Finals Day & England v Wales Preview

The Pro12 and the Aviva Premiership both reach their conclusion today in what promises to be two colossal battles in Murrayfield and Twickenham respectively.

Saracens v Exeter is up first, the former hoping to add the title of domestic champions to their European honours, the latter in their first ever Premiership Final. I’ve always admired Exeter for their good, solid team ethics and apparent lack of egos. Their rise through English rugby’s leagues in recent years has been so impressive, and they’ve continued to show signs of progression year on year. A win for them today would be no more than they deserve.

However, it’s difficult to look past Saracens as title-holders in waiting. They’re just so powerful and clinical when it matters. The way they dispatched with Leicester Tigers last weekend was brutal, scoring 44 points. Today’s game will be much closer I feel, and the Chiefs will not go down without a fight, but I see Saracens as Champions today.

The Pro12 concludes with Connacht v Leinster. What a magnificent season Connacht have had. They came firing out of the block in September and have stayed in the top four of the league all year, despite their best finish to date being somewhere in the bottom half of the table (ninth, I believe). Truly remarkable. Pat Lam has done an incredible job of instilling a real grittiness to this team. They beat Toulouse last year and began showing signs of shaking off their reputation as a ‘development’ team, but have really surpassed themselves with some shrewd recruitment (the brilliant Bundee Aki) and good old fashioned hard work. Leinster made a late surge to consolidate their place in this season’s play-offs, but I see an upset today – Connacht are on a roll, confidence is high, and I think they have enough passion and grunt to see off the three-time champions and lift their maiden title this afternoon.

In other rugby news, Wales are preparing to take on England for the third time in eight months in an international friendly at Twickenham which takes place tomorrow afternoon. Lots of people are seeing this as little more than a money-spinner for the unions, but Warren Gatland pointed out this week that the match will offer both teams an opportunity to warm-up to test match level ahead of their respective tours to Australasia. With a couple of key Wales players missing (and a couple returning from injury), the men in red have certainly named a strong team to avenge their Six Nations defeat earlier in the year. The notable inclusion of both Alun Wyn Jones and Scott Williams for their first mean Wales will hope to out-muscle their hosts, who name a slightly depleted team in light of today’s Premiership final. With very little at stake, this encounter doesn’t seem to have the usual edge to it, and hopefully this will see a more open game than we have (sadly) become used to when these sides meet. Dan Lydiate leads Wales in the absence of the injured Sam Warburton, who has already been named as Captain for the upcoming tour. Let’s hope we don’t pick up any injuries, as there can be no doubting the quality we will need to show to beat New Zealand in June.

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An Idea For Judgement Day V

I had an amazing idea a couple of months ago which I was so excited about that I emailed the WRU and Pro Rugby Wales regarding the matter. I thought it’s time I shared this on my blog!

I’d been thinking of ways to make ‘Judgement Day’ – Welsh regional rugby’s showpiece event – even more exciting and to add extra spice to the day for the teams and spectators alike. I’d thought for some time that somehow making the double-header a competition in its own right had some potential to grab the attention of supporters. For some time I toyed with the idea that the four Welsh regions are placed in a league table following the results of the two games, with the team that was victorious by the most points on the day being crowned Judgement Day Champions.

Then, while talking it through with Emily, I had a bit of a eureka moment. Given that Judgement Day took place during round 21 of the Pro12 this year, it was the last time that any of the Welsh teams played against each other this season. This got me thinking: perhaps Judgement Day could provide the thrilling finale to a wider competition within the Pro12, without requiring any additional fixtures.

My proposal is called The Regions Cup. In a regular season, every Welsh regional team plays six ‘derby’ games – home and away against each of the other three Welsh regions. Therefore, wouldn’t it be awesome if a separate league table existed alongside the Pro12 table, consisting of only the four Welsh regions? The results of the derby matches would feed into and help determine league positions in both tables simultaneously. This would then culminate in Judgement Day – a festival of rugby which would see the final two fixtures in The Regions Cup competition, therefore seeing one of the regional teams crowned champions. Seeing a trophy lifted on Judgement Day would make this event such a hot ticket!

