Welsh rugby at crisis point

img_0058How many more times are we going to go through this? Another Autumn series gets underway with a defeat to one of the Southern Hemisphere giants. However it was the manner of this defeat which was so galling. If anyone is looking to take positives from that performance then they are frankly deluded. Wales should be ashamed of that first half performance. Utterly ashamed. There were moments when Australia were simply executing plays as if they were going through a training session. The Wallabies have probably had more intense training opponents than the limp resistance which Wales offered.

img_0318Statistics can too often be used to prove anything. But the facts are the facts and for Wales they make for grim reading. Wales have not won the opening match of the autumn since they defeated Romania in 2002. Stop playing the big boys. You are wasting everyone’s time and are just after our money. Wales under the Gatland/Edwards/Howley regime, installed 8 years ago now, have claimed 1 victory over Australia and another over South Africa in 2014. Add the All Blacks to the stats and that means 2 victories in 32 matches. A win percentage of 6.25%. If insanity is the repetition of events expecting different results then we are well beyond that point by now. I for one am sick of the excuses. They are being trotted out on such a regular basis that they have now become cliches. Classics such as, “we need to test ourselves against the best teams to learn” and “we always start slowly and get better the longer we are together” would be more appropriately used as the tag lines by the WRU marketing department.

Further blame is directed on the suitability of the Pro12 to prepare our players. Firstly, not all of the starting lineup, North, Roberts, Halfpenny and Charteris for instance, play in the Pro12. Secondly, anyone fortunate enough to see Ireland’s performance against the All Blacks, mere hours after Wales’ debacle, saw that argument evaporate for ever. The Welsh players and coaching team are comfortable in their malaise. Their press conference responses are prepared repetitions of those that have gone before. Oddly the Ireland v New Zealand clash took place in Chicago, USA. Therefore the Irish had to deal with the rigours of transatlantic travel. But yet the Irish players raised their game to levels unreached in 111 years. They played at pace and with an intensity and aggression which pressured the All Blacks throughout. Wales took a bus down the M4. They fell off tackles and looked so bewildered you would’ve thought that they were the team suffering jet lag.

img_0059From their first lineout Australia flowed over the gainline and did not yield that momentum. Many fans were left bewildered by the selection of Alex Cuthbert for yesterday’s game. Wales attempted to trick the Wallabies by putting him on the left wing, rather than the right. But the smart green and golds targeted him immediately. A series of cross and box kicks exposed him early on, allowing Australia to regain the ball. This resulted in the extraordinary 80% possession statistics. Any youngsters wishing to watch a textbook control of a match then this was the game.

Fortunately for Wales the Wallabies did butcher a number of opportunities to rack up points. Dropped passes but also 11 points missed at goal. So it could, and frankly should, have been worse. Conceding 32 tries in the last 6 matches is as bad as it gets. Shaun Edwards’ reputation is in tatters. No longer can he justify his position based on the 2 tries conceded during the 2008 Grand Slam season. Astonishingly Wales didn’t leak a try when reduced to 14 men. But the way that they were sliced apart with a full complement, with basic passing skills largely, was truly worrying. The ‘up and under’ kicking strategy also reared its head again as the ball was gifted to the dangerous Israel Folau on numerous occasions.

img_0317I thought Ross Moriarty carried the ball well. Scott Williams’ try also demonstrated that when players play what is in front of them and back themselves they can do good things. But once again Wales’ inability to convert overlaps with the line at their mercy is staggering from supposedly “professional” rugby players.

img_0060The danger now is that the Welsh public are on the verge of abandoning this team of under-performers. As a result there were nearly 20,000 empty seats in the stadium, not helped by the £60+ price tag. In contrast Wales’ footballing counterparts are delivering on the field. Next weekend they play Serbia in a World Cup qualifier. It is no wonder therefore that tickets for the Argentina rugby clash are so freely available. We are talking tickets for £20 now. Those are still available but the Welsh public isn’t interested. This is a shame because Argentina are playing some superb rugby this year. They took apart Ireland at the World Cup last year and are threatening to do the same to Wales. Short of some drastic changes both on and off the field Wales are in real danger of slipping out of the top 8 in the World Rugby rankings. Just in time for Rugby World Cup seedings once again!

