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.