Lots of big rugby news to round up this week, including:
- Scarlets thrash Ospreys in Llanelli on the final weekend of the Pro12 regular season, but both teams make it to the Championship semi-finals
- Ben Youngs pulls out of the Lions tour to New Zealand
- The draw is made for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan (and it looks pretty tasty, too)
Wins for Blues and Scarlets in Round 22 of the Pro12
The final weekend of regular season action saw six fiery derbies, including Cardiff Blues taking on the Dragons, and the Ospreys travelling West to title rivals Scarlets.
The latter was a pulsating, high-scoring encounter, with the Scarlets showcasing some sensational attacking rugby, utterly overwhelming their Swansea-based rivals. It’s been a very long time since this fixture was, ultimately, so one-sided, Wayne Pivac’s men outscoring the opposition by five tries to two. Indeed, it was a record win for the Scarlets, and it was no more than they deserved. They looked aggressive and clinical from the word go, attacking from deep, offloading with style. Their slick passing in attack was matched with a real grunt in defence. The Ospreys had no response, curiously looking a shadow of the team that began the season like potential champions.
The Scarlets will now travel to face Leinster in Dublin and, if they can recreate this sort of form away from home, I can certainly see them making the final of this year’s competition. The Ospreys, however, limp into their semi-final, away to Munster. They certainly have the talent to compete, but have a mountain to climb to be in with a shout of lifting any silverware this year, especially having shown such inconsistency, and indeed vulnerability, over the last two months. Still, it’s great to see two Welsh teams in the semi-finals, and who knows, we could yet see an all-Welsh final.
The Dragons v Blues was a rather low-key affair in comparison. There was no lack of endeavour or passion, but at times a curious lack of quality. The Dragons are undoubtedly glad to reach the end of the season (they were leapfrogged by Treviso on the last weekend, finishing the season in eleventh place). The Blues showed flashes of brilliance but were guilty of being drawn into a pretty scrappy affair, and edged themselves clear to an uncomfortable victory in this final league game. More consistency is needed from the Blues next season. I’m looking forward to Kiwi centre Willis Halaholo getting a full pre-season with the team under his belt. Some of his statistics have been amazing this year – only Ulster’s Charles Piutau beat more defenders in the Pro12 this season, and Halaholo only made his Blues debut in November!
The Dragons voted in favour of the proposed WRU takeover this week, which I’m very happy with. This new deal will see all the club’s debt written off, and will hopefully see a fresh start for the region. It’s of paramount importance that all four Welsh regions are competitive, and the Dragons have not been firing. With the right people in place, let’s hope matters move in the right direction, on and off the field.
The Blues go into a Champions Cup qualifying game against Stade Francais on the back of three wins and half a dozen decent performances. The Parisians, however, have just been crowned European Challenge Cup winners, having seen off Gloucester in the final at Murrayfield. It will be a huge ask, but Lions captain Sam Warburton should be available for selection, and with the right team, I fancy Wales’ Capital Region can prevail.
Ben Youngs pulls out of the Lions tour
The England scrum-half chose to pull out of this summer’s tour to New Zealand because his sister-in-law is terminally ill. Very, very sad news. I have the utmost respect for Ben Youngs in making this decision. Family is always the most important thing. He is England’s number one scrum-half, a huge talent in the game, and an absolute gentleman. Thoughts go out to the Youngs family, from all the rugby community.
As for the tour, Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw has been called up to the Lions squad in Ben Youngs’ absence. A great player himself, Laidlaw also echoed the words of support to the Youngs family.
Rugby World Cup 2019
On Wednesday, he draw was made for Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. The stakes will certainly be high, and there are some mouth-watering clashes taking shape in the group stages.
Pool C had lots of people talking, with England drawn against a resurgent France and an increasingly competitive Argentina, who reached the semi-finals of the showpiece event two years ago. Other key clashes include the All Blacks against the Springboks in Pool B; hosts Japan meeting Scotland and Ireland in Pool A; and Wales again facing the Wallabies in Pool D.
I feel that rugby’s landscape is changing dramatically, with the likes of Japan and Georgia set to really lay down a marker, and impose themselves as big forces in world rugby over the next couple of years. Looking at their respective groups, these two teams in particular look capable of a huge upset come 2019 – watch this space.
Saracens win European Rugby Champions Cup
One last word simply must go to the mighty Saracens. They were crowned European Champions for the second year running after overcoming Clermont Auvergne 28-17 in a brutal, nerve-shredding and pulsating encounter. Sarries quite rightly form the back-bone of this year’s Lions team. Ruthless and efficient, they are champions in the All Blacks mould. Huge congratulations on this amazing achievement!