Warren Gatland heads up Lions Tour 2017

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In perhaps the most poorly kept secret in rugby history, Warren Gatland has officially been unveiled as the Head Coach of the 2017 British and Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand. Everyone had predicted it. Gatland had also been spotted in Edinburgh and was also snapped posing for photographs in the Lions polo shirt. So there was to be no shocking surprise and Gats is the man.

Now Warren Gatland is of course an outstanding candidate for the role. In 2009 he toured South Africa as part of the coaching staff under the leadership of Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan. Although that Test series ended in defeat, it did manage to reignite the brand. Four years previously the disastrous New Zealand tour had brought into question the team’s place in the modern game. Victory under Gatland against Australia in 2013, the team’s first victory in a Test series since 1997, made the challenge credible and not just a futile financial undertaking.

imageHowever the challenge of defeating the All Blacks is an intimidating one. The Lions have only ever won a test against New Zealand once way back in 1971. They are consistently the best team in world rugby, reigning back-to-back world champions and with a phenomenal won/lost record. On top of that the Lions have a daunting series of matches against New Zealand’s five super rugby teams, plus the Maori’s and a provincial XV.

Warren Gatland’s recent record as Head Coach of Wales is a concern. Whilst other teams have developed Wales have stagnated, failing to win the Six Nations since 2013. This past summer Gatland was left embarrassed as his hometown team the Waikato Chiefs beat his Wales squad. It will be fascinating to find out who will be selected to join the coaching lineup.

There can be no doubt however that even in the early stages of the rugby season the Lions looms large on the horizon. I’m just hoping that at the end of a long season we still have enough players left to take on the All Blacks.

The Wallabies in meltdown

Australian rugby union is in a bit of a crisis. The Wallabies have lost the last six in a row. Three against England and three against the All Blacks. As a neutral observer I am simply astounded by the way in which they have constructed a defensive formation in an attempt to hide their frailties. The selection of Quade Cooper caused a few raised eyebrows this week but given the poor showing in Sydney there wasn’t really much more to lose. However, this selection of a mercurial talent with ball in hand is also one of a defensive liability. For a number of years the Wallabies have attempted to hide Cooper from the firing line and that strategy continued yesterday. Unfortunately this means that their defensive system from first phase is a mishmash of players out of position with no leadership and limited structure.

Let’s start with New Zealand’s first try. Bernard Foley, the inside centre is defending blindside wing with scrum half Will Genia. Back rowers Hooper and Pocock are out defending in the 10 channel. Outside them left winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is with Kerevi the outside centre and right winger Haylett-Petty is at an outside centre position. Israel Folau is then on the wing with Quade Cooper covering fullback.

Even if this is all intended they are then undone by individuals flying up and missing tackles. Hooper puts pressure on Barrett successfully but in the very next phase Stephen Moore flies out of the line and takes the wrong man giving tighthead prop Franks a gap to run into. The try is then finished off with simple hands and a massive overlap.

The All Blacks’ second try is fairly similar, scoring from another maul formed at the lineout. Adam Ashley-Cooper (14) has had to go off so new cap Hodge (23) was now left defending at outside half with Kerevi (13) and Haylett-Petty (11) outside with Folau again on the wing. Unfortunately these players get sucked in because Beauden Barrett was not first receiver and looped around.

Although as Michael Lynagh identified in the UK coverage there was a suspicion of a trip to Kerevi, who ended up on the turf, the green and gold jerseys were just flapping at All Black shirts. This was summed up perfectly by a covering Quade Cooper’s traditional turnstile-tackling technique.

The third try is really obvious. With Quade Cooper having dropped back defending the blindside wing, Aaron Smith targets him with a box kick. Dagg easily beats him to the ball and New Zealand have possession, field position and momentum. Beauden Barrett’s exquisite pass to put Ben Smith outside the defending Haylett-Petty to create the overlap however was the icing on the cake.

New Zealand’s fourth try was again from first phase possession that exposed the Australian defensive arrangement. Once again Hodge, Kerevi, Haylett-Petty and Folau provide the defensive line with back rowers Hooper and Pocock providing further cover closer to the maul. Things are not helped with a missed tackle on Ben Smith which makes the try an inevitability. Even when Smith is brought down there is no other last ditch tackling with Quade Cooper again clutching at thin air and failing to prevent Aaron Smith getting the ball away, leaving Folau with an impossible job of keeping out Sam Cane.

