Cardiff Blues 15-26 Scarlets

With the upcoming Autumn Internationals just over a week away, there was lots of talk about this being a pretty badly timed derby weekend in Wales, with many of the four regions’ top performers away preparing for the Australia test on November 5th (there’s sure to be fireworks).

That being said, a bumper crowd made it down to the Arms Park on Friday night, ensuring this tasty rivalry lived up to its billing. Having completed the double over Scarlets last season, Blues were hoping to shrug off their recent Pro12 form and return to winning ways after a positive opening few weeks.

A frenzied home crowd were almost stunned to silence when the visitors came out of the blocks firing, take a deserved 14-0 lead through Aaron Shingler and Jonathan Evans after only ten minutes, Evans’ score coming after some sloppy Blues defending allowed  DTH Van Der Merwe acres of space beyond a ruck, the Canadian winger producing a delicious offload to his supporting player.

Tom James replied through an intercept try to cut the deficit, before Van der Merwe went over for a score of his own to see the visitors lead 21-7 at the break.

Scarlets continued their dominance into the second half, with Rhys Patchell’s excellent break down the midfield releasing Hadleigh Parkes for the visitors’ bonus-point try. The outcome was never really in doubt after this point, the Blues showing plenty of endeavour but with little reward. On a night that was dominated by the referee’s whistle – and which saw several controversial decisions – Blaine Scully’s outrageous dive in the corner to score the last try of the game at least gave the home support something to savour.

A brilliant game was slightly marred by a ten minute period before half time which saw the Blues awarded numerous scrum penalties on the Scarlets’ five metre line, but the home side just could not convert these opportunities into points. It seemed very strange to me that a penalty try was not awarded. Even stranger, both sides lost a front-rower to the sin-bin during this period, while the advantage remained with the Blues. It was certainly a real talking point with fans on the night.

Without question, crowd chant of the night goes to:

“TJs on fire – he’s got defences terrified”

sung to the tune of 90s dancefloor classic ‘Freed from desire’ by Gala. Tom James really did have another excellent game, his efforts epitomised in a superb last-gasp tackle following a dangerous looking Scarlets turnover. I can’t believe he didn’t get a Wales call-up given his form this season so far.

In the other Pro12 Welsh derby, Ospreys comfortably saw off Dragons 35-17, Keelan Giles scoring two tries to add to his tally this season, which now stands at an unbelievable eight in four matches. Incredible stuff from the winger, who has been spending time in the Wales camp this week, although is also not part of the squad.

Here’s a few snaps we took on a great evening at the Arms Park:

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Finally, a huge shout-out to Sean Holley, who was at the Arms Park as part of the Scrum V pundit team on Friday. He took time out for a quick chat about the game and said he’d take a look at my blog! He also writes a brilliant, in-depth rugby blog which you should definitely check out here:

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Six wins from eight games for Welsh regions in Europe

The European Champions and Challenge Cups have got underway in dramatic style, with all the Welsh regions having made a winning start to their campaigns.

Much of the opening ten days was sadly overshadowed by the terrible news of the death of Munster coach Anthony Foley, an Irish rugby legend, who died in a Paris hotel overnight ahead of the Munster game against Racing 92. Naturally the game was postponed, but Munster paid Foley a fitting tribute in beating Glasgow in an emotional return to the field the day after his funeral. It was great to see so many rugby supporters coming together to pay respect to this rugby legend.

Here is the lowdown on the fortunes of the Welsh regions in the opening two rounds of action.

  1. Cardiff Blues

A superb start. A much needed response to the Ospreys defeat saw Blues earn a bonus point at local rivals Bristol in Round One. Alex Cuthbert made only his second competitive start of the season following an injury picked up against Glasgow, and scored his second try of the season in the process. He looks to be returning to form, which is brilliant for Blues and a welcome boost for Wales ahead of the Autumn Series.

Round Two saw a return to the Arms Park against French side Pau, and a second victory, although the hosts were denied a bonus point, being restricted to three tries. Cory Allen scored two of Blues’ tries in a Man of the Match performance. The Wales centre seems to be staking his claim for his jersey ahead of the arrival of hugely talented New Zealander Willis Halaholo. This win sees Blues currently top Pool 4.

2. Ospreys

A brilliant thrashing of Newcastle Falcons (45-0) at home was followed by another bonus point victory away at Lyon (31-13). Justin Tipuric is in sublime form, and scored one of the best solo tries of the season so far against Newcastle. Young winger Keelan Giles showed his class, scoring three tries in their Round 2 win. Ospreys scored a maximum 10 match points from the opening pool games, and currently top their group.

