Pre-Season Matches: A Mixed Bag for the Welsh Regions

Only two weeks remain until the start of the Pro 12 2016/17 season, and final preparations are taking place at the four Welsh regions to launch an assault on the domestic trophy, and stake a claim at Europe’s top table.

There have been mixed fortunes for the regions so far. I’ve been most concerned by the results I’ve seen for the Scarlets in their games against two of England’s strongest outfits.

First up was Exeter Chiefs in their fortress of Sandy Park. The Chiefs cruised to a 45-3 victory. A worrying sign indeed, especially since Scarlets are Wales’ only team in the European Champions Cup next season, and will feature in the group stages alongside three-time champions Toulon, current English and European champions Saracens, and a resurgent Sale Sharks. Now that group is not for the faint hearted.

Scarlets followed that away loss with a 32-17 loss in Colwyn Bay. When I discovered they were playing this great fixture in North Wales I really approved of the idea – this is exactly what regional rugby should be about. How can the fans in North Wales be expected to support a side that supposedly represents them but never plays  in that are of the country? Good on them. I heard there was a great atmosphere and a terrific turnout.

Bath did not arrive shy of any firepower, either, with Taulupe Faletau making his club debut alongside Rhys Priestland, Matt Banahan and others. The somewhat convincing scoreline still makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. Scarlets now have more strength in depth and, by the time the season is in full flow, they should have one of the most dangerous back-lines in the league. With the return of Jonathan Davies and the exquisite distribution skills of Rhys Patchell, the Scarlets simply have to deliver this season.

The Dragons made fairly light work of dispatching with a buoyant Cardiff Blues side at Rodney Parade last weekend (much to my dismay), and I see the Newport Gwent outfit improving this season. They still have a young core of talent but seem to be developing a certain swagger, and have recruited experience in some key areas for the coming campaign, most notably at fly-half and across the front row. A loss against English Championship team Ealing Trailfinders this weekend will feel like a bit of a backwards step, however it was a largely inexperienced team compared to the previous week.

The Blues are looking good in pre-season. There is real optimism around the Arms Park ahead of the new season. A decent fightback in the latter stages of the Dragons loss was followed by a home win against newly-promoted Bristol. Some key performances stood out, with monstrous New Zealand back-rower Nick Williams winning man-of-the-match on his Arms Park debut, and Matthew Morgan looking elusive and dangerous in attack. Alex Cuthbert sadly left the field with a groin injury. He knows he needs a massive season to be back in contention for Wales, and I believe we will see some of his best rugby in the coming season.

This was a nice appetiser for the season ahead, as The Blues will meet Bristol in the European Challenge Cup this year. Bath also feature in the same group, meaning there are plenty of M4 derbies to look forward to! French outfit Pau complete what is looking like a very competitive group, but, with the squad they have amassed over the summer, I’m confident The Blues can progress to the knockout stages this year.

The Ospreys have started pre-season ablaze. A home win against the mighty Leicester Tigers was followed by a 71-0 win against Belgium. The Ospreys had a very disappointing 2015/16 season and will be looking to redeem themselves from the offset. With some shrewd recruitment over the last few months, they look set to make a real mark on the league this year: don’t be surprised to see them competing in the latter stages of the Pro12 and the Challenge Cup throughout the spring.

GB Men Claim Silver at Rio

An outstanding and enthralling week of Rugby Sevens at the Olympic Games saw Fiji round off the tournament winning the gold medal in the men’s final – with Team GB, the losing finalists, claiming silver.

It was ultimately a comprehensive victory for a Fijian team hotly tipped to win the title going into the competition. It was also Fiji’s first ever gold medal at an Olympic Games. A remarkable achievement, and thoroughly well deserved.

As for Team GB, the physicality and intent shown, throughout the group and knock-out stages, was terrific. I sensed a real belief amongst this group of players. Some of the scores were sublime, too, with Scotland’s Mark Bennett showing some impressive strength and speed with a couple of excellent tries.