These defensive frailties result in Pocock and Hooper’s skills of competing at the breakdown to be negated as they spend more of their time making tackles for others in the team. Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley had such little possession to work with given the Australian lineout was again being picked off that it made their presence on the field more problematic than beneficial. For instance, Cooper is thought to have made just 2m for his four carries. Surely Cheika’s gamble on selecting him backfired big time.

REVIEW: Rio 2016

imageAs the 31st Olympic Games drew to a close in Rio de Janeiro it is time to reflect on the latest instalment of the so-called ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. Prior to the event the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IAAF faced their biggest crisis in recent memory. The host country itself had safety concerns with the spread of the Zika virus and faced questions regarding financing and the water quality in Guanabara Bay. Yet despite all these issues the competitive action has spoken for itself, providing gripping tension, explosive excitement and unforgettable moments.

imageWith the Games fast approaching an investigation found state sponsored doping in Russia bringing into doubt their participation. Despite the findings, the IOC refused to grab the opportunity and impose a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, a mistake the IPC did not make. Instead individual sport’s governing bodies would make the decision regarding Russian participants. As a result Russia acquired a total of 56 medals, placing them fourth in the medal table. It is impossible not to ponder the legitimacy of these medals. Russian athletes are having samples retested and are being stripped of medals from Beijing 2008 and recently shot putter Evgeniia Kolodko lost her London 2012 silver medal. Those elevated to receive medals long after the event have been robbed of their moment to stand on the podium and see their national flag raised for them. Drug cheats ruin it for everyone. Justin Gatlin’s failure to reach the 200m final felt like justice but he leaves Rio having taken silver in the 100m. He has been banned not once but twice for doping offences but is still allowed to compete. If the Lance Armstrong saga proved anything it is that dopers are often ahead of the testers. The presence of Gatlin and Russian athletes jeopardises the sport and unfortunately with the golden poster boy from Jamaica appearing for the final time this process of spectator apathy could be accelerated.

imageUsain Bolt is now unquestionably a legend. The triple treble of gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay is a feat which is incredibly unlikely to be bettered. He is not just a phenomenal athlete but the humblest of men. Bolt is a showman. Box office. A man that transcends athletics. His record at the Olympics is unheard of but all achieved without anything other than natural ability, most notably his stride length. It is no coincidence that when he was competing the stadiums were at their fullest. Unfortunately not all events were as well populated by spectators.

 

Athletics - Women's 10,000m Final
REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

One of the most disappointing aspects of Rio 2016 were the numbers of empty seats at events. The reality of hosting the Games in a country gripped by rampant poverty, plus the enormous geographical difficulties resulted in the poor ticket sales. In contrast, London 2012 saw millions of tickets for every event fail to match demand. Brazil had also hosted the FIFA World Cup only two years earlier and with the threat of the Zika virus deterring potential visitors further, some of the biggest successes were played out against a background of empty seats.

imageOne of the most exciting events in the early stages of the Olympics was the Rugby 7s tournament. Rugby Union had not been included in the Olympic Games since 1924 and in that 92 year gap the seven aside game had become the perfect competition to complete inside three days. The combination of 14 minute matches, incredibly fast athletes and stunning tries made for two riveting tournament for the medals. Few are likely to forget the tension of Team GB’s epic quarter final battle with Argentina, Japan defeating New Zealand, the Australian women overcoming their trans-Tasman rivals or Fiji’s offloading masterclass to seal their own historic gold medal triumph. Team GB’s women fell short in the final stages, failing to claim a bronze medal but the Men’s team, brought together over the summer, did take away a spectacular silver. This would prove to be just one of a record haul of medals for Team GB.

imageAfter the incredible achievements of Team GB at London 2012 few imagined that it could be matched, especially without the backing of home support. But yet Team GB managed to not only match but then to exceed all expectations. Their 67 medals edged the 65 achieved in 2012. 27 golds also placed GB second in the medal table, delivering a bloody nose to traditional powerhouse China. In a number of interviews athletes praised the contribution that funding from the National Lottery has made. In the brutal reality of medals equal funding, performances like this prove that the strategy works. It was only 20 years ago that Team GB left Atlanta with only a solitary gold medal. The transformation is astonishing. Not only have the athletes themselves savoured their moment of glory but thousands of miles away so did the British public.

