Scarlets – Cautious Optimism

With both pre-season matches under their belts, it’s a good time to analyse the Scarlets’ hopes for the upcoming season.

Their first hit out was away against Bath. A beautiful summer’s day led to an exciting and free flowing match. With both sides fielding different teams in either half and with rolling subs in use it is perhaps difficult to fully analyse how well the Scarlets managed to play but there were at least some clear indicators.

Their backline without question looked to run the ball a great deal more than they have in previous season’s, with kicking kept to a minimum. In the first half they were a bit lateral but the injection of newly returned Scarlet Regan King in the second half soon showed exactly what this Scarlets side could be capable of. A thrilling length of the field try with King involved twice saw some slick handling to send centre Scott Williams over.

If the backs shone in that game, it was a grizzlier day for the forwards. The scrum was under pressure throughout the entire game, and in the first half especially they were well schooled at the breakdown. Unsurprising perhaps when they were missing six of their first choice pack. There were some positive glimpses though in the introduction of new signing Rory Pitman who is looking to fight for a place in the number 8 shirt. Some thundering collisions and runs saw him make a real impact in terms of giving the Scarlets go forward.

A draw of 26-26 was a fair result and both sides in that encounter had plenty of positives to take as well as key areas to work on. It certainly gave new head coach Wayne Pivac a much better idea as to where this young Scarlets squad currently are in their development and potential.

Roll on two weeks later and the home friendly against Gloucester and the return of the Scarlets’ big name players.The breakdown improved markedly with McCusker, Pitman and Barclay providing a good balance. Barclay could again be a key player for the Scarlets and his fitness is something they are going to have to manage well over the course of the season.

Ken Owens, in his first start as captain, led from the front in a powerful display and despite the scrums being somewhat messy when they were successful it was inevitably the Scarlets that came out on top.

In a change to the friendly against Bath it was the forwards that shone first. A rolling maul thundered across the line from close quarters. The try highlight of the day perhaps came later on in the second half from Man of the Match Rory Pitman who smashed across from 5m out after picking up from the base of the scrum, and carrying a Gloucester player over with him.

In terms of the backline Priestland looked comfortable and confident, linking well with the centres Williams and King, and in a slick move from a neatly secured lineout, quick and precise passing was enough to send new winger Michael Tagicakibau over for his first Scarlets try. Scott Williams again managed to bag himself a try, this time from an intercept in the Gloucester 22 where the Scarlets had been piling on the pressure.

Another aspect that was particularly pleasing was how well at times the Scarlets defended, particularly in the last few minutes of the game where they kept Gloucester trapped, only able to move the ball laterally, making no inroads up the field at all. The scoreline of 29-24 flattered their visitors but as far as pre-season friendlies go, it was an almost perfect build up for the new season.

As ever the problem the Scarlets may face is that of a lack of consistency and squad depth throughout the season. Yet there was a different feel to these last two matches, a level of composure and quiet confidence that has been missing for the last few seasons.

Their first home game against Ulster, on Saturday 6th September, kick off 2.40pm, is a big test for this squad. The momentum is currently with them and they will be keen to keep it, especially with the chance to secure an early home victory.

Off the field issues in Wales might still be in a bit of a mess but at least on field this season the Scarlets look like they have the potential to get it right. The mood for most Scarlets fans can perhaps be summed up in two words: cautious optimism.

Falling out of love with rugby?

It really does come to something as a supposed rugby union fan when you sit down, realise that there’s a bunch of international rugby on the television, and you can’t even stomach to watch a second of it. That is what’s happened to me today.

I suppose there could be a whole bunch of reasons as to why. There’s a good argument these days for there being too much rugby being played and shown on television. Off the back of a very heavy season fixture wise I now have the Junior rugby world cup and all of the summer tours to watch, all of this just two weeks after the European Cup final and a week after the domestic league finals; there simply hasn’t been a break.

Another reason could be that more often than not these days, top flight rugby can be, well a bit boring. The Heineken Cup final between Saracens and Toulon was a case in point of that. I hate to admit it, but that has to have been one of the most boring 80 minutes of rugby I’ve ever had to sit through, although that thankfully was more than made up by the decent and wonderful rugby fans that I attended the game with.

But neither of the above reasons would normally ring true for me. I mean, I love rugby. Hell, I even went on the Lions tour last year. You can’t hold me back from any Scarlets match and it used to be the case that I would move hell and high water to be able to watch Wales play an international, whether that be in person or on television.

And it’s that last comment that gives me a moment of pause, and then I cast my mind back to the 6 Nations. Did I move hell and high water to watch all of Wales’ matches in this year’s 6 Nations? No I didn’t. Did I even bring myself to watch the ‘Probables vs Possibles’ match? Nope, didn’t do that either. What I’ve come to realise this season is that I simply don’t particularly care to watch the senior Wales international team.