I understand the inclusion of rugby at the Olympics has been considered a huge success. There’s certainly no question it will be included at the Tokyo Games (Japan already has a huge appetite for rugby). Indeed, the Japanese team lit up the group stages of the men’s event, beating New Zealand in their opening game. The game between GB and Japan was also a real thriller, going down to the wire in fact, with Japan failing to convert their last-gasp try resulting in a 21-19 victory for GB.

It’s been a superb Olympic Games, not least for Team GB who, as I’m writing this, have a total of 61 medals, and are now rapidly closing in on their London Games tally of 65. Go on Team GB! As a passionate rugby supporter, it’s been brilliant to see Rugby Sevens add to the vibrancy of this carnival event, and long may it continue.

Heartache for GB Women

After three superb days of top-class sevens rugby at the Rio Olympics, Team GB Women’s squad had to settle for fourth place as they were comprehensively beaten by Canada in the bronze medal game.

The teams had already met in the group stage, with GB utterly dominant in that first encounter. However, as GB and Canada lost out to New Zealand and Australia respectively in the semi-finals, the teams met once more with Canada emerging victorious, 33-10.

Team GB had been noticeably unsettled by the nature of their semi-final loss to the Black Ferns. Having virtually breezed through their group, GB produced a comfortable victory over Fiji in the quarter finals to set up a meeting with the New Zealanders.

The game started at a pace unlike the earlier stages, with Portia Woodman showing her class with some brilliant finishing for the Kiwis.

GB conceded two yellow cards going into half-time, and suddenly they had a mountain to climb. Unable to regain a foot hold in the match, GB lost 25-7.

The bronze medal final also started ferociously, with Canada having seemingly been shocked awake by Saturday’s hammering at the hands of Team GB. The physicality was cranked up a few notches with a medal at stake. It was a pace GB struggled to live with, and what few phases they were able to string together were snuffed out by Canada’s stubborn defensive efforts. The introduction of Heather Fisher added some extra grunt to GB in both attack and defence, but Canada were ultimately deserving of the bronze.

I am massively proud of the GB women. The level of skill and commitment on show from all teams has been truly inspiring. This has been a hugely entertaining spectacle, and I really hope it has captured the hearts and imagination of viewers across the globe. Team GB absolutely gave everything on the field, and have certainly raised the profile for women’s sevens rugby. It was also a fascinating curtain-raiser for rugby 7s inclusion at the Olympic Games, and I have no doubt the event will be absolutely huge at the Tokyo games in four years time.

I should also mention, Australia were eventually crowned champions, beating New Zealand 24-17 in a superb final.

The men’s competition begins this afternoon, with Australia facing France at 3pm. GB men’s team are in action at 4pm – they take on Kenya in their first group game. All the very best to Team GB

Rio 2016

Only a couple of hours to go until the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games, and I’m so excited!! It begins a fraction before midnight for us here in the U.K, so I won’t be able to catch the whole thing live this evening – I’m working in the morning! It promises to be, as always, a superb precursor for The Greatest Show on Earth.

Rio seems to have been scrutinized a great deal in the media over the last few months, and sadly not a lot of the reports I’ve witnessed have been positive. Lots of question marks have been raised over a variety of health and safety issues, as well as concerns over building regulations. The local emergency services have seemingly been trying to deter tourists, apparently for their own safety.

I remember similar news stories before the London 2012 games. Everything was doom and gloom in the media. There were reports that London’s transport system would collapse under the extra strain. That the nation would not buy into the event. That stadiums would be empty, and even that the summer would be a washout.

Well, the tube ran as usual. The nation roared for Team GB (for every team, in fact). By the end, tickets were like gold dust. The sun even came out once or twice!

Despite recent doping allegations once again highlighting the dark side of sport, momentum is finally gathering for the 31st modern Olympic Games, and I know Rio will provide a perfect setting and a beautiful backdrop for one of the most exciting and inspiring sporting events on the globe.

Coverage is just starting…good luck and best wishes to Team GB!!