It’s my first blog of 2017 – Happy New Year!
There is plenty to chew over from the past couple of weeks of action, with huge crowds across Wales having enjoyed a feast of intriguing Pro12 derbies across the festive season.
Emily, Danny and I made it to the first of four key games in the Welsh rugby calendar: Blues v Dragons, at Cardiff Arms Park. A bumper crowd of 11,600 (this season’s biggest to date at the capital region) saw the hosts see of a spirited Dragons side. An exciting first half saw Steven Shingler cross the whitewash in the first minute, also slotting the conversion on his way to a 17 point haul for the game. While the Dragons looked dangerous at times, the Blues would never surrender the lead, although a pulsating first half gave way to a dogged second period in which zero points were scored. Disappointing, then, that Blues were unable to capitalise on tries from Kristian Dacey and Josh Navidi by scoring a fourth try for the bonus point. It could prove costly come the tail end of the season.
Dragons’ Angus O’brien made an impression, showing great composure and inventiveness, calmly slotting a 50-metre penalty, and was involved in the build-up to an Ashton Hewitt try. Sadly, it became an error-strewn performance from the visitors. Still, a beautiful, sunny Boxing Day in the Welsh capital saw a long overdue league victory for Cardiff Blues.
Game two was an epic tussle between Ospreys and Scarlets at the Liberty Stadium. The 19,000 strong crowd is the second-highest seen at any of the four regional grounds in the last six years, and lived up to it’s billing as Wales’ highest ranked Pro12 teams did battle.
It was a gritty encounter, the Ospreys winning 19-9 courtesy of a penalty try and four penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar. The Wales stand-off made regional rugby history in the game, taking his all-time personal points tally for the Ospreys past the 2000 mark. Biggar has come such a long way since his Wales debut. Ultra-reliable, he is a master of game-management – particularly at regional level – and has really risen to the challenge posed from his high-flying regional rival Sam Davies.
Game three saw Scarlets host Blues at Parc-y-Scarlets, as Wayne Pivac’s men hoped to amend their loss to the Ospreys. Scarlets won 15-10, scoring two tries to one in an entertaining encounter that ultimately ended in frustrating fashion for Wales’ Capital region. Star turns from Rhys Patchell and Scott Williams saw Scarlets threaten to pull away, before a peach of a try from Blues centre Willis Halaholo set up a tense finale.
This was an important game in the context of the season, as a Blues victory would have closed the gap between 6th and 7th place in the league. With a tough trip to Glasgow next up for Blues, I fear this could be one loss too many, although both Danny Wilson and Sam Warburton indicated in post-match interviews that top 6 remains the Blues’ priority.
The final festive derby was a dour affair between Dragons and Ospreys, played out in horrific conditions at Rodney Parade on New Year’s Day. A pitch which was (controversially) deemed playable by the referee shortly before kick-off buckled under the strain of the heavy rain, and of hosting two games in two days (Newport County having played a football fixture 24 hours earlier). Ospreys played old-fashioned, up-the-jumper rugby, and having scored the most league tries this season to date, demonstrated that they still know how to win ugly when conditions demand it. The 10-0 score-line says virtually everything you need to know about the game, although Justin Tipuric once again lit up proceedings with a moment of magic, providing the game’s only try. The guy’s absolutely on fire, the form of his career to date, in my opinion. I feel he has done more than enough to start at open-side flanker for Wales in the Six Nations (now only a month away), and must therefore surely have a real shot at a place on the Lions tour.