Will the European rugby “peace” deal make or break the Welsh regions?

With the news announced today that there is a possible outcome of peace for the game of rugby union in Europe, it’s worth taking a closer look at just how this affects the four Welsh regions that compete in the top competitions.

As the outbreak of fighting started amongst differing clubs and Unions months ago, the one thing that was perfectly clear for those who follow and have an interest in the game in Wales; if the status quo remained, the Welsh regions would struggle to survive.

That status quo would be remaining playing in the Pro12, whose faults are many and has never appealed massively to the Welsh public (although that’s another debate entirely), and to compete in the European cup, whilst being tied into a crippling Participation Agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). The current fall out in Welsh rugby between the Regions and the WRU has come mainly from the current agreement whose terms appears to see the WRU happy to strangle the four Welsh regions into submission so that they are able to take full control over the game in Wales. They key word there is control, and note not governance which is what any governing body is actually charged with. The WRU’s inflexibility and lack of empathy during this dispute has largely contributed to the feeling of discord currently seen in many corners of the game in Wales.

What today’s meeting has revealed is that there is now a chance that an agreement on a new European competition is close to being agreed, so it would see the regions still playing in the Pro12 and again in a European cup, but this time run by the Six Nations committee instead of the hapless ERC. What is worth mentioning is that the Pro12 currently does not even have a sponsor for next season and there are rumours that the Italian teams may be withdrawing. Both are likely to see a decrease in funding to the regions which would see them markedly worse off under the “status quo”.

With regards to the European Cup, it is hard to make a judgement on whether it will provide any hope for the future for the regions or not, until more details are released. Most important to the regions’ futures will be the TV contracts. The English clubs (PRL) had negotiated a deal with BT for a new European competition which would have seen an increase of £1m each for the regions. Understandably given the financial situation in Wales, the regions were wholly supportive of this new competition, but the WRU refused to give their agreement. The other TV deal on offer was that of one with Sky, which ERC signed up to despite the English and French clubs having already served notice. That TV deal would not see the Welsh regions any better off.

What fans of the regional game in Wales will be hoping is that not only has a better TV deal been negotiated and agreed upon, but also that the other major sticking point of who has commercial control, the Unions or the clubs, has also been decided to fall in the clubs’ favour. Without an increase in TV revenue and the freedom to negotiate their own commercial contracts, the Regions would remain in the same helpless state and truly be struggling to survive.

To throw an extra spanner in the works, the Welsh regions are still to negotiate a new Participation or newly dubbed “Service” Agreement with the WRU. With the bitter dispute between them, it is hard to see how the WRU will be able to present an agreement that will be appealing to the regions, and with the possible reconciliation in the European game it is equally as difficult to see how the regions will be able to refuse to sign it. What is worrying for the fans of the game in Wales is that this will be another opportunity taken by the WRU to further smother the regional game in Wales which in recent months has been exactly what they have been fighting against. This is why the agreement as to who has commercial control and how revenue is split in this new European competition is so important to the regions. If they do not have any control over it, it is close to game over not only for the regions but possibly the professional game in Wales.

So we potentially have peace across the game in Europe, but unless certain key aspects have fallen the regions’ way, we may also have seen the possible death knell of the regional game in Wales. Fans of the four regions will be waiting with bated breath for more details to be released and also praying for the impossible; that the WRU will finally take conciliatory action for the good of the game in Wales as a whole, instead of being focused solely on controlling the game ultimately to its own detriment. 

Welsh Regions RaboDirect Pro12 Preview – Round 1

The RaboDirect Pro12 kicks back into action this weekend and with all four Welsh regions eager to get off to a good start.

The four teams have seen plenty of comings and goings over the summer in both playing and coaching personnel, and with the Cardiff Blues even having  a new pitch they will all be hoping to move on to bigger and better things this season. The Newport Gwent Dragons will be determined not to finish as the bottom Welsh region, the Cardiff Blues will be itching to join in the fight for a play-off spot, the Ospreys will want to take the spot of best Welsh region again and the Scarlets will be looking to emulate and better their semi-final place of last season.

Despite the success of the British and Irish Lions tour and the huge positive of having so many Welsh players involved, there still remain large doubts over the domestic game in Wales. The WRU have finally given a small amount of ground with a one off payment of £1 million being available this season to help the regions retain their Welsh Internationals, who are now starting to slip over the border at an alarming rate.

The Newport Gwent Dragons have been quick off the mark in getting the excellent Toby Faletau to put pen to paper and extend his contract but the other three regions are truly going to be up against it to retain their stars. As Jon Davies of the Scarlets has stated, after having so much success with Wales he wants to have success domestically as well. It is therefore vital that the regions remain competitive, and it is even more important that the WRU works together with them for this to be achievable which sadly has not always been the case to date.

