Is Wales’ Selection Policy going to benefit the national team?

Rob Howley gave an insight into his thoughts on Wales’ selection policy during an interview with Scrum V over the weekend.

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Howley, who has been named as Wales’ interim head coach while Warren Gatland takes charge of the British and Irish Lions, plans to adhere to the policy of favouring those players who ply their trade for the Welsh Regions when it comes to selection for the national team. There are a number of so-called “wild-card” selections open to him, whereby he may choose up to three Wales qualified players who are tied to overseas clubs. However, despite this, it seems highly likely that some big names in Welsh rugby will miss out on selection for the Autumn Series. Some reports in the Welsh Media have already indicated Rhys Priestland could find himself omitted, having struggled to nail down a starting spot for Bath in the last year.

I must say, I have mixed feelings about this policy. The idea first came about during the rather tense negotiations on funding between the Welsh Regions and the WRU, and is essentially one of several measures drawn up to help the regional clubs keep their key players playing in Wales. National Dual Contracts were also introduced to this end, with the regions and the WRU able to offer a combined deal to a number of core players, in return for full availability for all test matches, without the regional teams having to foot the bill.

My concern is that, as a nation, we do not yet have the luxury of being able to select a really strong test-match squad entirely (or, almost entirely) from within the four regions.

Take, for example, the Wales tour match against the Waikato Chiefs in June. A strong-looking Wales side, with some fringe players included, was absolutely blown away by one of New Zealand’s provincial teams. It could be argued that the difference in class has arisen from the standard of the Welsh regions, all of whom had disappointing Pro12 campaigns last year.

I do think the tide is turning. The appointment of Cardiff Blues’ backs coach Matt Sherratt is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius for the upcoming Wales series. He has been superb since arriving at the Blues over the summer, and has given the back line a real razor sharp edge. He will share his coaching duties with Wales and the Blues throughout November.

Meanwhile, both Ospreys and Blues seem to have a real hunger to climb the league this year, while I believe it can certainly be said that all four regions are committed to developing young talent within the squad (take exciting Ospreys winger Keelan Giles, and Blues scrum-half Tomos Williams). These are surely Wales test stars of the future. In the long term, the future looks bright.

Obviously it is very important to provide an incentive to our best players to stay in Wales, to play regional rugby. That’s what gets the crowds in, after all. However, I’m not convinced that the current selection policy is the answer. This November, can we really see a Wales team shorn of Jamie Roberts, George North, Leigh Halfpenny or Taulupe Faletau? And, if so, what is the incentive for the fans to go and watch a Wales team missing some of our biggest and brightest stars?

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Round 4 Round-Up

With the 2016/17 now well and truly under way, Cardiff Blues have maintained their winning start with a fourth consecutive victory in the Pro12.

A marvellous home win against Glasgow Warriors at a packed Arms Park was little more than the Blues deserved last weekend, and they were able to follow that impressive display with a scrappy, but determined, win against Zebre. The Italians may have posed less of a threat on paper, but the Blues have struggled in Parma of late. Danny Wilson’s men certainly had a point to prove, and while a late Zebre try provided a nerve-shredding finale, Wales’ Capital Region held on to make it four from four.

I really like how Wilson and stand-in captain Sam Warburton assessed the game in their post-match interview. Both men pointed to a decline in quality of play for the first time this season; this will certainly need to be addressed before Blues face Leinster in Cardiff on Saturday. However, the significance of making it four from four is not lost on Wilson and Warburton – they may have won ugly, but this is now the Blues’ best ever start to a Pro12 season. The signs are good.

Speaking of Leinster, the Irishmen overcame a fully-loaded Ospreys team at the Royal Dublin Showground on Friday night. If I was a gambling man, my money would have been on Ospreys to continue their fine run of victories. However, Johnny Sexton was razor sharp in his first appearance of the season, his kicking game at its tactical best. He also scored a peach of a try to finish an excellent team move. Leinster therefore visit Cardiff in superb form on the weekend, while the Ospreys next travel to table-topping Ulster looking to return to winning ways.

Alun Wyn Jones made his 200th appearance for the Ospreys in the game against Leinster, becoming only the third player to do so. What a brilliant achievement. He is fiercely loyal, and typically gave his all in defeat on Friday. I truly hope he is chosen for the Lions tour in June.

Elsewhere, Scarlets are finally off the mark after beating defending champions Connacht 17-8 in a drab affair in Llanelli. Liam Williams scored two excellent tries as the home team won for the first time this season. Connacht, meanwhile remain rooted to the foot of the table, without a single match point from four games. Their game against Zebre in Parma last week was abandoned during play, while the Italians were winning 22-10. I can’t help but feel it could be a very long season for Connacht, who have now lost the element of surprise, and seem to be really struggling with the pressure of being defending champions, as well as the departure of some of their key players from last season.

Liam Williams has really put his hand up for Wales’ no. 15 jersey, having performed magnificently for club and country over the last few months. In my opinion, he is now Wales’ first choice full-back. I am really looking forward to seeing Leigh Halfpenny return for Wales in the autumn too, having been cruelly injured in the build-up to last year’s Rugby World Cup. I would like to see Williams starting at full back, with Halfpenny playing on the wing, for that first test against Australia.

