Sam Warburton named Captain as the British and Irish Lions Squad is Announced

All eyes were on London today as Warren Gatland and his coaching staff revealed the identities of the 41-man squad chosen to represent the British and Irish Lions on this summer’s massive tour to New Zealand.

Sam Warburton is named as Captain for the tour for the second time, having led the team on their successful tour of Australia in 2013. He joins Martin Johnson as the only two players to captain the Lions on more than one occasion – what an amazing honour. Warburton is, in my opinion, a superb choice: a great player, truly committed to the cause, he is also a brilliant ambassador for the game. A true professional, he is also a great role model, and is respected in rugby circles the world over. He’s also an absolute gentleman. I trust he will be outstanding in this role, especially since he experienced the Lions carnival four years ago, and knows exactly what to expect.

The Lions team is absolutely jaw-dropping. The announcement has been met with some controversy, particularly from the keyboard warriors on social media, who seem disgruntled by what they see as a lack of Scottish players included (two), and moreover, an excess of Welsh representation (twelve). While I must admit that even I was surprised to see so many Welsh players involved, I do believe those chosen have qualities that justify their selection. Equally, I had hoped to see the likes of Richie Grey, Johnny Grey and Finn Russell representing Scotland, – although there’s no doubting the Grey brothers had a huge task on their hands to make the squad, with the Second-row position being arguably the most competitive it has been for many, many years.

The full squad can be viewed here:

http://www.lionsrugby.com/2017tour/squad/index.php#.WPfX_YWcGP8

The tour explodes into life with a match against a Provincial XV on June 3rd.

I cannot wait!

 

Advertisements

Judgement Day V: Blues and Scarlets Victorious

Cardiff Blues recorded a first win over the Ospreys since 2010, before Scarlets battled to a narrow victory over Newport Gwent Dragons at the showpiece event in the Welsh capital on Saturday afternoon.

Five tries from the Blues rounded off a quite remarkable performance, in which the Ospreys were made to look second-rate in every facet of the game. It was a display that has, it seems, been a whole season in the making. A fast start to the 2016/17 campaign saw Blues’ early form utterly derailed by their trip to face Ospreys back in October – an encounter which demanded a huge response in this week’s return fixture.

The Blues certainly rose to the occasion. Their physicality was apparent from the outset, a catch-and-drive from a ten-metre lineout yielding a Kristian Dacey try in the first five minutes. Lloyd Williams claimed a second try before delivering a superb reverse-pass to Nick Williams to barge through Justin Tipuric and score a third for the hosts, all within the first thirty minutes.

The Blues continued strongly after the break, Alex Cuthbert running hard and fixing defenders, leading to a Tau’Fau Filise try that heaped further misery on the visitors.

Next came the try of the afternoon. Great pressure on Sam Davies in midfield saw the superb Dacey catch and spin through a tackle, feeding Willis Halaholo. The Kiwi centre chipped the ball ahead to Gareth Anscombe, who juggled the ball as he cantered across the line. At 35-3 up, the celebrations began in the stands. The Ospreys seemed a shadow of the team that has looked so dangerous, and scored so freely in the first six months of the season.

Dan Evans finally crossed the whitewash on the hour mark, with veteran Wales prop Paul James adding a second consolation try for the visitors on 67 minutes. It was far too little too late, however, and some determined and gutsy defending from the Blues saw them record a much deserved win.

The Blues have been superb in recent weeks, especially in the Pro12, where they ran leaders Leinster close in Dublin, before drawing with Ulster in Belfast last week. These are tough places to play, and really feels like the Blues are coming of age as a team. This was probably the most complete performance I’ve seen from Cardiff Blues since the European Challenge Cup win in 2010. Absolutely extraordinary stuff, outstanding rugby. It certainly hints at great things ahead for next season. Coach Danny Wilson understandably described it as the best performance of his tenure to date.

The Ospreys now lie in fourth spot, seemingly on the brink of losing out on a play-off spot. Top-four rivals Ulster are their next opponents, which now looks like an absolutely massive game.

Saturday’s second game saw the Dragons host the Scarlets. A cagey first half saw the sides tied at 6-6 during the break. Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies eventually broke the deadlock on 57 minutes, strolling over to score after a tap-and-go penalty from ten metres out. Liam Williams extended their lead beyond the Dragons’ reach, cutting a superb line to score a second Scarlets try in the 72nd minute.

The Dragons showed their resilience by scoring an excellent try in the final play of the game. Attacking from deep, great interplay following a turnover saw fly-half Angus O’Brien send winger Adam Hughes under the posts for a peach of a try, and it was no more than the Dragons deserved.

