There were mixed fortunes for the Welsh regions this weekend with Scarlets and Ospreys registering impressive wins, while the Blues struggled to an uncomfortable and unconvincing win against bottom-of-the-table Zebre. Meanwhile, the Dragons’ disastrous run continued when they surrendered a 17 point lead to Edinburgh in the last ten minutes of their Friday night fixture.
I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen from the Scarlets this season. It took them a while to get going, having lost their first three games of thee season, but this week’s comprehensive dismantling of Connacht in Galway sends the West Walians roaring into the Pro12 semi-finals with a game to spare. I have felt for some time that the Scarlets do not have the depth in their squad or the resources required to compete both domestically and in Europe, and sadly this season was no exception. Under Kiwi coach Wayne Pivac they have, however, certainly developed, having improved their final league standings year on year (they finished sixth in the 2014/15 season, then fifth in the 2015/16 campaign). This year they will definitely finish no lower than fourth, and will play either Leinster or Munster in Ireland in the semi-finals later this month.
The Ospreys will travel to play the Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday, and need only one match point from that game in order to secure their own place in the semi-finals. A stirring home performance against Ulster on the weekend saw them end a four-match losing streak, and they will be as determined as ever to outplay their closest rivals in the final round of the regular season.
Ospreys scrum-half and captain Rhys Webb put in a great shift against Ulster. He went straight from that match to be best man at his best friend’s wedding too! What a legend!
The Ospreys v Scarlets game will also determine which of those teams will be the highest ranked Welsh region, something which Scarlets coach Pivac has stated as one of their goals for this campaign. This will also have a huge bearing on the pool draw for next season’s Champions Cup, with both teams already having secured qualification to European rugby’s premier club competition.
Cardiff Blues could also join them in the Champions Cup, by way of a series of play-offs which will take place between teams in the Pro12, England’s Aviva Premiership, and France’s Top 14.
The Blues played host to Italian strugglers Zebre on Friday night. The Arms Park outfit were looking to maintain momentum after registering a handful of gutsy performances in the last six weeks, culminating in the Judgement Day victory over the Ospreys last month.
Unfortunately the Blues were drawn into a slow, drab slug-fest of a game, with Zebre succeeding in containing the Blues running threats in the second half. Indeed Wales’ Capital Region survived a late scare to scrape home 30-24. A win is always pleasing, but after the stellar performances over the last few games, this was a disappointing result as ultimately the Blues failed to record a bonus-point try against a team which has conceded 754 points this season, and won only three league games. Admittedly, Zebre are on a bit of a run, having won three of the four games leading into this fixture. They also boast the inclusion of superb Italy fly-half Carlo Canna, who is showing lots of promise for the future. Nevertheless, Blues will need to show much more grit and ruthlessness to beat the English and French teams to the last Champions Cup spot.
The Dragons welcome Cardiff Blues for the final round of the regular season. This campaign has been woeful for the Men of Gwent. They have won only four league matches, can finish no higher than tenth in the table and, to make matters worse, they could be leapfrogged by either Treviso or Zebre in the standings if they lose to the Blues on Saturday.
I just don’t understand why the Dragons are in such a rut. Financial issues of the field are certainly not helping matters, with a vote due to take place on 9th May to decide on whether to allow a takeover by the Welsh Rugby Union (who are already 50% stakeholders). I can’t help but feel they will be glad when this season is over and they can start building towards next year’s campaign.
Edinburgh had lost ten matches in a row before they took on the Dragons at Myreside, the Gunners scoring three quick-fire tries in the dying minutes to overhaul a 17 point deficit and heap further misery on Kingsley Jones’ Dragons. The Head Coach was understandably shell-shocked. It was a catastrophic end to the game. It’s clear much needs to change during the off-season.
Their final home game of the season will be held at Caerphilly RFC due to a fixture clash at Rodney Parade, and while it is absolutely brilliant to host such a big fixture (Dragons v Blues) elsewhere in the region, I can’t help feeling disappointment that the Dragons were forced out on the last day of the season by one of the other teams with whom they ground-share. It’s time for the Dragons to really stand up and be counted. In my opinion the WRU takeover – if, indeed, it goes through – would be the best available outcome, and would help offer the financial support and the sort of recruitment needed to turn the Dragons into the competitive force that the rugby-mad Gwent region deserves.
One final word, this week on the Army v Navy Rugby game at Twickenham, which took place on Saturday. This was the 100th meeting between these two sides, and it’s a game which is growing bigger and bigger each year. I had an unforgettable time at this fixture several years back, and now it truly has become a highlight of the rugby calendar. The Army won this year’s contest 29-20, seeing them lift the inter-services cup. I can’t speak highly enough of this great event, which now sees in excess of 80,000 people descend on Twickenham for a celebration of the marvellous work and dedication of our armed forces. Long may it continue.