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.