Lions Tour Begins with Narrow Victory

The waiting is finally over: Saturday saw the opening game of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.

The game against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians – which had been billed as being, on paper at least, the least challenging fixture of the tour – proved a testing 80 minutes for the tourists, whop eventually scraped through 13-7, Anthony Watson’s second-half try proving decisive.

The visitors struggled to contain the Baa-Baas in a first half played at ferocious pace. A team largely built of Provincial stars and Super Rugby fringe players caused havoc, running the ball from deep, kicking out of hand, off-loading with style, and asking serious questions of the Lions defence.

It took a quite remarkable last-gasp tackle from Taulupe Faletau to deny the hosts their first try after 20 minutes. The Wales back-rower caught Inga Finau around the ankles a mere five metres from the whitewash, and showed his strength to hold the ball-up to prevent a score that had seemed inevitable.

The Baa-Baas soon took the lead, however when the excellent Bryn Gatland – son of Wales and Lions Herad Coach Warren – sent an inspired up and under into a pile of bodies on the Lions ten metre line. Barbarians Captain Sam Anderson-Heather took advantage of the resulting chaos to crash over with the ball, Gatland Jr. duly adding the extras.

The lions simply could not get a foot-hold in the game, and were held up over the line on four occasions. Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty before half-time compounded the tourists’ frustrations.

The Lions finally turned pressure into points on the 60 minute mark with Watson completing a slick move down the right wing, ensuring a nervy final quarter, but the visitors held on to claim a highly unconvincing, but very important, victory.

It was a disappointing opening game from the Lions. This great touring team has only once lost their opening tour fixture, but this game truly hanged in the balance until the final whistle. I realize the team arrived in New Zealand just three days beforehand, and there is no denying the brutality of the schedule, but ultimately this is the cream of the crop in the UK and Ireland. While there were a few noteworthy contributions, from the likes of Faletau and Ross Moriarty, I felt others, like Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones, failed to make an impact on the game. It’s early days, but this will need to be ironed out, and fast.

I must commend the Baa-Baas in this match. From 1 to 23, they were brilliant, they took their chances, and really gave it everything. They looked hungry, and it made for a great fixture. Bryn Gatland certainly made a huge impression internationally, with great kicking and slick handling. He may well be an All Black waiting in the wings.

The Lions face The Blues in Auckland tomorrow. Arguably the weakest of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, The Blues still boast the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and ex-Scarlet Michael Collins among their ranks. This will be a huge step up for the Lions. Gatland has named an entirely new starting XV for this match, key inclusions being Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes at second row; a formidable back-row of Haskell, Tipuric and Stander; plus Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb feature at half-back. The excellent Ken Owens captains the side.

This will be a tough one, but we have some serious fire-power on the bench too, including Liam Williams, arguably in the form of his career to date. Best of luck, lads!

 

 

Ospreys and Scarlets reach Pro12 Semi-Finals

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.

Screen showing who is playing who

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!

Scarlets book their place in Pro12 semi-finals

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!

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/wales-international-manages-play-rugby-10326359

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.

 

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!

 

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.