3. Scarlets

The West-Walians beat a stubborn Sale Sharks side at home in round one, but were comfortably swept aside by Saracens in London in round two. Sarries’ Owen Farrell has made a superb return to playing after injury, and really has their back-line firing. Scarlets now face the daunting task of back-to-back games against French giants Toulon when the Champions Cup resumes in December.

4. Dragons

The Dragons have an interesting pool draw which also includes Worcester, Brive, and Russian side Enisei-STM who qualifies through the European play-off system. The Newport-based region began with a bonus point, try-fest win at home to Brive. Their inconsistency again proved their downfall, however, as they lost to Enisei away 38-18. Remarkably, it’s the Russian side who now top the pool, having also narrowly beaten Worcester the week before. I must say, I love a good underdog story. Dragons coach Kingsley Jones concedes they were well beaten on Saturday, however, I feel this is a pool the Dragons could go on to win, especially with Worcester currently struggling in the English Premiership. It would be absolutely brilliant to see three Welsh teams in the Challenge Cup knock-out stages.

European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Preview

Europe’s finest will battle it out this weekend as the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup explode into action. Like many fans of the game in the northern hemisphere, I am a huge, huge fan of these competitions, and given the quality of rugby I have witnessed in the Pro12 and Aviva Premiership so far this season (I haven’t caught any of the French Top 14 yet, sadly) I am confident that this year’s tournaments will be among the best yet.

The try-scoring record was broken for a single weekend in the Pro12 last week, with a total of 45 tries across all six games. Brilliant! It just goes to show that the emphasis has been on attack in the Pro12 so far this season, which can only be a good thing. It’s entertaining, it gets supporters through the turnstiles and increases viewing figures, and (hopefully) will set the Pro12 sides in good stead for their first two European games in the next nine days.

With three of the four Welsh regions failing to reach the Champions Cup this term, I feel there is a very real opportunity for a Welsh side to claim European silverware in the form of the Challenge Cup – Europe’s second-tier elite club competition.

Dragons play host to French outfit Brive on Friday night, and I’m backing the Men of Gwent to emerge victorious. They’ve had a decent run in this competition of late, reaching the semi-finals in the last two seasons. A much improved performance in defeat to the Scarlets last week suggests the Dragons are on the cusp of returning to winning ways, and I feel if they can cut down on individual errors and maintain the same intensity as last week, they could win comfortably at Rodney Parade.

Having swept the Blues aside last week, The Ospreys will be looking to make a winning start to their Challenge Cup campaign at home to Newcastle Falcons. Dan Biggar returns to the starting line-up for the hosts, who could be runaway winners at the Liberty stadium given the Falcon’s poor form away from home.

Indeed, Aviva Premiership strugglers Bristol gave Newcastle a scare last weekend, and they will be looking to register their first competitive win of the season when they welcome Cardiff Blues to Ashton Gate. With Blues head coach Danny Wilson and backs coach Matt Sherratt both having joined Wales’ Capital region from Bristol in the last two years, there will be plenty of spice to this fixture. Needless to say, Blues are hoping to regroup after last week’s disappointing performance in Swansea against Ospreys, and will be aiming to put a huge shift in. This will be a tough one, with Bristol themselves showing signs of improvement, but I believe the Blues will take the spoils.

Scarlets are the only Welsh team in this season’s Champions Cup, and they find themselves in the toughest pool I’ve seen in a very long time, alongside defending champions Saracens, three-time winners Toulon and Sale Sharks. They open their account on Saturday, at home to Sale. It goes without saying, this is a must-win game, with Saracen’s up next followed by back-to-back games against Toulon in December. Scarlets’ first choice team has, on paper at least, enough stardust and firepower to beat any of these teams at home, but they just don’t seem to be clicking as a team yet. I thought their Pro12 opener against Munster was just a rusty performance, but even six games in I feel like I haven’t seen a truly cohesive display from the West-Walians. There are some who maintain Rhys Patchell’s best position is full-back, and I feel he hasn’t got the Scarlets back line really firing yet this term. Patchell is an awesome player, supremely talented, and I look forward to him finding some real form at fly-half. Then I think we’ll see what this Scarlets side is really capable of. I’m backing them to edge past Sale on Saturday.