Dragons endured a torrid time on their trip to Treviso, the much-improved Italian outfit claiming their first win of the season against the Men of Gwent, who remain in search of their second victory this term. In a game which saw Wales flyer Hallam Amos captain the Dragons for the first time, the Welshmen were unable to claim even a losing bonus point as Treviso stamped their authority over the game, scoring a decisive third try in the closing minutes. Treviso are looking a lot more dangerous this season – they even pushed Leinster close in their season opener. Nevertheless, Dragons will be bitterly disappointed to leave empty handed, and need some serious improvement when they face Glasgow at Rodney Parade next week.

In the Principality Premiership, Bridgend suffered a 32-0 defeat at Ebbw Vale, slipping to 13th place in the table, and will next face a fired-up Pontypridd side licking their wounds after a 39-21 home defeat to local rivals Merthyr. Aberavon remain top of the table, with RGC 1404 continuing their impressive start to their season to stay in second place.

Bridgend Athletic will host Trebanos RFC on Saturday, while Nantymoel look to bounce back from a 15-14 defeat at Ystradgynlais when they welcome Morriston RFC. The ‘Moel currently stand in 6th place in League Two West Central, with two wins from four games.

 

 

 

 

Blues and Ospreys leading the way for Welsh teams in Pro12

It’s still early days, but the Ospreys and the Blues were both able to back up their impressive home wins in round 1 with a win apiece in Ireland – Ospreys ultimately proving too strong for defending champions Connacht, winning 32-11, while Blues had to fight back and then hold on for a superb 24-23 victory over Munster.

I can’t help but feel there is cause for optimism at the two Welsh regions. Even at this early stage of the season, it’s really pleasing to see both Blues and Ospreys playing with some real passion, endeavour and intent. Ospreys have notched an incredible 12 tries in two games, while Blues – who have arguably faced cagier opposition in the opening rounds – have scored seven. The manner of these early victories seem to point to some excellent planning during pre-season: Blues have been tactically spot-on so far, utilising the bench excellently and adapting personnel to the challenges posed by the opposition.

Take this week’s team selection, for example. Nick Williams is named on the bench for the Glasgow game, with Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins and the superb Josh Navidi starting in the back row. Williams will surely be an imposing figure when he is introduced late in the game – just the sort of replacement you’d hope for against a physical side like Glasgow. Starting the game with three open-side flankers means Blues will be hoping to play a fast and open game, to match that which Glasgow are likely to bring. This could well be the pick of the games this weekend (sadly I can’t make it to the Arms Park this week!)

Matthew Morgan also starts at full-back in the place of the injured Dan Fish. The live-wire Welsh international put in a star turn last week as he collected a high ball and set up Fish for the decisive score. Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James will also want to take their rich form into Friday night’s match.

Ospreys have also been really impressive so far in their ability to stick to a game plan, even when the structure of the game has unravelled. Players like Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric thrive in broken play, and both had a big impact against reigning champions Connacht. The Irishmen are currently bottom of the Pro12 after an abysmal start to this campaign.

Elsewhere in the Pro 12, Scarlets are still looking for their first win of the season after losing in Edinburgh, while Dragons laboured to an 11-6 victory over Zebre at Rodney Parade.

In local news, Nantymoel suffered a 47-0 defeat away against Penlan RFC, but return home against Resolven this Saturday. Meanwhile, Bridgend Athletic overcame Builth Wells 15-13 to make it two wins from two.

Bridgend Ravens notched up their first win of the season, defeating Cross Keys 29-16 at the Brewery Field. In one of several changes to the Welsh Premiership this season, the league will split into two conferences at the mid-way point this year based on league position. Every team will be fighting tooth and nail to reach the Christmas period in the top half of the overall table, in a bid to avoid battling out the second half of the season for the secondary trophy.

 

Round 2 Preview

The first week of the season produced lots of tries, plenty of excitement and a fair few surprises – perhaps most notably Glasgow’s 41-5 away win over defending champions Connacht, which really sends a statement of intent for Gregor Townsend’s final season in charge at Scotstoun.

Nantymoel RFC began their season with an 11-0 home win over Cwmavon, and continue their campaign with their first away game of the season, against Penlan. Meanwhile, Bridgend Athletic were also victorious in round one, cruising to a 25-6 victory over Bonymaen. My work-mate Dan Howells scored a try from full-back – what a legend!

Bridgend Ravens suffered a disappointing home defeat against North Wales Premiership new boys RGC 1404, losing 20-3. The visitors will be thrilled to have marked their arrival from the Welsh Championship with a convincing away win. Cross Keys provide are certain to provide a stern test next up for the Ravens, again at home at The Brewery Field.

In the Pro12, Blues hope to keep momentum in a tough fixture away to Munster, although having named a strong starting XV, and with Wales internationals Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams and Josh Turnbull on the bench, this could be a great chance to claim victory over the Irish province that overcame the Scarlets in Llanelli last week.

