Derby Wins for Blues and Scarlets ahead of European Competitions

The Welsh regions played out two superb derby matches in round six of the Pro14, Cardiff Blues defeating Dragons in an Arms Park thriller last Friday, before The Ospreys fell to a fifth defeat of the season against The Scarlets in an unpredictable, nail-biting encounter at The Liberty Stadium.

Blues v Dragons was just an awesome game of rugby. The Dragons were excellent in the first half, scoring three tries to deservedly lead 21-10 at the interval. The Blues, however, were not to be denied, and replied with some sensational rugby, scoring five scintillating tries to see off their East Wales rivals. The Dragons did manage to add a fourth, bonus-point try to their tally, and it was no more than they deserved for their contribution to a pulsating match – probably one of the best Welsh derbies I’ve seen in a while.

Matthew Morgan deserves a mention here: the Blues replacement full-back was at his counter-attacking best on Friday, slicing through the Dragons defence for two tries in the second period, and made the game safe for the Arms Park outfit. Tomos Williams also helped increase the tempo of the game from scrum-half, and looked to link up brilliant with fly-half Jarrod Evans. They read the game well, and their opportunism makes them dangerous attackers. All three have earned a starting spot for tonight’s European Challenge Cup opener against French pace-setters Lyon in Cardiff.

The Dragons simply ran out of steam in last week’s game, but they are making discernible progress under new Coach Bernard Jackman. He is starting to get the best from Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos, both of whom have struggled to assert themselves in the past seasons while the team has been going backwards. Their performance on Friday typifies the feel-good factor at the club following the WRU takeover, and it’s only a matter of time until they string some results together. Perhaps the European Challenge Cup is just the right environment to get some momentum: they begin their campaign at Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.

Unlike Blues and Dragons, The Ospreys and Scarlets have both qualified for the European Champions Cup, and it’s the former that have undoubtedly been drawn in the tougher pool, alongside Northampton Saints, as well as Champions Saracens, and last season’s losing finalists, Clermont. What a group!

The Ospreys put in a reasonable performance against the Scarlets on Saturday, although they once again failed to score a try and they seemed to be a lack of a game plan. With Cory Allen and Jeff Hassler on the wings, the hosts were clearly hoping to out-muscle the Pro12 Champions. However, despite some brutal defensive sets, Steff Evans and Johnny McNiccol showed too much pace, power and footwork. All-action scrum-half Gareth Davies scored two crucial tries just after the break, and if Rhys Patchell wasn’t having an off day with his kicking, the scoreboard would have looked a lot more convincing at the final whistle.

The Ospreys were, at least, looking a lot more competitive in this match. It was great to see Dan Biggar pass the 1500 point milestone for the club, too. He has been such a talisman at the Ospreys, and in my view, has re-established himself as the region’s key playmaker following the emergence of the excellent Sam Davies last season.

I’m sure the Ospreys will welcome the start of the Champions Cup this week as a distraction from a pretty dire start to their Pro14 campaign. They take on Clermont in Swansea on Sunday.

The Scarlets, meanwhile, hit the road this weekend, to face three-time European Champons Toulon. The return of Leigh Halfpenny will be a welcome boost for the West Walians, and Halfpenny himself will surely relish an outing against his former employers. If I’m honest, it’s been quite a while since any of the Welsh regions have began a European campaign with any confidence, but the Scarlets are playing some incredible rugby at the moment, and the optimism surrounding the club is tangible. They will not fear the task facing them in the South of France, and have the tools and the attitude to take the Stade Felix Mayol by storm.



Wins for Scarlets and Dragons, but further dismay for Blues and Ospreys

Breaking news this evening, with Wales Online reporting that Rhys Webb is set to leave The Ospreys for Toulon ahead of the 2018/19 season. The future of the 30-cap Wales star has been under scrutiny since the start of the season, with rumours heightening when it was announced Dan Biggar would be departing for Northampton Saints next term.