 

Andy Powell Retires

A huge character in Welsh rugby hangs up his boots for the last time today, as uncompromising back-rower Andy Powell retires having failed to recover from a knee injury.

What a legend of the game in Wales.

Having had stints with Dragons and Scarlets, he went on to spend a career-defining spell with Cardiff Blues, which saw his rich form in 2008/09 rewarded with his first of 23 Wales caps, plus a call up for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.

He most recently played for Merthyr, helping them win promotion to the Principality Premiership last season, ahead of the league becoming ring-fenced for three years.

An abrasive character on the field, but an amiable one off it, Powell will be best remembered for “borrowing” and driving a golf buggy down the M4 motorway after celebrating a Wales victory over Scotland in Cardiff in 2010. He faced a 15 month driving ban for the incident, which effectively brought an end to his Wales career.

Lots of his former team-mates, rivals, and even referee Nigel Owens have described Powell as “one of a kind”. I’ve been a huge fan of his over the years, and his humour will definitely be missed in Welsh rugby. Maybe he should become a pundit for Wales autumn series. All the best for your retirement, Andy!

 

Weekend Round-up

Lots to talk about from a superb weekend of Welsh rugby action.

I suppose I’d better start by mentioning the Ospreys absolutely hammered Cardiff Blues on Friday night. Four of us made the trip down in the end, on what turned out to be an absolute horror show for the Blues. Handling errors, individual mistakes and poor/missed tackling were all contributing factors to a 42-24 humbling –  a lop-sided result I couldn’t help feeling even the Ospreys fans didn’t see coming.

After a lively and promising start, the Blues led 10-3 until Dan Fish got yellow carded for a trip on the 20 minute mark. From that point, they absolutely crumbled. Three tries were conceded during the ten minutes Fish was off the field, two of those scored by the superb Eli Walker.

Cardiff Blues never recovered, and any brief glimpses of a fightback were thwarted either by some ferocious Ospreys defending, or through individual error. The Ospreys try at the very start of the second half seemed to really seal the deal, and from that point on it truly felt like a losing bonus point was the best we could hope for from this match.

Alas, even that was beyond Blues’ capabilities, with Josh Matavesi’s powerful burst one of several further tries for Ospreys.

There were conselation scores for Wales’ Capital region in the shape of a Tom James interception try, plus a typically superb step and touch down from Rey Lee-Lo, but a fourth try sadly never came, meaning the Blues left with nothing from the game.

A lot has to be said for Steve Tandy’s tactics for this game. His selection and game plan were spot-on. Sam Davies controlled the game quite masterfully, and has surely put his hand up for Wales selection in November, potentially at the expense of Gareth Anscombe, who it has to be said, had an evening to forget. The line speed of the Ospreys defence was so impressive. They were absolutely relentless and forced numerous errors in a Blues team that, sadly, could come up with no answers.

I do need to give one quick shout out to Tau’fau Filise, the Blues veteran tight-head prop, who produced an unbelievable tackle on Sam Davies in midfield, just when the young fly-half threatened to cut loose. Filise is approaching 40! The guy is an incredible athlete, a great player and an institution at the Blues.

Danny Wilson’s post-match appraisal was brutally honest. He, like the team, were shell-shocked by this result. They have vowed to put things right, and, based on what I’ve seen so far this season, I believe they can and they will. Let’s hope this was just a bad day at the office. The European Challenge Cup kicks off next weekend, with Blues visiting Wilson’s former team, and Aviva Premiership strugglers, Bristol. I am expecting a huge response from the Blues players, who will desperately want to get their season back on track.

In the other Pro12 Welsh derby, Scarlets played hosts to Dragons in a thrilling encounter in Llanelli. A total of eight tries were scored as the Dragons pushed the hosts all the way, and despite surrendering a healthy lead of 20-7 after 35 minutes, travelled home with two bonus points in the bag, by virtue of scoring four tries, and losing by less than seven points. Hallam Amos yet again impressed for the visitors, while Scarlets duo Liam Williams and man-of-the-match Scott Williams also showed their class.

Sloppy defending was again the Dragons downfall, but I feel they are showing signs of improvement. Meanwhile, Scarlets will need to sharpen their own defence if they are to overcome Sale at home, before taking on the defending champions Saracens at Allianz Park, in what is surely one of the most brutal groups in this year’s European Champions Cup (three-time winners Toulon being the fourth team in the group).

