches – game the Dragons hope, but they were frustrated by their own indiscipline, as well as stubborn Ospreys defending. Ospreys deserved the spoils, and gained maximum points, although their hopes of finishing in the top half of the league remain slim.

This could be Taulupe Faletau’s final game at Rodney Parade. I have a huge amount of respect for the Wales No.8. He has been superb for the Dragons, having risen through their academy system. He repaid their faith in him by signing a contract extension three years ago, at a time when many of Wales’ best players were leaving the country for big money deals in England and France. He will be with Bath from next season, and I feel he deserves an opportunity like this – to play in a different league, alongside a plethora of internationals week-in, week-out. I truly believe it will make him an even better player, and ultimately that can only be a good thing for Wales.

Attention now turns to today’s clash between Scarlets and Cardiff Blues in Llanelli. This game is enormous. It could define the season for Blues: a win here would be a massive step towards the top six in the league. Scarlets, meanwhile, will want to keep the pressure on at the top of the table, as they battle to qualify for a home Pro12 semi-final, A win for them today would also guarantee their place in the European Champions Cup next season.

There will be some intriguing battles today. Samson Lee returns to the starting line-up for the hosts, so Blues have chosen an experienced front row of Jenkins, Rees and Filise. James Davies and John Barclay have been on fire in the Scarlets back row, but I feel this threat will be negated by the inclusion of three open-side flankers in Warburton, Navidi and Ellis Jenkins all starting in the Blues back row. Their intent will surely be to play a fast and open game. Throw in Josh Turnbull in the second row – my Blues player of the season – and I believe the Blues can defy the odds today and return from West Wales with a victory.