Leigh Halfpenny set to join Scarlets

Early reports are breaking this morning regarding a deal to bring Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny to Pro12 champions, the Scarlets.

Halfpenny, a prolific and world-class goal kicker, was man of the series when the British and Irish Lions toured Australia in 2013, but lost his full-back test jersey to fellow Welshman Liam Williams for the 2017 tour to New Zealand. As it happens, it is the departure of Williams from the Scarlets that leaves the region in search of a top class full-back, which is where Halfpenny comes in.

Formerly of Cardiff Blues – one of several clubs that had hoped to lure the star back to the U.K – Halfpenny has spent three very successful years with French giants Toulon, and tasted European glory in 2015, scoring 14 points in the European Champions Cup final victory over Clermont.

However, there has been uncertainty over his future as Toulon released him at the start of the summer, and negotiations with Wasps, Cardiff Blues and Bath either broke down, or proved to be mere rumours.

It is believed that Halfpenny will sign a national Dual Contract that will see the WRU pay 60% of his wage bill, with the Scarlets footing the remaining 40%. I am delighted to see a player of Halfpenny’s talent and stature return to Wales, and although he is a very different type of full-back to the departing Liam Williams, few would deny he will be a valuable addition to a lively and very exciting back division down at Llanelli.

 

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Key signings for the Welsh regions ahead of the new season

As excitement builds ahead of the new, expanded Pro14 competition, let’s take a glance at some of the big transfer news and key signings at the Welsh regions.

Ospreys

Continuing a strong tradition of shrewd recruitment, the Ospreys have opted for quality over quantity in the off-season. Corey Allen joins from Cardiff Blues, the Wales centre hoping to revive his international career after a long spell of injuries left him down the pecking order and struggling for game time at the Arms Park. A star turn during Wales’ summer tour to the Pacific Islands will have generated a lot of excitement about his arrival at the Liberty Stadium, and he will be a valuable addition to the Ospreys squad.

Perhaps the most exciting signing across all four Welsh regions, however, is the return of former Osprey James Hook.

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The immensely talented Hook has enjoyed a lively and diverse career, sampling France’s Top14 league with Perpignan, before becoming a fan favourite at Kingsholm with Gloucester. Hook is such an exciting rugby player, perhaps one of the most naturally talented players in my generation. It is widely believed that his versatility has actually counted against him on the international stage – he can play at fly-half, centre, full-back or even wing. Subtle yet exciting and, at his best, elusive and unpredictable, Ospreys fans will absolutely relish his long-awaited return. James Hook is box office, and his return is a massive boost to Welsh rugby.

Scarlets

The defending champions have been the quietest of the regions over the summer, with a few interesting signings seemingly overshadowed by the departure of the mercurial Liam Williams to English champions Saracens.

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Former Osprey and Dragon Tom Prydie, Scarlets’ key off-season acquisition, certainly has big boots to fill. Prydie was the youngest player ever to have represented the Wales senior team, having featured against Italy in the 2010 Six Nations, and is Wales’ youngest ever try scorer, surpassing a record that had been set in 1891 when he touched down against South Africa the same year.

Prydie is joining an extremely exciting, attacking Scarlets team that is absolutely brimming with confidence. Linking up with the likes of Jonathan Davies, Rhys Patchell, James Davies and Scott Williams will surely help Prydie re-establish a cutting edge.

Dragons

With the WRU having taken control of the Newport Gwent region over the summer, work has already started on installing a new, semi-synthetic pitch, and, coupled with the arrival of two big-name signings, things are certainly moving in the right direction at Rodney Parade.

Zane Kirchner, the 30-cap Springbok, joins the men of Gwent from Leinster in what is seen as a huge statement of intent. A dangerous counter-attacker, Kirchner was drawn to the region by its potential, and will add much needed experience, as well as a winners mentality, to a largely youthful squad.

Another to add his experience is the excellent Gavin Henson. After years in the international wilderness, Henson has underlined his credentials during several superb seasons with Bristol, and now makes the short hop back across the Severn Bridge to help play a leading role in a Dragons team looking to really re-invent itself this term. I can’t wait to see Henson plying his trade back in Wales. A hugely influential and creative player, I have every confidence that he will lead by example and have a big impact on the fortunes of the Dragons in the coming season.

Cardiff Blues

South African lock Franco van der Merwe joins from Ulster to replace the departing Kiwi powerhouse Jarrad Hoeata, while the signing of centre Jack Roberts is also creating much excitement. The Welsh youngster made a huge impression filling in for the injured Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers last season, and big things are expected of him on his return to Welsh rugby. The youngster will be bolstering an extremely strong midfield contingent of Steven Shingler, Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo, all of whom will look to continue their superb form from the tail end of last season’s campaign.

