Wales Show Promise in All Blacks Defeat

Wales fell to a 30th consecutive defeat to World Champions New Zealand in an entertaining encounter in Cardiff on Saturday night.

The hosts failed to convert pressure into points, and were made to pay dearly as, true to form, the All Blacks made the most of every half-break, and pulled well clear in the final quarter.

Wales delivered a bright start, but had only three points to show for their efforts when, somewhat against the rung of play, gargantuan winger Waisake Naholo received a looping pass from Aaron Smith and squeezed just inside the corner flag to touch down. It was an opportunist score that demonstrated just how devastating the All Blacks can be on turnover ball.

Naholo added a second on 38 minutes, before Wales finally breached the whitewash as half-time beckoned. Hallam Amos bamboozled the New Zealand defence with a rapier angle, and quick hands saw Scott Williams dive for the line to register a much-needed seven-pointer to keep Wales in touch. This is probably the best try I’ve seen Wales score in 2017.

The game’s decisive moment came on 61 minutes when Kiwi superstar Reiko Ioane intercepted a loose pass from Dan Biggar and scorched under the posts, unopposed. Wales had butchered several try-scoring opportunities by this point, and Ioane’s score signalled the game was probably safe for the visitors. Indeed, Gareth Davies’ late reply was soon cancelled out by Ioane’s second, handing New Zealand a 33-18 victory.

The World Champions showed their superiority on Saturday, but overall I am very pleased with Wales’ contribution to this game. Few would argue there are real signs that Wales are trying to reinvent their attacking game, and if they can improve on accuracy and cut out the handling errors, they have the right players to deliver a feast of exciting, attacking rugby. With England, Ireland and Scotland all having enjoyed very successful autumn campaigns, Wales are likely to go into the Six Nations as underdogs come February. However, with one game remaining for Wales – against South Africa, this Saturday – there is still time to experiment with some new player combinations and further develop their new style. A victory would certainly be a big statement from Wales following a gruelling November series.

Player of the Week

Hands down, Josh Navidi. The lynchpin of the Cardiff Blues back-row is finally enjoying his first real breakthrough into the Wales squad after making his first appearance in 2013, and waiting four years to win his second cap, against Tonga earlier in the year. With Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and Ellis Jenkins all out injured at the beginning of the autumn, Navidi has grabbed his chance with both hands and has created a real headache for the selectors with a series of barnstorming, abrasive performances. Of course, he’s being doing this for the Blues for years. Long may he continue.

Team of the Week

Scotland put 53 points on Australia on the weekend, Gregor Townsend’s men running riot after the Wallabies had prop Sekope Kepu red-carded for a shoulder barge on Hamish Watson. The Scots take my team of the week award – expect them to take their rich form into next year’s Six Nations campaign.

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Wales Ready For Huge All Blacks Test

Game three of an especially bruising Autumn Campaign sees Wales face the mighty New Zealand on home soil, continuing their search for a first victory against the All Blacks since 1953.

An unconvincing victory over Georgia last Saturday is perhaps not the ideal platform from which to launch an assault on the back-to-back World Champions. That said, a somewhat experimental side did well to hold out against the Eastern Europeans, and – having been fortunate enough to have been at the game – it was pleasing to see Wales showing a desire to be creative and really make the most of talents like Hallam Amos. It was a bonus to witness the Dragons winger cross the whitewash for the second time in as many games, and there’s no doubting his ability to spot and exploit a gap. He cut a devastating angle to score the game’s only try, and (in my opinion) ought to have been awarded a second shortly afterwards when the excellent Leon Brown made a charge down midfield.

I can also confirm it was a bit of a nerve-jangling finale from where I was sitting.  Georgia gave a superb account of themselves, and came agonisingly close to snatching a dramatic draw right at the death, Wales clinging on by virtue of uncontested scrums being called following injuries to the front row contingent. Still, the Georgians earned a great deal of respect on their first ever meeting with Wales, and calls to include them in The Six Nations will grow louder in the coming months, I’m sure.

The All Blacks had a narrow escape themselves last week, a last-ditch tackle from Damien McKenzie denying the regal Stuart Hogg a potential match-winner as the clock turned red on Scotland v New Zealand.

