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.