Closer to home, Nantymoel went down fighting in an aggressive contest against Bridgend Athletic, who dutifully book their place in the next round of the Swalec Plate. Four tries for the visitors – plus three conversions and two penalties from my workmate Dan – saw the visitors home and dry, although a vocal and passionate Nantymoel support had a try and coversion to celebrate. Both teams return to league action next week: Nantymoel with an away fixture against Aberavon Green Stars, Bridgend Athletic at home against Seven Sisters.

I’ll leave you with the only photograph I took on Friday night – my first trip to the Liberty Stadium in Swansea as the Ospreys hosted the Blues. I hope we are more successful on our next visit – although I reckon we’ll beat them in Cardiff later in the season!

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National Cup Fixtures

This weekend sees the start of the WRU National Cup, Plate and Bowl fixtures kick off in style. The annual tournament celebrates the very best in league rugby and culminates in the superb finals day held at The Principality Stadium.

Among the pick of some of the tastiest clashes this weekend is undoubtedly the visit of last season’s Cup winners, Llandovery, to Aberavon, who are currently unbeaten in the league this season after defeating high-fliers RGC 1404 away from home last weekend.

In the bowl, Ogmore Vale travel to Pontrhydyfen RFC looking to progress, while there’s local bragging rights up for stake when Bridgend Sports RFC host Porthcawl RFC.

However, the one clash I’m particularly excited for is Nantymoel playing host to Bridgend Athletic in the Plate competition. Can Nantymoel overcome the former Welsh Championship side on their home turf? Will my workmate Dan Howells score for the visitors? A few of us from work are meeting up during the Ospreys v Blues clash and I’m looking forward to some banter over tomorrow’s game!

Scarlets win at Treviso while Dragons, Ospreys and Blues miss out

It was an explosive weekend of Pro12 action for the Welsh regions, but only the Scarlets managed to emerge victorious. Blistering performances from Blues and Ospreys saw both teams agonisingly edged out to late penalties from Leinster and Ulster respectively. Meanwhile, Dragons had taken the lead against Glasgow at Rodney Parade on Friday night, only for a superb side-step and run-in from visiting prop Alex Allen and the boot of Finn Russell to deny the hosts even a losing bonus point.

Scarlets will be pleased with their 22-6 victory away to Treviso, a destination which has not been a happy hunting ground for them in the past. This win sees them maintain a little momentum after an uncharacteristically slow start in the league. With a back line like theirs, I’m certainly expecting some impressive wins as the season progresses.

Blues continue to show lots of enterprise in attack and there were moments of absolute brilliance in Saturday’s performance – not least a fantastic solo try from Gareth Anscombe, who showed great feet and a turn of pace. Their high penalty count did them no favours against a very strong Leinster team, and was ultimately their undoing.

The Blues will certainly travel to Swansea with some confidence tomorrow night, ahead of a truly mouth-watering clash against the Ospreys. The form of these two sides points to this game being a classic. Ospreys will themselves have taken confidence from pushing league leaders Ulster close in Belfast, and will fancy their chances against Blues having restricted Ulster to scoring only three penalties at the weekend. Blues also haven’t beaten Ospreys in their last ten attempts – however, the teams look really evenly matched this term, and there will be some great match-ups right across the park: Gareth Anscombe v Sam Davies at fly-half, Rhys Webb v Lloyd Williams at scrum-half, Ellis Jenkins v Justin Tipuric at openside, to name a few.

We’ll be going to the game tomorrow; my first ever visit to the Liberty Stadium, and I’m really excited for the game. Come on Blues!!

In the other Welsh derby on this ‘big weekend’ of Pro12 action sees Scarlets face Dragons in Llanelli. While the Dragons are certainly g rowing into the season, with Hallam Amos in particular impressing, I can’t see them beating Scarlets this week.

Scarlets back-line hero Liam Williams has been in the news lots this week. His contract ends at the end of this season, and there are a string of English clubs keen for his signature. The WRU and Scarlets are teaming up to offer him a deal to remain in Wales, and I believe he will choose this option, rather than risk his place in the Wales team by exiling himself under the so-called ‘Gatland’s Law’, which restricts how many players can be chosen from outside of Wales.Williams is a mega-star of the game, and we need him in Wales and in the Pro12.

I feel there has been a real positivity about the Pro12 league this year, especially in Wales. The standard of rugby has been largely excellent so far, and the games I’ve seen have been really fiercely contested. A report this week claimed attendances and viewing figures are both up on this period last season. This weekend’s derbies also promise to be a great spectacle, and I hope they are a brilliant advert for the league.