The first round of the Pro12 is a perfect time to steal a march on your rivals, where your early season form can see you carried through to the tough end of the season. With the competition for play-off spots getting fiercer each season every point really does count.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Ulster

Ulster travel to Newport with a side depleted of many of its main stars either through compulsory rest or injury. It is an ideal time for the new look Dragons to make a big impression in this league under the new Director of Rugby Lyn Jones and new coach Kingsley Jones brought in to aid head coach Darren Edwards. The Dragons have opted for a more youthful pack rather than sticking with the likes of Sidoli in the second row which also sees lock Andrew Coombs get his first start as Captain, and with Richie Rees and Jason Tovey at scrum half they have the experience there to control the game.

Ulster pose their own problems in the forwards with Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry likely to pose huge threats. With Paddy Jackson also controlling things from the fly half shirt they also have the ability to take the game to the Dragons despite missing so many of their more first choice players.

A tough season opener for both and the Dragons will be glad they have this game first up and at home.

Teams

Dragons: Dan Evans; Tom Prydie, Pat Leach, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos; Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Aaron Coundley, T. Rhys Thomas, Dan Way, Matthew Screech, Andrew Coombs (capt), Jevon Groves, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans.

Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Phil Price, Francisco Chaparro, Adam Jones, Netani Talei, Jonathan Evans, Kris Burton, Ross Wardle.

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, C Farrell, D McIlwaine; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, R Lutton; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson.

Replacements: N Annett, T Court, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, S Doyle, I Porter, J McKinney, D Cave.

Referee:  Claudio Blessano (FIR)

Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:15pm

Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues

The Blues face an incredibly tough trip away to Glasgow in their first game of the season. With their youthful squad now a year on in their development, they will want to further their progression with improved performances and results this season. At times last season their defence would crumble and there was a clear lack of leadership but with the additions of Welsh veterans Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees to their pack there should be a big improvement.

It is Matthew Rees who is to lead out the side against the Warriors as Jenkins joins the injured Warburton and the rested Halpfenny and Cuthbert on the side lines.  With the likes of Patchell, Robinson and Owen Williams in the team it is a very exciting backline but they will once more be up against it in the pack to provide them with any decent possession to work with.

Glasgow are fielding a good mix of youth and experience and are notoriously difficult to beat at home. Captain Kellock and flanker Chris Fusaro are likely to be their key men and with Dunbar, Pyrgos and Lamont in their backline they pose big dangers of their own.

A very difficult season opener for the Cardiff Blues but if Glasgow start the season slowly they still have the players to cause an early round upset.

Teams

Glasgow: Peter Murchie; Sean Lamont, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, Byron McGuigan; Scott Wight, Henry Pyrgos; Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Pat MacArthur, Ed Kalman, Tim Swinson, Al Kellock (capt), Rob Harley, Chris Fusaro, Richie Vernon.

Replacements: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Moray Low, Tyrone Holmes, Jonny Gray, Chris Cusiter, Ruaridh Jackson, Tommy Seymour.

Blues: Tom Williams; Harry Robinson, Owen Williams, Gavin Evans, Chris Czekaj; Rhys Patchell, Lloyd Williams; Taufa’ao Filise, Matthew Rees (capt), Scott Andrews, Bradley Davies, Filo Paulo, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Marc Breeze, Sam Hobbs, Benoit Bourrust, James Down, Luke Hamilton, Lewis Jones, Gareth Davies, Dafydd Hewitt.

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU)

Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:35pm

Scarlets v Leinster 

As with last season the West Wales region yet again kick off their campaign against Leinster. There have been more departures than incomings for the Scarlets over the summer yet they will hope new star signing John Barclay will make a big difference when he returns from injury in a couple of weeks’ time. Their biggest depletion came in their back three however with the loss of wingers George North and Andrew Fenby to English clubs and full back Morgan Stoddart to injury. The conveyor belt of talent continues to work well out West however and U20’s world cup star Jordan Williams is an exciting presence on the bench as a back three option. 

The Scarlets are fielding a strong pack against Leinster, with captain Rob McCusker again having to take on the no. 8 duties. There is a very welcome return for fly half Rhys Priestland after his troubles with an achillies injury and he partners Gareth Davies at halfback. Liam Williams is moved to the wing to allow for Gareth Owen to slot in at full back and returning Scarlet Steve Shingler slots in at twelve to partner Wales international Scott Williams. 

An exciting backline linking with a hard working pack should stand the Scarlets in good stead although Leinster under new coach Matt O’Connor are fielding a side with a good blend of youth and experience. Jennings captains the side in the place of the missing Leo Cullen but D’Arcy, McFadden, Cronin and Reddon all pose huge threats. New fly half Jimmy Gopperth will also be keen to impress and the Scarlets will have to focus and perform to a very high standard if they are to get off to the start that they want. 

A nervy opener perhaps with so many unknowns and new faces, yet there is the mix of experience from both sides to make this a good encounter.

Teams

Scarlets: Gareth Owen; Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Steve Shingler, Kristian Phillips; Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies; Phil John; Ken Owens; Samson Lee, George Earle, Jo Snyman, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull, 8 Rob McCusker (capt).

Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rob Evans, Jacobie Adriaanse, Jake Ball, Craig Price, Rhodri Williams, Adam Warren, Jordan Williams.

Leinster: Dave Kearney; Darragh Fanning, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Tom Denton, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings (capt), Jordi Murphy.

Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack O’Connell, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy, Dominic Ryan, Isaac Boss, Noel Reid, Brendan Macken.

Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)

Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:05pm

Benetton Treviso v Ospreys 

The Swansea based region face a very tricky first away game. Treviso are continuously improving and at home they are a difficult team to break down and beat, and with most of the Ospreys’ Lions contingent due to be rested they will be seriously up against it. 

The Ospreys do however benefit from a great deal of strength in depth in their pack and with the summer break allowing many of their backline to return from injury they will hope to be able to field a much more balanced side then they did at times last season. 

Treviso should have access to nearly if not all of their key Italian players and will be eager to get off to the best of starts against a team that is usually a top four contender. 

Teams

Both to be confirmed. 

Referee:  Neil Paterson (SRU) 

Kick-off: Saturday 7th September, 6:30pm 

Scarlets 24 – 6 Cardiff Blues

It was with blue skies that Scarlets welcomed the Cardiff Blues to Parc Y Scarlets, with the knowledge that a win would see them leapfrog the Ospreys and move into a playoff spot.

Both teams were fielding their strongest sides and the first few minutes of nonstop rugby showed the mind set the players have brought to the match. It was end to end, with endeavour sometimes getting in the way of skill.

The Scarlets looked slightly nervous in the first twenty minutes, but both defences held firm against attack after attack. Owen Williams missed with a long range penalty, and it took until the 17th minute for the Blues to have a chance of putting points on the board, with Leigh Halfpenny easily slotting over a kick.

The Blues backrow was very effective in stripping the Scarlets of ball when they went into contact, with Warburton and Navidi linking well.  It was the Scarlets’ front five had the upper hand and continuously worked their way up field and put pressure on the Blues in their own half. The pressure eventually told with the Blues’ defence pushing up and a quick pass from Turnbull to centre Jon Davies saw the Wales centre cut back inside with a great angle to cross for a try, with Williams adding the extras.

Half chances abounded, with the Scarlets guilty at times of forcing the game, over eager at times in their search for tries.  With just five minutes till the break, Halfpenny added a further three points to draw the Blues back within a point, yet Owen Williams responded with a kick of his own just before the break.

The second half saw both teams resume playing the game at breakneck speed and it was soon to become the half of half breaks. Patchell for the Blues and Scott Williams for the Scarlets saw the game open up in front of them but for both sides the moves agonizingly broke down.

Approaching the 60th minute mark, the Scarlets yet again found themselves deep in Blues territory as their forwards gained yard after yard in close quarters. Just five metres out a quick pass from scrum half Aled Davies to Jon Davies saw the centre crash over for his second try, with the Blues defence unable to stop him from close range. Williams converted.

The final quarter saw both teams empty their benches and it was a welcome return to Parc y Scarlets for fly half Rhys Priestland after his long recovery from an achillies injury. One of his first contributions was a delightful pop pass releasing Jon Davies through a gap in the midfield to race downfield, with the game finally breaking up.

As the Blues started a promising break, a pass from Ceri Sweeney fell loose and as it was hacked through, Scarlets full back Liam Williams after an excellent pick up raced through the gaps left to cross for a superb individual try to which Priestland added the extras.

The Scarlets searched for the losing bonus point try but the Blues refused to give up more ground. Going into the last five minutes, the match finally slowed as a bout of aerial kicking started as the game petered out to a close.

The Blues will be pleased with their backrow and positive displays from the likes of Robinson, Patchell and Halfpenny, but this match highlighted again the work they need to do in their front five for them to start truly competing again.

The Scarlets will be very happy with the win that has seen them move into a playoff spot, with a win against Treviso at home all that stands between them and a semi-final. They will be frustrated with some of their errors, but with six wins on the bounce at home, and the return of players from injury, their confidence will no doubt be on a high.

Full time result: Scarlets 24 – 6 Cardiff Blues

Teams

Scarlets: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Andy Fenby; Owen Williams, Aled Davies; Phil John, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, George Earle, Johan Synman, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull, Rob McCusker (capt).

Replacements: Matthew Rees, Rhodri Jones, Jacobie Adriannse, Jake Ball, Sione Timani, Gareth Davies, Rhys Priestland, Gareth Maule.

Cardiff Blues : Leigh Halfpenny; Owen Williams, Gavin Evans (capt), Jamie Roberts, Harry Robinson; Rhys Patchell, Lewis Jones; Taufa’ao Filise, Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews, Filo Paulo, Lou Reed, Josh Navidi, Sam Warburton, Michael Paterson.

Replacements: Marc Breeze, Thomas Davies, Benoit Bourrust, Bradley Davies, Luke Hamilton, Alex Walker, Ceri Sweeney, Dafydd Hewitt.