Let’s make no mistake, this is a massive blow, not just for The Ospreys, but for regional rugby, and for Welsh rugby in general. Webb has become a household name thanks to his trademark, sniping attack skills and try-scoring abilities from scrum-half. He is Wales’ first choice number 9, and for me, he has succeeded in winning over waves of supporters for whom Mike Phillips had seemed irreplaceable.

This news caps a pretty awful week for the Liberty Stadium outfit, who went down 44-25 against The Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday night.

There’s no denying The Cheetahs have been the surprise package of the opening rounds in this year’s Pro14 tournament. They look tough to beat at home, playing an expansive and opportunist brand of rugby that I feel many European sides will struggle to handle. If they can take their recent home form on the road with them, they could well snatch a play-off spot in the Pro14 finals.

The Ospreys, meanwhile, have no equalled their worst losing streak in the league – four games – and, with the impending visit of the imperious Scarlets on Saturday, many believe their poor run looks set to continue.

The Scarlets, indeed, dispatched of a stubborn Connacht side at the weekend, bagging themselves yet another try-bonus point to boot. A special mention must go to wing Steff Evans here, who had an absolutely sensational game, scoring one try and setting up two others. This manĀ must be included in Wales’ squad for the November series. I believe he is the exact sort of creative attacking player we have needed out wide for some time.

Tadhg Beirne’s great form for the Scarlets has earned him not only plaudits, but also a contract with Munster, where he will play next season in order to pursue international honours with Ireland. Already a Championship winner with the Scarlets, he is being tipped for great success on the international stage.

It was great to see The Dragons return to winning ways this week, too, with a morale-boosting victory over struggling league new-comers Southern Kings.

The Dragons were utterly dominant in the Rodney Parade contest, having re-shuffled their line-up following a crushing away defeat to Ulster in round 4. Elliot Dee’s wonderful league form continued in try-scoring fashion, and a hat-tip also to Gavin Henson, who, at 35, is quietly showing that class is permanent. His sharp distribution and superb tactical kicking is helping this Dragons team tick, and they are finding a new identity under the guidance of Bernard Jackman.

The Dragons’ canny Head Coach has revealed something of an injury crisis ahead of their derby clash with Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park on Friday, with no fewer than 29 players believed to be unavailable for selection.

The Blues themselves have more than enough to worry about, however. As Danny Wilson confirmed this would be his final season guiding the Capital region, pundits and fans alike have attempted to diagnose the deep rooted problems that exist at the Blues, which by all accounts, stretch back over five years.

Reporter Peter Jackson gives a fascinating insight into the issues in this BBC report for Scrum V:

Meanwhile, Danny Wilson had his say on the reasons he turned down a contract extension at the region:

The Blues suffered a disappointing 39-16 defeat at the hands of a wounded Munster team at the weekend, the Welshmen having taken the lead at the interval before the hosts rallied.

Friday’s derby clash will be a tasty clash, and like all derbies is a tough one to call. The Blues desperately need a second win of the season, and if they can put aside the unwanted distractions of the last fortnight, I feel they should just about have enough power and experience to scrape a home win against their biggest Welsh rivals.

Coach of the Week

…actually, this video was taken after Connacht’s home defeat to Cardiff Blues last week. Kieran Keane, Connacht’s new Head Coach, proves a rather difficult interviewee.

Tour Story of the Week

Hands down, this goes to Scott Baldwin. The Ospreys hooker was forced to miss their mauling by The Cheetahs after he got bitten by a lion on a team day out earlier in the week. Some pretty disturbing footage emerged of the lion sinking its teeth into Baldwin’s hand when the Bridgend born front-rower reached through a fence to pat the big cat on the head. Ospreys Head Coach takes up the story:

Baldwin needed his hand stitched, and now faces several weeks out of action, meaning he will miss the Scarlets clash on Saturday as well as the opening rounds of the European Champions Cup.

I had my own brush with wildlife in Africa earlier in the year, when I got smooched by a giraffe at The Giraffe Centre in Nairobi.

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