Now, I’m keen to stress that this doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to win; I do. It’s just I simply can’t find it in me to care enough to either switch on the television and watch, or to get off my arse and go and watch them live. There’s just nothing there. It transpires that I even watched more England matches this season then I have Wales ones, and if that doesn’t start to get my alarm bells ringing then I don’t know what will.

Now for those of you who aren’t Welsh, you may not have known that there’s a bit of a ‘civil war’ going on in Welsh rugby. It’s actually been going on for the last three or so years but let’s just say that this season it’s gotten a bit messy and nasty. Grassroots rugby is failing, the semi-professional tier of rugby is stagnating, and our professional tier is in a bitter dispute with our governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union(WRU) over the fact it is not only being prevented from growing its own businesses, but that it is also being starved of funds in comparison to all other professional teams in the northern hemisphere game.

It is easy to look at Wales’ international record over the last few years and to say that surely the WRU has been doing a good job. They aren’t questioned, the 6 Nations championship wins are held up like a nice big shiny shield that says Welsh rugby simply must be in a good place. Trust me, as a Welsh person living and following rugby in Wales; it isn’t.

And then we have the WRU itself. Their conduct during this whole affair has been nothing short of distasteful. To all appearances they have seemed to use players as political pawns, supressed any notion of discussion or differing rugby media outlets (their dealings with Inside Welsh Rugby TV (@IWRTV) and forcing to remove an article are a case in point) and combine that with a lack of transparency and strategy….let’s just say they don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm or trust. That is me putting it mildly.

In the face of this surely we have the gritty, insightful and questioning media in Wales really putting them to the test with their investigative and professional journalism? I wish. Instead we have rumours of senior management in BBC Sport Wales preventing well respected journalists from airing their views on the WRU. Instead we have the “national newspaper of Wales” running nonsensical stories of the ‘greatest SA teams’ instead of doing what they really should be doing – holding the WRU to account.

It has fallen to fans and supporters on social media to do that. It has fallen to an individual flying half way around the world to galvanise the clubs so a much needed Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) could be called.

The WRU needs reform. The board, the setup, the structure – absolutely everything needs dragging into the professional era, where accountability, transparency and a clear structure are all in place. We currently don’t have that and we have a gravy train organisation doing its uttermost to hold on to their lofty seats so as to prevent this change.

Will the EGM be successful in forcing a vote of no confidence so changes can be made? I really don’t know. That is down to the clubs and I do have a general fear and huge reservations that enough can or will give the long term future of Welsh rugby the real consideration it needs, over their own immediate fears for their own club’s survival. Fears that seem to be fed by the WRU rather than appeased by them.

And so there I think we have it, just why I find it so hard to care about the senior international team in Wales anymore. For years the international side has been held up as the focal point for all of Welsh rugby, to the detriment of the rest of the game in Wales, and it is the WRU that has been doing that. So for me now when I see Wales play, I don’t see the 15 proud Welshmen giving their all for their country like I should. Instead I see the WRU board and everything that they stand for – which is everything that is wrong with the game in Wales.

Until that changes I really am going to struggle to get enthused about international Welsh rugby, and sure maybe that’s my own problem. Maybe I should be able to push the politics aside and focus just on the rugby on the pitch, but when I see the game I love around me being torn to pieces by a governing body that simply doesn’t seem to care, as long as those at the top can keep their status quo then I find that I simply can’t.

Perhaps it isn’t that I don’t care about rugby anymore, maybe it is that I care too much, and by caring too much, I simply can’t stomach to watch the tier of rugby that has been forced by the WRU to become the be all and end all, while the rest of the game here in Wales is left to rot. I can’t agree with that, and I think if most fans really thought about it, they wouldn’t agree with it either.

Give me my local club rugby and give me the Scarlets at least with them I know exactly what they stand for and what they believe in, and that they have the ethos and values that are true to rugby. I think my first two reasons; over exposure and quality of rugby are still valid ones, but I know that for me it has been the whole messy dispute in Welsh rugby that has killed off my passion for the game. If that’s happened to me, then I dread to think what it’s done to the more casual fan. Welsh rugby needs to fix itself soon, but even now it is going to take years for it to recover.

I think for today, I might just have to watch some tennis instead. 

England 29 – 18 Wales

Sweeping blue skies, the basking warmth of the spring sun and a calmness in the air that belied the battle that was due to commence between two of the oldest rivalries in rugby; England versus Wales.

England, still smarting from last year’s heavy defeat and looking for revenge.  Wales, still struggling for form but still in with a chance of keeping themselves in the title hunt that would see them win their third successive title if successful; two sides with lots to prove, lots to gain and oh so very much to lose.

It was the home side, England, on the green carpet of the Twickenham turf that started much the better and drew first blood. Capitalising on a Welsh error deep inside their own territory by scooping up spilled ball, they quickly raced down field and into the Welsh 22. A Welsh infringement, a quick tap and go from the sniping England scrum half Danny Care, and a baffling sleepiness in the Welsh as they retreated to their own line with their backs to their opponents, saw England cross without a challenge to secure an easy try. Great opportunism by England as they extended their lead to seven through Owen Farrell’s boot, but it was unforgivable defence by Wales.