Some critics have accused the All Blacks of mediocrity this term and, by their own lofty standards, defeats to Australia and The British and Irish Lions perhaps add weight to this argument. Don’t be fooled: they remain the most clinical and streetwise team in rugby union – perhaps even in any sport. Their showdown with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is their last opportunity to underline their authority in 2017.

Wales will be up for the challenge, and could have the tools to push them all the way. They will need to be creative and physical, and will miss full back Liam Williams in these departments. However, with a back three of Amos, Leigh Halfpenny and the outstanding Steff Evans, I am expecting a gutsy performance that will see Wales really throw the ball about. If we can show some of the cutting edge that was lacking in the defeat to Australia earlier in the month, who knows what could happen?

WALES TEAM TO PLAY NEW ZEALAND (Saturday 25 November KO 17.15)
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (72 Caps)
14. Hallam Amos (Dragons) (13 Caps)
13. Scott Williams (Scarlets) (49 Caps)
12. Owen Williams (Gloucester) (2 Caps)
11. Steff Evans (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
10. Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (58 Caps)
9. Rhys Webb (Ospreys) (29 Caps);
1. Rob Evans (Scarlets) (18 Caps)
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets) (51 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (25 Caps)
4. Jake Ball (Scarlets) (27 Caps)
5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (Ospreys) (111 Caps)
6. Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) (11 Caps)
7. Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues) (5 Caps)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath) (68 Caps)

REPLACEMENTS:
16. Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues) (6 Caps)
17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets) (3 Caps)
18. Leon Brown (Dragons) (2 Caps)
19. Cory Hill (Dragons) (8 Caps)
20. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (51 Caps)
21. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (26 Caps)
22. Rhys Priestland (Bath) (49 Caps)
23. Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) (93 Caps)

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 man 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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/41464044

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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A Tough Week for the Welsh Regions

Scathing criticism, controversy and a resignation…it’s all in a week in Welsh rugby.

The Ospreys went into their match against a much-improved Benetton Treviso team last Friday on the back of two defeats and a string of disappointing performances, knowing that only a win could restore a little pride and stem the mounting pressure and criticism on Coach Steve Tandy. If that feels like a recipe for disaster, a Francesco Minto try in the second minute left the Welshmen a mountain to climb, and indeed the shell-shocked Ospreys found no way into the game – or through a ferocious and determined defensive line – losing the match 16-6.

Treviso went into the game following a win in Edinburgh, and a narrow home defeat to high-flying Ulster, and are showing signs of being a more competitive force this term. They also beat the Ospreys at home in last season’s run-in. Huge credit must go to the Italians, who maintained their physicality and stayed composed in the closing stages to seal the win. As I’ve said before, an improvement in the performances (and results) of the Italian sides in the Pro14 will make for a much better competition, and on this evidence, Treviso will have some impact on the final league standings this season.

The Ospreys were poor in this match, crucially at a time when they really needed a response. Treviso seemed fitter, their skill-set sharper, and although sometimes scrappy, they played with ambition and creativity. There are growing calls among supporters that a change is needed at the top. Meanwhile, fly-half Sam Davies, who was called upon early in the game to replace the injured Dan Biggar, has seemed relatively anonymous in the first few games of the season. So too has all-action full-back Dan Evans. These are players who usually pull the strings and boss the game, and along with the returning Alun Wyn Jones, need to step up and stamp their authority over the next few game to help the Ospreys back to winning ways.

The Cheetahs host the Ospreys today in Bloemfontein. The South African outfit have impressively beaten both Zebre and Leinster at home already this season, and will feel confident of a third win this afternoon after the Ospreys’ dour performance in Italy. Funnily enough, I feel the Cheetahs will want to play the sort of expansive, fast-paced game the Ospreys are typically known for. If the likes of Rhys Webb and Keelan Giles can get on the front foot, this should be a cracking game, and I’m going to back the Welsh side to tear up the form book and emerge with a slender victory.

Dragons Head Coach Bernard Jackman ruffled a few feathers and received some stinging criticism for his decision to rest a host of players for their trip to face Ulster in Belfast. A total of thirteen changes from the previous week’s victory over Connacht saw a young team absolutely thumped 52-25.