Scarlets now leapfrog the Ospreys into third place in the league table. Those two sides meet in the final round of the regular season, in what promises to be an explosive encounter.

Judgement Day V was another massive success, and I hope this format continues to go from strength to strength in future seasons.

Pro12 Update: Judgement Day V

As the four Welsh regions prepare to do battle in Judgement Day V at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, here’s an overview of who’s in form and what we can expect from regional rugby’s annual showpiece…

Newport Gwent Dragons

Current Position: 10th

The Dragons have had a tumultuous season, the tail end of which has been completely overshadowed by off-field events, as the WRU look set to take over the region amidst growing financial uncertainty.

The Dragons have become perennial strugglers and something definitely needs to change at the region. The last few seasons have seen a modest recruitment policy, and almost inevitably their big-name players have moved on to clubs competing at the top end of the league table. It was announced last year that the region were searching for new investors, but now the WRU look primed to take over. Gavin Henson has penned a two-year deal from September, seeing his welcome return to Welsh rugby. I just hope a takeover will see the region turn a corner, provide much needed resources and see real progress. With only four league wins to their name this year, I fear they are in real danger of finishing bottom of the Pro12, with both Treviso and Zebre hot on their heels going into the final three rounds. Their game against Scarlets at Principality Stadium this week is an absolute must-win, but with the Llanelli-based side having climbed to fourth after a 51-5 thumping of Treviso last week, I sadly can’t see the Men of Gwent having enough grunt or flair to overcome their rivals from West Wales.

Scarlets

Current Position: 4th

Last season saw Scarlets crumble in truly spectacular fashion in the final few weeks of the season, and having looked poised to finish in the top two, they slipped to fifth spot and missed out on a play-off spot.

They recruited well over the summer and have enjoyed a decent season, which notably included a fine victory over French giants Toulon in the Champions Cup. I predict Scarlets to reach the semi-finals this term, perhaps even the final, but I still feel they don’t quite have the depth and quality to win this competition – not this season, anyway. They have a tricky run-in to navigate, travelling to current champions Connacht after this week’s game with the Dragons, before ending the season with a home clash against local rivals Ospreys. That’ll be a tasty one, especially since the Ospreys are also serious play-off contenders this season. I predict the Scarlets will comfortably beat the Dragons this week, though, possibly with a bonus-point.

Ospreys

Current Position: 3rd

It’s getting tight at the top of the table, and Wales’ best hope of silverware remains with the Ospreys despite their recent wobble in form.

The Ospreys suffered a disappointing loss to Treviso three weeks ago, then got knocked out of the European Challenge Cup by Stade Francais before losing at home to league leaders Leinster. A fourth consecutive loss seems almost inconceivable given the Swansea region’s pedigree and tenacity, however this week they will face a Cardiff Blues side brimming with confidence after a superb performance against Ulster in Belfast on Friday night.

Ospreys have a brilliant record against Cardiff Blues, but I fancy Wales’ Capital Region to buck the trend this week and record a famous victory. If that is the case, the Ospreys will have a real battle on their hands to remain in the top four, with games against Ulster and Scarlets still to come. However, the Ospreys have superb depth in their squad and are perhaps the one Welsh side best equipped to face such a challenge.

Cardiff Blues

Current Position: 8th

Blues have endured yet another rocky season, some brilliant team performances, some brilliant individual performances, but too many inconsistencies has meant they have failed to meet their target of a top six spot this year.

They valiantly ran Leinster close in Dublin, losing by one point, then got thrashed by Gloucester, before drawing with heavyweights Ulster in an absolute thriller in Belfast.

Alex Cuthbert has shown a superb return to form. At last he is playing with a smile on his face again, he’s scoring tries and looking for work all over the park. He has been quite brilliant for the Blues over the last six weeks, and I’m expecting to see him return to the Wales squad this summer, which is no more than he deserves.

This week’s meeting with the Ospreys is another massive game that Danny Wilson’s men will relish. I think this is Blues’ best chance to beat the Ospreys in some time. With the midfield pairing of Ray Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo causing havoc against Ulster, Lloyd Williams pulling the strings from scrum-half, and work horse Gethin Jenkins as competitive as ever in a Blues jersey, Wales’ Capital Region will be aiming for a very strong 80 minute performance, and amazingly, a first victory over the Ospreys since 2010.

Blues and Ospreys crash out of Challenge Cup

A very disappointing weekend for the Welsh regions saw both Ospreys and Cardiff Blues suffer defeats in their European quarter-finals.

