British & Irish Lions Coaches Unveiled; Wales Announce Exciting Coaching Set-Up for Summer Tour

Warren Gatland revealed his back-room staff for next summer’s Lions tour earlier in December. This is how it looks:

Rob Howley

Steve Borthwick

Andy Farrell

There’s been generally a positive response to the team that’s been announced, but some critics are pointing at Rob Howley’s involvement as potentially being a weak link. Howley was involved as a coach on the last Lions tour, which was a success, but many see Wales’ poor performances this November as an indication that Howley is unsuitable for the role this time around. I also understand that Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend – both outstanding coaches – turned down the opportunity for this role, opening the door for Howley. Personally, I think Howley will do a great job, and thrive in the Lions environment.

Andy Farrell also toured last time. I bumped into him in a lift in the Celtic Manor on the day of the last ever Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff, the day after my best mate’s wedding. We had a very brief chat, and he seemed like a top bloke. He was there to watch his son Owen Farrell play for Saracens that day. Andy Farrell has made a real mark as England’s backs coach, and has them brimming with confidence. He will bring this confidence to the Lions team.

Steve Borthwick is new to the Lions environment, but has featured as forwards coach for England for all 14 undefeated tests in 2016. That statistic speaks for itself. He will bring steel and grit to a forward pack which will need to stamp their authority over the All Blacks.

Meanwhile, with Warren Gatland and Rob Howley both away with The Lions, Wales have announced an exciting, new-look back-room staff for their tour of the Pacific Islands. As part of the WRU’s program to develop elite-level coaches in the interests of the national team, interim Head Coach Robin McBride will be joined by Blues’ Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt, as well as ex-Wales and Scarlets fly-half legend Stephen Jones. Jones is one of my all time favourite players. Emily and I also had the good fortune to meet him many years back, at his book launch in Stradey Park, Llanelli. He is a top bloke, fair play. And with 107 Wales caps, as well as a handful of Lions test caps, he truly is a legend of the game.

I really like the idea of bringing regional coaches on board as assistants for Wales matches. With less than three years remaining of Warren Gatland’s Wales contract, it is very important we develop enough coaching talent in Wales so there is a highly competitive list of candidates when recruitment begins. I think this combination of coaches for the Wales tour looks very strong, and suggests to me that Wales are very much looking to focus on developing their attacking play. I do feel that a representative from Ospreys coaching team should also be involved if possible, given that Ospreys have been scoring tries for fun this season.

This is an innovative approach from the WRU, and I think it’s a huge step in the right direction.

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Scarlets 22-21 Toulon

What a win for the Scarlets today! Beating a star-studded Toulon team will be a huge boost for the Llanelli region, and keeps alive their hopes of qualification from the pool.

Sounds like Leigh Halfpenny had a bad day at the office by his standards, kicking seven penalties (all 21 of Toulon’s points) but missing four further kicks at goal. His contract expires in July and Cardiff Blues want him back at the Arms Park.

So do I.

Foster’s Challenge Cup: Bridgend 41-31 Aberavon

I had a cracking night on Wednesday: my workmate Dan Howells started at full-back for Bridgend Ravens in a cup match against local rivals Aberavon, and I headed down to the Brewery Field to take in the action, as well as to catch up with Dan over a beer after the match.

An absolutely superb match saw Bridgend’s forward pack look very dominant in the first quarter, lock Kyle Maiden stealing a couple of lineouts during the early exchanges. The powerful No.5 even drove over for a try shortly before half time, Jamie Murphy adding the conversion on his 100th appearance at fly-half for Bridgend.

The Wizards rung the changes at half time, and made the brighter start after the break. A new front row combination saw a series of driving mauls pay dividends, with two tries handing the visitors a two point lead on the 50 minute mark.

The decisive moment came when Bridgend’s Murphy chose to tap and run a penalty from Aberavon’s 22, throwing a pass to centre Joseph Gatt, who sliced open the Avon defence to score beneath the posts. It was a peach of a try, and the home crowd duly roared their approval.

What an excellent game of rugby, lots of absolutely superb attacking play from both teams, and a brilliant advert for this tournament, as well as indeed the high standard of the Welsh Premiership. Aberavon, incidentally, currently sit at the top of the Premiership, so this was a brilliant win for Bridgend, and I have to say, thoroughly deserved.

Dan was in high spirits after the game! He assured me he actually played better in the defeat against Aberavon in the reverse fixture last week, although there was no doubting his vast contribution to the game I watched. One probing run saw him cut a great line down the left wing, only to be bundled into touch before he could pass the ball inside. Playing at this level is the next step up for Dan, having previously played for Bridgend Athletic in the league below, but he looks so comfortable playing at this standard. A high scoring game like this one really suits his style of play, too, as he looks an elusive runner with ball in hand. I hope Bridgend can go all the way in the Cup, I wish Dan all the best as part of the team.

Mixed fortunes for Welsh teams in European Games

We are roughly half way through the fourth weekend of European pool fixtures, and I’m happy to say the Welsh regions remain in the mix for the knockout stages of the tournaments, despite a pretty mixed bag of results.