With the financial constraints at the Welsh regions all too apparent this term, teams have no option at times to blood young talent. One online poll asked whether supporters believed the Dragons’ baptism of fire at the Kingspan Stadium will do more harm than good to the fresher-faced wider squad. I even read one report suggesting the team should be fined for fielding such a weak team (apparently this happens in football). Personally, I am on the side of Jackman on this occasion: the whole squad needs an outing, the wider team needs experience of playing bigger, richer teams in front of loud, hostile crowds. I believe they will have learned a lot from this. It could be the case that the Dragons will target certain teams at certain stages of the tournament, but in my view, if this leads to an improvement – they won only four Pro12 games last season – then who cares? Certainly not the Rodney Parade faithful. The Dragons will next face the Southern Kings in Newport, a game I would expect them to comfortably win.

The Scarlets returned to winning ways against Edinburgh in Llanelli on Saturday, a bonus point victory that was not without controversy.

Outspoken Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill was quick to blast referee John Lacey for a number of decisions that went in favour of the Scarlets, and has supposedly lodged an official complaint to the league. The hard-nosed former Leicester boss was already seething after the Scottish Capital team lost at home against Treviso. Meanwhile, the Scarlets look a clinical and gutsy unit, and went hunting for the bonus-point victory to get their season back on track. I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen from them so far. They look every bit the Champions from last season.

There have been mixed emotions at Cardiff Arms Park this week, as the Blues beat Connacht in Galway, but were then dealt a blow as Coach Danny Wilson has decided not to renew his contract with the region. Linked with a move to Northampton, Wilson will leave ahead of the 2018/19 season.

A dazzling match-day display from centre Willis Halaholo looked to give the Blues a spring in their step at the weekend, but Wilson’s impending departure will be a bitter pill to swallow, and I fear it will threaten to completely derail any hopes of consistency for the season ahead. Wilson arrived at the Arms Park in 2015 following an embarrassing string of unsuccessful coaching appointments and caretaker coaches picking up the pieces during the months in-between. His arrival signalled some consistency, and few would argue he has helped the Blues turn a corner, become more competitive and – perhaps most importantly – restored some pride in the jersey. Rumours are circulating about the reason for his departure, with financial issues at the region believed to be a key factor. Whatever happens next, I truly hope a new Head Coach is found that is willing to see through a long-term plan to get the Blues firing again, and back to the top table of European rugby. With more time and careful investment, I really think Wilson could have been the man, so it’s a real shame he has decided to move on.

Pro14: Thrilling Third Round Action

A fervent Rodney Parade crowd saw The Dragons comfortably see off Connacht 21-8 in a high-octane clash on Friday night, The Men of Gwent producing some scintillating attacking rugby to get their league campaign up and running following defeats to Leinster and Edinburgh.

Wales wing Hallam Amos scored his first try of the season, and hooker Elliot Dee added a second for the Welsh region in a man-of-the-match performance. Amos’ try was an absolute peach, centre Jack Dixon and South African full-back Zane Kirchner also catching the eye with some slick handling in the build-up. Sadly, Kirchner is now set for a lengthy spell on the side-lines after dislocating his shoulder during the Connacht game. That’s a real shame, because the Dragons are starting to play with the sort of swagger the likes of Kirchner and Gavin Henson can bring to the mix. Nevertheless, it’s great to see Rodney Parade absolutely rocking, and in Amos, Dixon, Dee and the injured Tyler Morgan, there is a core of young talent that can pose a real threat to other teams this season, and I’m tipping the Dragons to surprise quite a few people along the way.

It was a disappointing week for the other Welsh regions, with Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets all having to settle for losing bonus points.

The Scarlets faced Ulster in Belfast, and went into that game as favourites. Johnny McNiccol touched down for the visitors on 60 minutes to ignite a thrilling final quarter that saw the lead change hands three times. A Christian Lealiifano penalty levelled the scores for Ulster on 72 minutes, before a late John Andrew try secured victory for the hosts.