I compiled a Regions Cup league table based on this season’s Pro12 results, and I think it makes interesting reading. Ospreys would have lifted this year’s trophy, despite finishing in 8th place in the Pro12 – behind both Scarlets and Blues. They have performed better in the derbies than overall in the league this year, as have Cardiff Blues. Here is the full Regions Cup table:

Position Team Pld Pts (+/-) Match Points
1 Ospreys 6 23 22
2 Blues 6 9 18
3 Scarlets 6 26 17
4 Dragons 6 -56 3

My proposal was met with real positivity by the folks at Pro Rugby Wales! It would be absolutely amazing to see something like this take place in the coming seasons. I think it would be a really positive move for the professional game in Wales.

Saracens power to Champions Cup win

Owen Farrell kicked Saracens to victory in Saturday’s European Champions Cup final against Racing 92, sealing a famous victory for the London club. Sarries, led by defensive hard-nut Brad Barritt, also made history by becoming the first team in Europe’s Premier club tournament to win every game on their way to lifting the trophy.

Huge congratulations to them. I’m really happy to see the Champions Cup return to British shores. Toulon’s recent success in the tournament pointed towards a potential stranglehold on the trophy by the biggest spending teams from across the channel. Saracens have been flying high in Europe and on the domestic front for some time now, only to have been denied European silverware in the closing stages of the past few tournaments.

Not this time. The sheer physicality shown in Lyon was too much for Racing. The departure of Dan Carter on 42 minutes was a significant blow and a turning point for the Parisians, while Farrell showed nerves of steel to guide Sarries home.

Commentators in Wales indicate a potential gap between the Welsh regions and Europe’s elite, pointing out the brute force on display in the European finale couldn’t have been matched by our pro teams. With only one team – the Scarlets – representing Wales among Europe’s elite next season,  it seems the odds are stacked against seeing a Welsh team go the distance any time soon. I do feel Scarlets play some outstanding attacking rugby at times, however, and having recruited well, could have the firepower to reach the knockout stages next year.

For now, there’ll be little time for celebration in north London, as Mark Mcall’s men prepare for yet another Premiership semi-final. Having seen how formidable Saracens have been over the last few seasons, how clinical and hard-nosed this group have become – how truly unified they are – I can’t help but feel there’s another domestic title on the horizon. At this rate, they’ll need a bigger trophy cabinet.

Warren Gatland Announces Strong Wales Team for Summer Tour

With a massive summer schedule ahead for Wales, Warren Gatland has announced a 35-man touring party containing a wealth of experience.

Speculation has largely centred around the possible inclusion of either Scarlets’ James Davies or Blues’ Ellis Jenkins to replace the injured Justin Tipuric. Both, however, have been excluded as Gatland and his selectors look to international experience for what will undoubtedly be a gruelling few weeks.

It’s a real shame Tipuric will not tour through injury. In big games like these, he has produced some pure magic in the past. The 30-3 victory over England in Cardiff in 2013 springs to mind: he can play like a forward or amongst the backs, has superb footwork, has a work-rate second to none, and just has that sort of flair about him that can bamboozle opponents. His support play is immense.

Josh Turnbull and Ross Moriarty will be on the plane to New Zealand as back-up for captain Sam Warburton – both of whom I rate highly. I’m running out of hyperbole to describe Turnbull’s performances for Cardiff Blues. He quite simply puts his body on the line week in, week out. A true work horse, his work on the pitch speaks for itself. His versatility means he is a great choice for this touring party.

Moriarty has an aggressive edge that I feel could really benefit the squad in the hostile environments New Zealand will provide. His display against Italy showed such composure and confidence – he was playing with a smile on his face. Like Turnbull, I hope to see a lot more of him in international colours over the summer, and indeed for years to come.

For Warren Gatland’s overview of the squad selection, click here:

http://supporters.wru.co.uk/matchdaytv/?play=media&id=23598

 

 

Scarlets and Ospreys lose out as Pro12 draws to a Close

The final weekend of this years regular season saw an intriguing round of Pro12 fixtures. The Ospreys were poised to claw their way into next season’s Champions Cup, albeit needing a little help from the Scarlets, who themselves needed a victory against Munster – and needed the Ospreys to beat Ulster – in order to reach the semi-final stages of the Pro12.

Exciting stuff, especially as the European qualification rule means teams have more to play for at this late stage in the season.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, as both Ospreys and Scarlets were well beaten by their Irish opponents, meaning the Scarlets qualify for Europe but miss out on the league play-offs, while the Ospreys find themselves in the European Challenge Cup for the first time since their 2003 inception.