This stage of the season sees the highly-anticipated back-to-back fixtures between teams across every pool. It’s an exciting concept, and every year it never fails to provide a brilliant, dramatic start to the Christmas fixture list. This unique idea means that teams get an immediate opportunity to underline their authority over one of their pool rivals in their pools, or atone for a defeat.

Leading the way for the Welsh regions in Europe (as they have done in the league so far this season) are the Ospreys. They are absolutely on fire! Having secured a remarkable 59-7 away win over Grenoble in France last week, the Swansea based region then despatched of the same opposition 71-3 at the Liberty Stadium yesterday. Their 11 tries matched their all-time club record of tries scored in a game. Magnificent stuff! There have been further calls to see winger Keelan Giles in a Wales jersey following his superb brace of tries last week, and I fully expect him to make his senior debut during the Six Nations in February. Ospreys are in pole position now to progress to the Challenge Cup knock-out stages, and to be honest, on current form I see them as serious title contenders.

Cardiff Blues beat Bath 28-3 at the Arms Park last Saturday, then suffered a disappointing 38-3 in the return fixture on Thursday. A much-changed Bath team saw the return of England internationals George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, as well as a starting appearance for Wales’ Taulupe Faletau. A red card for Blues’ second-row George Earle reduced Cardiff to 14 men and did nothing to help their cause against a very strong looking Bath team, who now lead the group, ahead of Blues on points difference. I must say, this is an intriguing pool, especially with Bristol having completed back-to-back victories over Pau, to leave them on 10 match points, and just three behind both Blues and Bath. It looks like this one could go right down to the wire, although I fancy Blues chances of progressing since they will play Bristol at the Arms Park in January, while Bath must face their West Country rivals away from home.

Dragons have had a troublesome start to their European campaign, but got back on track on Friday with a hard fought victory over a stubborn Worcester team determined to make amends for the poor league run. Their 22-7 win saw star turns from fiery scrum-half Tavis Knoyle and excellent Wales centre Tyler Morgan. Dragons are third in Pool 3, but could still qualify for the last eight if they can repeat last year’s superb away form against Brive in France next month, and also beat Russian minnows Enisei-STM comfortably at Rodney Parade. It would be superb to see all three Welsh teams in the knock-out stages of the Challenge Cup this season.

Meanwhile, Scarlets have been battling through in their very tough Champions Cup group, and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far. Looking at their pool opponents – Sale, Saracens and Toulon – I was a bit worries they were going to get blown away in Pool 3. However, they are very much still in the hunt for a qualification spot. They lost 31-20 against Toulon last week, but today host the French giants in Llanelli. They are currently leading 16-9 at half time. With the likes of Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies and Scott Williams at their disposal, Scarlets took a while to settle into their stride this season, but are now starting to look like a force to be reckoned with. Full back Liam Williams is arguably Welsh rugby’s hottest property at the moment, and although he is strongly rumoured to be making a big money move to Saracens ahead of next season, he’ll want to make a big statement for Scarlets this year.

Wales 27 – 13 South Africa: Autumn Series Round-up

Wales were able to overcome South Africa in both teams’ final autumn game, mounting more misery on the Springboks after an awful European tour, and more pressure on coach Allister Coetzee.

In a game which sadly underlined a series of wins amid disappointing performances, Wales again produced little flair were it not for the box-office contribution of the excellent Justin Tipuric. The Ospreys flanker has surely done enough to usurp Wales’ Regular Captain Sam Warburton of the number 7 jersey in the opinions of many, including myself. going into this game, I felt Tipuric’s stature meant the home team would miss Warburton’s physical presence. Any absence felt, however, was outweighed by the ambition and vision of Tipuric, who capped a fine day at the office with the game’s most entertaining score: a neat pop-up pass from the returning Taulupe Faletau released  Tipuric to sidestep the Springbok defence and score beneath the posts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/38117784

I really hope Tipuric remains injury free for the Six Nations, and of course continues his excellent form for Wales. If he does, I think he has an excellent chance of representing the British and Irish Lions next summer.

I must admit, having seen some enormous performances from Ireland and – in particular – England throughout the autumn, as well as some much improved displays from an exciting-looking, rejuvenated Scotland, there could be a small few representatives from Wales on the next Lions tour. England have been magnificent in my eyes. They are playing with a ruthlessness and belief I haven’t seen for some time. In their final Autumn game, against Australia, they showed resilience to put a three-point half-time deficit behind them, emerging 37-21 winners. Their variety of play has been superb, with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs being key performers.

The Six Nations will be trialling a bonus-point scoring system in the spring, and I can’t wait to see how it affects the quality and nature of the games. Teams will now be awarded for scoring four tries, and even losing sides will be awarded a point if they lose by 7 or less. I really hope this puts a really positive spin on proceedings, as some of last year’s fixtures looked positively drab compared to the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby matches (which kicked off during the Six Nations). This could really bring the best out of players like Tipuric, and will of course be the last chance to impress the Lions selectors in national colours.