I was very impressed with the attacking play from both teams in this match, especially when the game was locked at 20 points apiece with just eight minutes remaining. Both teams threw the kitchen sink at each other, desperate for the win. It was brilliant to see.

From a Scarlets perspective, huge credit must go to Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones. The West Walians are absolutely purring in attack, they have dangerous runners right across the park, and show patience, intelligence and great variety in their play. It’s made them a very tough team to beat. At the centre of this is Rhys Patchell. I’ve always been a huge fan of Patchell, and in his second season as Scarlets fly-half he is really pulling the strings with deft kicking, precision passing and superb defence. I’m still mourning his departure from Cardiff Blues! After having been omitted for Wales’ summer tour, I certainly hope he will be on Warren Gatland’s radar come the autumn.

Scarlets next face Edinburgh in Llanelli as they hope to get back to winning ways.

Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues’ woeful start to the season continued, albeit in more stubborn fashion, as they were narrowly beaten at home by Glasgow on Saturday night.

A bright start saw the Welsh region’s record try scorer, Tom James, barge his way over through mid-field, Steve Shingler adding the conversion – and a later penalty – to open a commanding 10-3 lead. The Glasgow team sheet looked classy, but on the field the Warriors were unusually sluggish and scrappy in the first half, and were forced into errors by a resurgent Blues.

Scotland internationals Finn Russell and Henry Pyrgoes led the charge after the interval, Russell edging Glasgow into a 20-19 lead with a 75th minute penalty. A late, late Steve Shingler penalty drifted agonisingly wide to deny the hosts their first Pro14 win of the season.

Danny Wilson indicated an improvement in performance by the Blues after their defeat to Edinburgh in round one, and I will say they seem to be heading in the right direction. The mid-field combination of Rey Lee-Lo and Willis Halaholo continues to look dangerous when they get into space, and Alex Cuthbert continues to look for more and more work across the park. It’s great to see his form continue to improve after his Wales omission. Young second-row Seb Davies looks a great prospect, he was a right nuisance for Glasgow all night.

The Blues travel to Connacht in round four. An improved performance is one thing, but the Blues need a victory in Galway on Saturday afternoon as the likes of Glasgow and Munster are already starting to pull ahead at the top of Conference A. I just feel that a much-needed win has the potential to spark a successful campaign for Wales’ Capital Region, providing it comes sooner rather than later.

Another somewhat lacklustre performance from The Ospreys saw them lose at home to Munster, much to Coach Steve Tandy’s fury.

A flat second-half saw Munster dominate in horrendous weather conditions, which saw Tandy publicly criticize his team’s application and attitude.

The Ospreys have looked unusually shaky in the opening rounds of this year’s tournament. The Liberty Stadium is usually quite a stronghold, but it seems to me the Ospreys failed to execute their game plan, and would especially have hoped to get more out of the Sam Davies and James Hook combination at 10 and 12. Hook, indeed, went over for an early try, but the Ospreys generally lacked enough cutting edge and creativity to put Munster to the sword.

A touring squad of 30 players is now being assembled for away games against Benetton Treviso and The Cheetahs, with Tandy confirming Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Alun Wyn Jones will all be involved. This will be a very interesting period in the Ospreys fixture list, and could yet define their season. Treviso are certainly showing signs of improvement, having beaten Edinburgh away from home at the weekend, while The Cheetahs will try to dictate the pace of their match in Bloemfontein. These will be two difficult matches, and I really hope the returning British and Irish Lions will help crank up performance levels another few notches.

Game of the Week

An eye-popping score-line from the encounter between The Cheetahs and Zebre makes my game of the week. The Cheetahs ran in eight tries, while the Italians left Bloemfontein with a much deserved try-bonus point courtesy of five touchdowns of their own. What a way to celebrate the first ever weekend of Pro14 action on South African soil! If you haven’t seen this yet, I certainly hope you enjoy possibly the longest highlights reel in tournament history.

Team of the Week

It has to be the All Blacks for me, courtesy of an astonishing 57-0 victory over South Africa in Auckland. When New Zealand get enough momentum, and their tails are up, there isn’t a team on the planet that can stop them from absolutely running riot. The return fixture, in Cape Town on 7th October, will undoubtedly be a fiery one.