Sion Bennett also confirms his long term switch from Northampton Saints, the back-rower having put in a series of huge shifts for the Blues when he was brought in towards the end of last season. The Wales U20 international was a wrecking ball in attack and defence against the likes of Leinster in Dublin, and he can look forward to a bright future at the Blues alongside Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams.

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Two South African teams move closer to joining Pro12

Amidst the dizzy six weeks of a momentous Lions tour, I’ve been keeping a close eye on one story developing in South Africa that has really captured my imagination.

You may recall reports last year that Pro12 CEO Martin Anyai wishes to boost the league’s financial standing – and, simultaneously, its international reputation – by expanding into new and developing rugby markets. At the time, rumours were circulating that the league hoped to link up with one, or possibly two, North American franchise teams.

The USA experimented with its first ever professional rugby union competition in 2015, a five-team tournament which – on the face of things, at least –  got a lot of things right on the field, but a few things wrong behind the scenes. The tournament was sadly disbanded after just one season, and I feared this would be a huge setback to the development of professional rugby union in the States – a country which, let’s face it, has the athletes and financial clout to be a rugby superpower.

Simultaneously, a rumour was circulating that America could be ready to enter a team into the Pro12, taking the cross-border competition to uncharted, trans-Atlantic territory. To me, it seems like a match made in heaven: the USA would benefit from regular exposure to high quality professional rugby; meanwhile, the Pro12 could set up new lucrative broadcast rights and sponsorship deals in an upcoming rugby market. It would be even better if Canada could get in on the action, too, an idea I’m sure the Pro12 bosses wouldn’t object to.

Sadly, USA Rugby’s governing body quickly dismissed the notion, and although expansion into North America remains a possibility going forward, the Pro12 – for now – seems set to expand south, instead of west.

The southern hemisphere’s premier club rugby competition, Super Rugby, recently announced its intention to downsize from 18 to 15 teams from next season. Two teams from South Africa will be cut from the competition, along with one team from Australia. On Friday, it was announced that the Free-State Cheetahs, based in Bloemfontein, and Port Elizabeth’s Southern Kings will both lose their places in Super Rugby at the end of this season. As fate would have it, their final game in the competition will actually be against each other, on 14th July.

Both teams have released rather positive statements regarding the future of the clubs, outlining their intention to broaden their search for a quality, international club competition. And, although no official statements have yet been made by the Pro12 board, it is being widely reported across Europe that the league has approached both teams about joining as early as September, in time for the 2017/18 season.

This could be a huge moment for world rugby. The news has divided opinion among some fans, perhaps raising questions over geographical restrictions or the ability of these particular teams to compete (they are perennial strugglers in the Super Rugby competition). However, I believe their inclusion would be an excellent move.

This sort of expansion is ambitious and forward thinking. South Africa is a rugby heartland. Their fans are knowledgeable, passionate and territorial, and they take their rugby very seriously. They expect high standards from their teams, and will help drive standards forward in the Pro12. They could have a major impact on the brand of rugby played right across the league, encouraging faster, more open games. Furthermore, the time difference is never more than two hours between the British Isles and South Africa, meaning that, despite the lengthy flight times, it could be argued it actually makes more sense for these teams to compete in a European competition than against teams from Australia and New Zealand.

Finally, this move could form a long-awaited link between rugby in the northern and southern-hemispheres. I’ve long held a desire to see a world club competition, and this could very well be the first step towards making it a reality. The world rugby calendar is set to become more closely aligned in 2020, through a series of measures geared towards having one global season. I feel this could well be the beginning of something huge.

Lions and All Blacks draw nerve-shredding final test to level series

It’s difficult to know exactly how to begin this summary of Saturday’s final Lions fixture, mainly because I am still reeling from a quite extraordinary game that delivered excitement, drama and emotion in abundance – the sort of game that was befitting of the occasion.

The Lions and All Blacks threw the kitchen sink at each other in a brutal, uncompromising match which was possibly one of the most compelling test matches I’ve witnessed in many years. It wasn’t without a little controversy – most notably, the reversal of a penalty decision in the 78th minute which almost certainly would have gifted New Zealand victory. And, of course, with the final whistle blowing while the sides were drawing 15-15, there was a definite sense of frustration among the teams and the fans that the game should have continued until we had a winner!

As the dust settles, though, it seems to me a drawn series (both teams one a single test match each) is somehow quite befitting of what has been an epic test series, and a momentous tour. In some ways, this result has ensured the 2017 pride of British and Irish Lions a very special page rugby’s history books.

The All Blacks started the third test the brighter of the two sides, carrying with purpose and finding space out wide. Several uncharacteristic handling errors from the hosts, however, meant they led by only six points at half time.