Both Scarlets and Ospreys will reflect on ultimately disappointing seasons. I believe Scarlets featured in the top four of the league until round 21, so to miss out on a semi-final berth is borderline criminal. Wayne Pivac and his coaching staff (which includes the legendary Stephen Jones) have had the West Walians playing some enterprising attacking rugby at times this season, but I just felt they didn’t have the strength in their squad to see out the season. They looked particularly exposed in an admittedly brutal Champions Cup group. Let’s hope their promising recruitment for next year can help them maximise their potential. They will be Wales’ only flag bearers in the main European competition, so I expect some real quality from them next term.

The Ospreys – like the Blues – have paid a high price for a poor start to the 2015/16 season. They just left themselves too much to do in the closing rounds of the league. Wily operators like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric have been sorely missed during the tail end of the season. Rhys Webb’s scintillating performances, together with the emergence of Sam Davies as a serious contender to Dan Biggar, mean it’s not all doom and gloom for the Swansea based region. For too long they’ve underachieved in Europe’s premier competition, so maybe a season in the Challenge Cup will be a launchpad for some of their academy players and for the region’s European aspirations alike. That being said, they have high standards and anything less than a Challenge Cup semi-final, as well as a top six Pro12 finish for next season, will be deemed unacceptable.

Elsewhere in the league, Zebre reached the Champions Cup via hammering the Dragons in Parma. The Men of Gwent will be glad to see this season draw to a close, their Challenge Cup semi-final appearance perhaps one of few positives to take from the year. They will regroup, and with some management changes on the horizon, will undoubtedly come back stronger in September.

Cardiff Blues ended the season on a high note, beating Edinburgh in the Scottish capital in order to finish seventh in the table. Eleven wins this season has seen the Blues announce themselves as a tough nut to crack. They’ve beaten some big teams, and restored some much-needed pride in the jersey. Next year they will be hoping to reach the Champions Cup as a bare minimum.

 

Ospreys and Scarlets Prevail on Judgement Day

The Ospreys and the Scarlets secured vital victories in two superb matches on a glorious afternoon of rugby in the Welsh capital on Saturday.

Two tries in the last ten minutes from Ospreys captain Rhys Webb saw them defeat Cardiff Blues and keep their season alive, with hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup still a possibility. The Ospreys were good value for their victory, starting with real verve in attack, and weathering a see-saw second-half to secure the bonus point win, effectively ending the Blues’ season in the process.

Blues scored two great tries themselves, Josh Navidi’s powerful break setting up a nerve-shredding final quarter. It proved a game too far for the Cardiff side, however, with their winning streak coming to an end here.

Looking at the bigger picture, Blues will be generally happy with this season, having made some great progress. Coach Danny Wilson points to a decent home record this year, and hopes to make the Arms Park a real fortress. There’s no doubt that Blues have been a far improved outfit this term, and they’ll regroup and hope to push for honours next season.

Ospreys face Ulster in Swansea in their season finale, but will need other results to go their way to reach the top six, even if they win that game.

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Dragons v Scarlets proved to be a cracker, too, with a total of six tries, including one from the returning Scott Williams. His individual contribution was vast, and saw him deservedly grab the man-of-the-match award. He was ablaze, running some superb support lines, showing no signs of his lengthy spell out of the game. I can’t wait to see him return to the international fold on Wales’ summer tour.

Taulupe Faletau also had a great game. He will be greatly missed by the Men of Gwent. He just never seems to make a mistake on the field, and always leads from the front.

Dragons provided a stern test for their West Wales rivals, but Scarlets emerged victorious to continue their push to finish in the top four. They will now face Munster at Thomond Park in another must-win encounter. Victory would do the Ospreys a huge favour, too. Great to see it coming down to the wire!

I feel the Dragons will be looking forward to the summer for a chance to start afresh, under new management, and possibly new ownership. Gwyn Jones said on Scrum V he’d like to see the Dragons become Wales’ development region, to re-focus their resources towards exposing Wales’ academy stars and Under 20’s to pro rugby. An interesting point of view.

There’s certainly no doubt Judgement Day is here to stay, with over 68,000 fans descending on the Principality for this marquee event. It’s becoming a key date in the Welsh rugby calendar, and I hope it continues to go from strength to strength.