Excitement Builds ahead of WRWC2017

The Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 kicks off in Ireland tomorrow, and with twelve nations battling it out for the title, sell-out crowds and more TV and media coverage than ever before, the eighth edition of the tournament has all the ingredients to be the biggest and best yet.

Three groups of four teams will first contest the pool stages, and here’s how the draw is looking:

Pool A

Canada, Hong Kong, Wales, New Zealand

Pool B

England, Italy, Spain, USA

Pool C

Australia, Ireland, France, Japan

World Rugby advances leadership at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017

England begin their title defence as tournament favourites, having beaten the mighty New Zealand away from home in June, although the Black Ferns will, as always, be a formidable force, and will be looking to climb back to the summit of the world rankings in the next three weeks. Expect a strong-looking Canada to be right in the mix come the business end of the tournament, too.

Wales find themselves in arguably the toughest and most physical pool, facing New Zealand in their opening round tomorrow afternoon, as well as Canada and Hong Kong. Wales Coach Roland Phillips, and daughter and Wales Captain Carys Phillips, are excited and upbeat about the coming three weeks, describing their pool draw as a “pool of opportunity”, and will be aiming to approach the group stages with “control and chaos”.

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The tournament is a huge milestone for Hong Kong, the first time the region has qualified for a major 15s tournament, and they will undoubtedly relish the challenge ahead in a very tough group.

Ireland will also fancy themselves to go the distance this year in front of their home crowd, in what will be a real festival of attacking rugby.

Here’s wishing Wales all the best in their opening game against New Zealand tomorrow.

 

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The New-Look Pro14: Reaction from the Welsh Regions and beyond

Tuesday’s announcement about the expansion of the old Guinness Pro 12 has been largely met with approval from fans, coaches and players alike. For many, the prospect of facing The Cheetahs and Southern Kings from South Africa represents a much-needed shot in the arm for the league, as well as increasing the profile of the tournament, and generating much needed financial investment in the competition.

The ambitious move to include two southern-hemisphere teams for the European season represents brand new territory for the sport. Early reports suggest expansion won’t stop here; teams in Canada and USA are being tipped to join as early as the 2018/19 season, with other rumours pointing to the likes of Georgia, Romania and Germany as growing rugby markets with huge future potential.

I’m pleased to say I believe The Kings and the Cheetahs also stand to benefit. The Pro14 has handed them a lifeline at a time when these teams were cut from the Super Rugby tournament, and I feel they will enter this new chapter with gusto. They are certain to add a fast and entertaining brand of rugby to the competition, and will not be merely making up the numbers. I, for one, cannot wait to see Cardiff Blues take on The Cheetahs at the Arms Park this season!

For a taster of what’s to come, here are the highlights from when Southern Kings hosted The Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth in the Super Rugby competition just last month.

Cardiff Blues fans may recall that Wales’ Capital Region faced the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in 2012 – an invitational game which formed part of their pre-season programme. The Blues emerged victorious that day, edging the hosts 32-31 courtesy of a late Ceri Sweeney penalty.

The Blues and The Cheetahs will re-ignite their rivalry this season, with both teams drawn in Conference A. Blues Head Coach Danny Wilson is relishing the challenge ahead:

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Versatile Blues back-rower Macauley Cook recalls their last encounter with the Cheetahs:

Cardiff Blues second-row powerhouse George Earle, formerly of The Cheetahs, outlines what the Arms Park outfit can expect from the South African teams:

Scarlets Head Coach Wayne Pivac is excited for the challenges the new Pro14 will bring, as the West-Walians begin defence of their championship crown in September:

Elsewhere in the league, new Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill describes the Pro14 expansion as “ground-breaking”, as he prepares for his first season in the championship:

Glasgow Warriors scrum-half Henry Pyrgos is a big fan of Super Rugby, and believes the Cheetahs and Kings will add an exciting new dimension to the league:

And finally, Cheetahs Head Coach Franco Smith – a former coach at Treviso – describes his determination to hit the ground running when the Bloemfontein outfit make their Pro14 debut in September:

The fixture list for the Pro14 is due to be confirmed on 7th August.

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Pro14 Tournament Officially Announced

The landmark expansion of the Pro12 was finally confirmed today, together with an official explanation on the format of the tournament, as well as details of European qualification.

The announcement ends weeks of speculation as to whether a conference system would be adopted, and whether the South African teams will be involved in the European Champions and Challenge Cup tournaments.

As had been rumoured, the tournament will now be split into two conferences of seven teams. Each conference is made up of two Welsh teams, two Irish teams, and one team each from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Teams will play a round robin of fixtures against the other six teams in their own conference, plus one game (either home or away) against all seven teams in the other conference. There had been concerns that the format would sacrifice certain high profile derby matches in Wales and Ireland, but an additional two rounds of matches have been added to ensure those games remain. To account for those extra rounds, The Scots, Italians and South Africans will face each other a total of three times during the season – bragging rights at stake, or what?

As for European qualification, it has been confirmed the South African sides will not be involved at this initial stage. Therefore, the top three sides in each conference at the end of the season will qualify for the Champions Cup, along with whichever fourth-placed team has the highest points tally (all discounting the SA sides).

I absolutely love this new format, and I absolutely love the expansion to include the Cheetahs and the Kings from South Africa. This cross-border competition has just got even more vibrant and exciting, and with the vision to expand into the southern hemisphere, this is a massive statement of the ambition of the Pro14.

Chief Executive of the tournament, Martin Anayi: “The arrival of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings marks a bold and exciting new chapter for the Guinness PRO14 as a global rugby Championship.
“South Africa is a rugby powerhouse of over 55 million people. These teams already operate to the high standards demanded by Super Rugby and they will add to the quality of our tournament.
“This is a natural evolution for the Championship… and we aim to be at the forefront of the game’s growth around the world.”

My dream is to see a world club competition launched at some point in the future, and with this announcement, it feels a little bit closer today. I truly believe this new chapter in the competition will be a resounding success, and I am so excited for the new season to start!

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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.

 

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.