Blues surrendered a slender half-time lead in stomach-churning fashion, conceding four unanswered tries after the break as hosts Gloucester ran riot against Wales’ Capital Region. Billy Twelvetrees moved from centre to fly-half to replace the injured Billy Burns, and masterfully pulled the strings as the Cherry and Whites upped the pace and intensity in the final quarter, and the Blues simply had no response.

Having started so promisingly, the Blues were guilty of some weak tackling and poor decision making under pressure. A brilliant performance from Wales flanker Sam Warburton, as well as yet another excellent display from Alex Cuthbert – who has been in explosive form since being dropped from the Wales team in February – was far from enough to keep Gloucester at bay, and the game felt well and truly out of reach by the 70th minute.

Coach Danny Wilson seemed understandably furious with the manner of Blues’ defeat. There have been far too many inconsistencies this season, particularly in defence, and these will need to be addressed over the summer if Blues wish to stand any chance of pushing for league honours.

Ospreys went into their game on Sunday on the back of a disappointing league defeat to Treviso, but having swept aside their European group opponents, I felt a win at the Principality Stadium was well within their grasp.

Unfortunately, the Ospreys failed to capitalize on a one-man advantage for the final thirty minutes, after opponents Stade had winger Josaia Raisuqe red-carded. Sadly I’ve seen this happen several times with Wales over the years: Ospreys simply could not make their advantage count, their performance lacking composure and littered with inaccuracies.

I backed the Ospreys to go all the way in this tournament, and I am bitterly disappointed to see them fall at the quarter-final stage. For all their qualities, and their great Pro12 record, for some unknown reason the region has always struggled in European competitions. This latest loss will only serve to compound their pretty dismal record. Despite the financial restrictions of this – and indeed, every – Welsh region, there is a great swathe of talent in this Ospreys squad, and it’s pretty unforgivable that they should be knocked out in the quarters. It will be a tough one to take, and straight-talking ex-Bridgend Coach Steve Tandy gave an honest appraisal of a really great opportunity missed.

Blues and Ospreys will look to quickly bounce back in league action this weekend. Blues are again on the road, this time to Belfast for a tasty showdown with Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium. Blues’ Nick Williams is sure of a warm reception – he was a fan favourite during his four-year tenure at the province. Meanwhile, Ospreys host league leaders Leinster in a bid for a top-two league spot, with only four rounds now remaining.

 

 

 

Blues and Ospreys in Euro Action

The European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Quarter-Finals are upon us, and it’s great to see both Ospreys and Blues in action at the knockout stages after a pretty dismal few seasons for the Welsh regions in Europe.

This evening sees Cardiff Blues take on Gloucester at Kingsholm, a good, old-fashioned rugby ground, steeped in tradition, and one which I’ve always wanted to visit. Ex-Blues, Gloucester and Wales fly-half Nicky Robinson pointed to the outstanding – and often intimidating – atmosphere at the ground, but that will be the least of Blues’ worries this evening, as the Cherry and Whites boast the likes of Ross Moriarty, Johnny May and Billy Twelvetrees among their ranks. James Hook and Greig Laidlaw are both unavailable for selection through injury, however the home team will be determined to advance to the semi-finals this term after falling to the Dragons at this stage last season.

After a stirring performance against Leinster in Dublin last week, The Blues visit Kingsholm with some confidence, and welcome Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins and Lloyd Williams back to their starting line-up. Warburton had a fantastic Six Nations, and has arguably played himself right back into British Lions contention. He will need to put in a huge shift today against the wonderful Moriarty, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season in a Wales jersey.

Both teams lie in eighth position in their respective leagues, but I predict the Blues to have just enough fire power to emerge with the win.

Ospreys face Stade Francais tomorrow evening, in a match that is taking place at the Principality Stadium due to a fixture clash with Swansea City FC (with whom they ground-share). It’s a shame the Ospreys had to relocate for this clash, since their record-breaking 30 point haul in the Group stages of this tournament make them top seeds, and in my opinion, favourites to win this competition.

Stade bring a team loaded with talent to the Welsh capital, Sergio Parisse anchoring an enormous forward pack, while Will Genia is sure to be as lively as ever from scrum-half. Meanwhile Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric all look to continue their fine Six Nations form in an Ospreys jersey. Having suffered a surprise loss in Italy against Pro12 strugglers Treviso last weekend, Ospreys will want to hit the ground running. I predict a fiery encounter at the Principality Stadium, but ultimately I think the Welsh side will book their place in the semi-finals.