Scarlets will be looking to avenge their poor start when they play Edinburgh away. Jonathan Davies is handed his first start of the season, with his brother James named amongst the forwards.

Dragons are at home tonight, and will be hoping to maintain a proud home record against Italian strugglers Zebre. A win would get the men of Gwent back on track and build some much needed confidence at the region.

Finally, Ospreys are next to face Connacht at their Galway fortress. This will be a tricky encounter, as the home side will want to prove a point after being hammered by Glasgow last Saturday. Ospreys come into this game on the back of a massive win, but will need more intensity in their game this week. Justin Tipuric could be the man to provide it, already looking near his best after a long lay-off.

 

 

 

 

Warren Gatland is named Head Coach of British and Irish Lions

It’s been widely rumoured all week – in fact Scrum V pundit Ross Harries described it as “the worst kept secret in rugby” – but today Warren Gatland was finally unveiled as the Head Coach of the British and Irish Lions for their tour to New Zealand next summer.

Gatland hands over the reins of the Wales team once again to his deputy and legendary ex-Wales scrum-half Rob Howley with immediate effect, in order to concentrate on the most prestigious coaching role in British and Irish rugby.

Personally, I think Warren Gatland’s appointment is the correct move. He has tasted enormous success as a coach in Europe, winning the Heineken Cup with Wasps and guiding Wales to two Six Nations Grand Slams. This will be his third Lions tour, his second as Head Coach following his assistant coaching role during the 2009 tour of South Africa. Perhaps most significantly, he guided the Lions to a series victory over Australia last time out. He is a shrewd operator and is not afraid of ruffling a few feathers when a massive decision needs to be made. Who can forget his omission of Brian O’Driscoll in the final test game against Australia in 2013? When a big call needs to be made, Gatland has little time for sentiment, and this sort of approach is just what the Lions will need against the All Blacks.

It will be interesting to see how many of the current Wales crop of players make the tour, especially in the wake of this summer’s whitewash by the All Blacks. I’m sure this will be a hot topic of debate for the whole of the coming season, and let’s hope it brings the very best out of our very best players.

Fast Start for the Blues

Danny and I made it to the Arms Park on Saturday for the Blues’ first competitive game of the new Pro12 season, and it was an absolute cracker!

Steve Shingler threw a superb dummy pass to canter over for Blues’ opening try, the ex-Scarlets fly-half showing his class and already showing signs of being a brilliant signing.

A fully-loaded Edinburgh side quickly responded, barging over from close range for their first try, before Duncan Weir added to his earlier penalty to give the Scots a 13-7 lead.

The Blues forward pack looked dominant and hungry, and a rolling maul yielded a penalty try to put Cardiff back in front, before second half tries from Nick Williams and Tomos Williams secured a bonus-point win for the home side.

Nick Williams was absolutely explosive in this game. I’ve been a huge fan of his for many years, his physicality and off-loading skills bring an edge to his game, and it was awesome to see him in action. The guy is an absolute monster! He caused all sorts of problems for the Edinburgh defence, requiring two or three defenders to bring him down whenever he had the ball. He is a human wrecking ball, and on this sort of form he could prove invaluable if the Blues are to climb the league table this year. He was utterly deserving of his man-of-the-match award.

Young scrum-half Tomos Williams also really impressed with his sniping running game, but also his maturity and game management. He put in a stellar shift on Saturday, capping a wonderful all round performance by scoring the bonus-point try.

Cardiff Blues 34 – 16 Edinburgh

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The New Season Starts Here

It’s the opening weekend of the 2016/17 rugby season in Britain and Ireland, and there are plenty of superb ties to welcome back rugby after the summer break.

The Pro12 and English Premiership got underway, and the pick of the bunch was undoubtedly a thrilling encounter between Leicester and Gloucester, the Tigers turning around a 21 point deficit to win 38-31 away at Kingsholm. Meanwhile, in the Pro12, Ospreys emerged comfortably from their opening clash against Zebre at home. Hooker Sam Parry epitomised Ospreys all-round dominance by scoring a hat-trick of tries in a 59-5 victory over the Italians. I can’t help feeling the Ospreys will be a real force this year, especially at home.

The Dragons were also in action on the opening night, suffering a 29-8 defeat against Ulster in Belfast. Despite a promising start, and taking an early lead, the Dragons were eventually outdone by Ulster’s class, who wrapped up proceedings with a bonus point win.

Today’s fixtures include Scarlets v Munster and Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh, both of which should produce some fireworks!

Closer to home, Bridgend begin their Welsh Premiership campaign at home against newly-promoted RGC 1404 from North Wales, while Bridgend Athletic – who were relegated from the Welsh Championship last season – open matters with a home fixture against Bonymaen RFC. My workmate Dan Howells starts at full-back for Bridgend Athletic, who will be hoping to hit the ground running this season.

Finally, good luck to Nantymoel in their opening clash against Cwmavon this afternoon. After a solid first season in League 2 West Central, the ‘Moel will be hoping to climb the table this term.