 

 

Pro14 Catch-up: Rounds 1& 2

The new-look Pro14 tournament is now two weeks old. Here’s my verdict on all the action so far, and how the Welsh regions are shaping up ahead of round three.

Cardiff Blues

The Blues put their off the field problems to one side during pre-season, with two fine victories, one away from home against London Scottish, the other against English Champions Exeter Chiefs at Cardiff Arms Park. That second win was particularly impressive, with the Blues showing some real grit up-front and in the contact area. Wales defence guru Shaun Edwards seemed to have had an early impact on the intensity of the Blues defence, and there were also glimpses of a cutting edge and improved accuracy in attack.

Sadly, it’s been downhill from there so far for the Blues. The opening two Pro14 games have ended in defeat. A 37-9 loss against Leinster in Dublin last Friday was, in honesty, probably less galling than the home defeat to perennial strugglers Edinburgh a week earlier, especially as that game immediately followed the Exeter win.

The Blues are in desperate need of consistency, the lack of which, in my opinion, thwarted their own attempts to reach a Champions Cup qualification spot last season. They have lots of big-game players, individuals who can make a massive impact on a match. Their injury list is currently longer than my arm, with ten first-choice players side-lined through injury, including Gareth Anscombe, Sam Warburton and Club Captain Gethin Jenkins.

First things first, they need a win. This week they face a buoyant Glasgow team at the Arms Park in search of their first points of the season. Come on Blues!

Dragons

The Dragons re-building and re-branding continues both on and off the field, and while the Men of Gwent have, like the Blues, suffered two championship defeats to date, there remains an optimism and exuberance about the Dragons so far this term.

Gavin Henson remains a class act, and I believe he is an excellent signing for the Dragons. He is exactly the right kind of playmaker to get the Dragons exciting back-division firing and hopefully scoring a lot more tries. The Rodney Parade faithful can also expect to get a lot of value from new team Captain Cory Hill, who is a real workhorse in the second row.

Having lost to Leinster and Edinburgh so far, I dare say the Dragons will fancy their chances at home against Connacht on Friday. They have the back-room team and enough firepower to cause some teams problems this season, and will be looking to turn Rodney Parade into a fortress.

Ospreys

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for the Ospreys. The Liberty Stadium outfit lost their three warm-up matches, then laboured to an unconvincing home victory over Italian strugglers Zebre – a team they put over 60 points on last season.

This was followed by a hammering from Glasgow at Scotstoun, which did at least see an all-round better team performance.

There’s no doubting the Ospreys are missing the likes of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones in these early season exchanges. However, this is a team that hopes to – indeed, should – be challenging for domestic honours this season, as well as reaching the European Challenge Cup knock-out stages. I also have high hopes for James Hook and Corey Allen, both of whom have the vision and class to make a big impact.

Next up, the mighty Munster make the trip to Swansea, looking to extend their winning start to the season. Let’s hope the Ospreys turn on the style, they’ll certainly need it.

Scarlets

Living proof that it’s not all doom and gloom at the Welsh regions, reigning Champions The Scarlets have dutifully continued where they left off last season, playing an energetic, stylish and confident brand of rugby in their opening victories – albeit against two of the league’s weakest teams, Zebre and newcomers Southern Kings.

The Scarlets have been playing with explosive pace and great vision, doing the basics well, and we’re seeing the best from some of their most promising talents. Rhys Patchell is looking absolutely superb at fly-half, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing him get a Wales call-up in November. Johnny McNicholl has a quick step and is a deadly finisher, and Leigh Halfpenny looks to have settled in to his new club following his summer move from French high-rollers Toulon. Under the guidance of coaches Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones, I hope to see Halfpenny re-establish himself as one of Wales’ most potent attacking threats.

The Scarlets’ first real test of the season will come in Round 3, when they travel to Belfast to take on Ulster on Friday night. The atmosphere always looks amazing at the Kingspan Stadium, and I’d love to make the trip over some time! I believe Scarlets are serious contenders to defend their Championship crown this year, and a win this week would be a good measure of where they are as a team.