It fell to Leigh Halfpenny’s impeccable boot to keep Wales in the game. With a tactical kicking game going awry through a mix of poor execution from Rhys Priestland and poor chasing from the rest of the backline, Wales had to rely on forcing the errors from England, with hooker Dylan Hartley being more than happy to oblige.

Crossing over the half hour mark Wales were surprisingly still in reach of England, despite being dominated in terms of territory. Pressure soon told though when hooker Richard Hibbard overthrew a lineout in his own 22. Danny Care, as quick as ever quickly gathered the ball and tried to make use of the English overlap. Wales’ scramble defence appeared to have done the job but a clever grubber kick through from centre Billy Twelvetrees saw his partner in the midfield Luther Burrell sprinting out wide to gather and score.

It then seemed that England would pull out of sight, but Wales regrouped and started to make inroads again, and with Halfpenny having such a long range with his kicking boot, they rather surprisingly went into the break only trailing by five points, with the score set at 20-15 to England.

A rejuvenated Wales came out the second half, although they had somewhat surprisingly stuck with their half back pairing of Rhys Webb and Rhys Priestland who had appeared to struggle with the pace and control of the game in the first half.

Further penalties were exchanged before Gatland finally started to ring the changes, although it was in some cases far too late. Gethin Jenkins, on a day where he equalled Stephan Jones’ Wales cap record of 104, was having an afternoon to forget. Having been warned repeatedly by referee Poite in the first half about not scrimmaging straight, it was not long before he was penalised once again and yellow carded. He never returned to the field where his scrimmaging replacement Paul James then stayed on for the duration.

The introduction of Mike Phillips at scrum half did inject much needed pace in to Wales’ game, yet they could not make the most of the opportunities that came their way. As in the first half their best chance came on Jack Nowell’s wing, and where George North failed to pass out wide in the first half, this time Jamie Roberts failed to execute the grubber kick through that Twelvetrees had managed to do to such great effect in the first half.

England, with Owen Farrell being just as accurate as Halfpenny with the boot, kept extending England’s lead, and with each half chance being squandered by the men in red, time was quickly running out for them, and the pressure from the English was relentless.

It was only a superb cover tackle (technique aside) from fullback Leigh Halfpenny that prevented Luther Burrell getting his second try, after a scintillating, breathless run of play complete with offloads and excellent support lines.

The final whistle finally came with England claiming a decisive and thoroughly deserved 29-18 victory, and securing their first triple crown since 2003. They will now face Italy away in the final round, and if they secure a victory there they will hope that France can beat Ireland, so that points difference can fall in their favour and they can be crowned the 6 Nations champions of 2014.

Wales on the other hand will be taking a long hard look at themselves. The missed tackles and basic error count will be alarming for a team that is usually so disciplined and organised. It is not just the player errors that are worrying. Warren Gatland’s men have played a similar style since 2008, one which whilst providing them with dominance in the Northern Hemisphere, has seen them earn only one win out of twenty three games against Southern Hemisphere opposition who have found it all too easy to nullify Wales’ gameplan. It now appears that both Ireland and England have discovered how to do so as well. Unless there is some fall back plan or ability to adapt the game plan, you can’t help but wonder if Wales will continue to perform averagely. Yes the players can improve, but the tactics aren’t blameless either.

It isn’t all doom and gloom from the Welsh camp. Jon Davies returned to international rugby unscathed, and whilst clearly not match fit, he did not look hugely out of place either. Jake Ball in only his second international start, was one of Wales’ best players. Leigh Halfpenny again was superb and it is a blow to Wales that he will be missing for their final game against Scotland, after dislocating his shoulder in his try saving heroics.

If Wales beat Scotland on the last weekend, it looks likely they will finish in fourth place. After so much success in the last two seasons it will feel like a disappointment, but in reality it is a clear indicator of where the team currently is. Until accuracy improves and the basic error count falls they will continue to stay at this level.

Full Time: England 29 – 18 Wales

England: Brown, Nowell, Burrell, Twelvetrees, May, Farrell, Care, Marler, Hartley, Wilson, Launchbury, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan.

Replacements: Goode for Brown (79), Ford for Farrell (79), Dickson for Care (79), M. Vunipola for Marler (64), Attwood for Launchbury (73), Johnson for Wood (79), Youngs for Hartley (69) Thomas for Wilson (73).

Wales: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North, Priestland, Webb, Jenkins, Hibbard, A. Jones, Lee, A. Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau.

Replacements: L. Williams for Halfpenny (76), Biggar for Priestland (62), James for Jenkins (64), Owens for Hibbard (55), R. Jones for A. Jones (67), Tipuric for Lydiate (76), Phillips for Webb (52), Coombs for Ball (73).

Sin Bin: Jenkins (53).

Ref: Romain Poite (France)