It was a night when the pressure was apparent, and the big game players on both teams took centre stage. New Zealand fans may be outraged by referee Roman Poite’s decision to downgrade a late Lions sanction to “accidental offside”, denying the hosts a late opportunity to steal the win. However, there is no denying superb fly-half Beauden Barrett had a disappointing night with the boot, and the Kiwis could well have been out of sight at half time were it not for some explosive Lions defending.

Jonathan Davies produced a stunning, try saving tackle to cement his place as one of the tour’s top performers. The Scarlets centre has been in scintillating form, and has been hugely influencial in attack and defence across all three test matches. He went on to win the Player’s Player of the Tour award – deservedly so.

I was so impressed with the composure shown by Owen Farrell in slotting a 76th minute penalty from 50m, a kick which ultimately sealed the draw. He, too, has impressed on tour, and has shown a maturity in his game that complements well the more aggressive facets of his game. The combination of Farrell and Sexton in the 10/12 channel has grown game by game, and they fired on all cylinders in this game.

A special mention needs to go to Maro Itoje. I’ve admired him as a player for some time, but it’s nice to actually support a team in which he plays for a change! What a legend! The youngest member of the touring party is an absolute beast, and has shown a strength and athleticism which I think epitomises a modern rugby player. He is also a fierce competitor. Itoje is surely a Lions captain in waiting. His pairing in the second row with Alun Wyn Jones was simply a masterstroke from Warren Gatland: an explosive blend of youth and experience. Both played their hearts out on Saturday.

Here’s the post-match press conference for your viewing pleasure! SPOILER ALERT: Gatland shows up in a red clown nose in response to a cartoon in the New Zealand Herald last week, which aimed to lampoon and belittle the Lions head coach – can’t fault him!

So…that’s a wrap for another incredible Lions tour. Next up for the tourists: South Africa, 2021.

I’m Home From Travelling!…(and the Lions have a chance to make history!)

Hello everyone! It’s been a while since my last post… Emily and I are finally back in the UK after an incredible couple of months backpacking around South-East Asia! Fortunately we were able to keep ourselves up-to-date with what has been an absolutely enthralling Lions series! It’s certainly had it’s highs and lows over the last couple of weeks, but with the series tentatively poised at one apiece going into the final test game, and The British and Irish Lions are on the brink of making history, this Welsh Rugby Man could hardly be more excited!

Despite a real mixed bag of results against a handful of New Zealand’s provincial and representative sides, I was very optimistic gong into the first test match in Auckland. That game, I felt, suffered from a lack of impact by the Lions replacements, who seemed to slightly lack the same bite and purpose of the starters, and were also unable to exact the game plan efficiently. The All Blacks were typically able to capitalise on our disarray, ultimately easing to a comfortable 30-15 victory – a score-line made decidedly less ugly for the Lions thanks to a late Rhys Webb dart for the line.

On the plus side, the Lions did score undoubtedly one of the greatest team tries of the season, perhaps even one of the best the Lions have scored in the professional era.

The Lions needed a response.

Game two was played in horrendous conditions at the Cake Tin in Wellington, and after a tense opening twenty minutes, Sonny Bill Williams found himself at the centre of one of the games’ defining moments. A reckless tackle on Anthony Watson saw SBW plough his shoulder into Watson’s head, and with strict new protocol introduced to protect players against head injuries, the All Blacks centre was dismissed with a red card.

As happens so often, the host rallied, opening a 18-9 lead as the Lions seemingly struggled to make their one-man advantage count. This was turning into a game New Zealand looked likely to win, against the odds.

The tide turned in favour of the visitors, however, when the outstanding Taulupe Faletau showed his strength to cross the whitewash on the left wing while the visitors were also (temporarily) down to fourteen men. Faletau has had an incredible Lions tour. I remember him scoring a similar try against New Zealand for Wales last summer. He is a relentless carrier and defender – exactly the sort of number 8 you need against the All Blacks.

Connor Murray scored a second try for the Lions, the canny scrum-half showing his class with a delicious dart through a gap at a ruck – last seen in The Big Book of Rhys Webb Tries.

With the game tied at 21-21, New Zealand conceded a penalty for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air, and Owen Farrell calmly took the three points. With four minutes remaining, the Lions – for once – kept their cool, and ground out a famous victory on Kiwi soil. Needless to say, I went pretty crazy when the final whistle went!

I am immensely proud of this superb victory. I’ve always had the confidence that this excellent squad has enough talent grunt and determination to beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. Now, they have a chance to win the series, as both teams return to Auckland for the deciding match on Saturday. Warren Gatland has stuck to his guns and named the same 23-man squad for the final test, and who can blame him? The Lions coaches and players alike feel they still have an extra gear, and let’s be honest, they’re going to need it this week, against a wounded All Blacks team that, up until last week’s game, hadn’t lost a game since 2011, and hadn’t failed to score a try in a test match since 1993.

Let’s hope more records tumble on Saturday!

Come on Lions!!