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.