imageDespite the time difference millions watched on as incredible moments became etched in history as Mo Farrah, Jade Jones, Andy Murray and Nicola Adams retained their titles. Those were just a few of our stars but contributions came from a wide variety of sports. Team GB picked up medals in the Velodrome, on the athletics track, on water, in the water, in the boxing ring and at the Gymnastics. That isn’t even a comprehensive list. The gripping elation of the penalty shootout victory for the women’s hockey team no doubt provided the highlight to many people’s Friday night. For me the most emotional gold medal victories came for Charlotte Dujardin and her legendary horse Vallegro, in his last competition, and Nick Skelton. At his seventh Olympic Games the 58 year old won individual showjumping gold after a tense six-way jump off. Stood on the podium the emotion took hold and the man who once retired after breaking his neck finally had his well-deserved moment.

imageWhilst for many in Great Britain London 2012 will forever be the greatest Olympic games ever, without doubt Rio 2016 has been the greatest for our athletes. Team GB exceeded expectations and proved that our small island is still a country to be reckoned with in sporting competition. In Tokyo in 2020, anything could be possible…

Where next for Wales?

imageLast week I questioned the suitability of continuing with the same coaching team who have been at the helm of the Welsh rugby team for the past 8 years. Unfortunately my words were not heeded as attack coach Rob Howley and forwards coach Robin McBryde were rewarded with new contracts which will take them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The talk this week was that Wales had taken steps forward on this tour, embracing a new attacking style, burying ‘Warrenball’ and starting to play in the wider channels. Yet in the third Test they returned to type, exposing their fragility and poor skills.

When presented with an opportunity at the end of the first half Wales could not cross the try line. When New Zealand were reduced to 14 men it didn’t cost them any points at all. As a result, all the team in red could manage was two penalty kicks. The waste of this talented backline is now verging on the criminal but yet they retreated back to a kick-based offence and not the more expansive style which had served them better in the first two tests.

imageHaving reduced their incessantly futile kicking game in recent matches it came back with a vengeance today. The box kick and up-and-under strategy for contestable kicks to gain territory, plus the potential to regain possession and build momentum had been reduced in favour of attacking wider channels with ball in hand. Kicks that remain on the field have been a hallmark of Wales’ game in recent years as they backed their defensive chase but against New Zealand it is suicidal. Israel Dagg and Ben Smith cut Wales to bits at times as the defensive system failed yet again.

Wales players falling off one-on-one tackles has almost become the norm with perpetual turnstiles such as Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe suffering from being isolated at fullback instead of their preferred Outside Half position where they receive backrow support. It was in these moments that Wales missed the reliability of Leigh Halfpenny but even his full blown tackle attempts often result in him injuring himself through poor technique and head positioning. Once again the intended defensive system of blitz and drift falls apart with a simple inside step or hard running at gaps and support play.

imageThe facts don’t lie. Wales have conceded a staggering 27 tries in only five matches. Yes three of those games have been against the electrically skilful All Blacks but at what point do we admit that it is not working. I’m sure some will churn out the “it’s been a long season” cliché. By comparison Maro Itoje has redefined athletic second row play and performed consistently well all season with regular man of the match efforts. He has started 20 matches for Saracens this season (coming off the subs bench an additional 3 times) and in the high intensity competitions of the English Premiership and the Champions Cup but only losing 1 match which he was a substitute for anyway. His international appearances include 8 test matches (7 starts) for England with a phenomenal record of no defeats. That is a total of 31 match appearances. Sam Warburton, so often praised for his athleticism, only made 8 appearances for Cardiff Blues, plus 14 in a Wales jersey, totalling 22 versus Itoje’s 31 matches. Yes it has been a long season for the Wales players but if they spend so much time in the gym and rate themselves as athletes then clichés of long seasons have no weight whatsoever and are thoroughly disproved when compared to the efforts of other players.

Other Northern Hemisphere teams have not bemoaned the long season with Ireland performing well against South Africa and England winning a Test series in Australia for the first time and 3-0 at that. Both nations have relatively fresh coaching teams too and seem to be moving in the right direction. Wales however have not just stagnated as the rest of world rugby moves forward but seem to be sliding backwards on the evidence of today’s 40 point drubbing.

Time for change in Welsh Rugby

imageAnother brave effort from Wales but ultimately in vain as the double world champions accelerated away and the Test series was lost. With the scores level at 55 minutes the All Blacks posted 26 unanswered points in the next dozen minutes to blow Wales out of the water before a late flourish gave the scoreline more respectability. Notably Beauden Barrett came onto the field earlier than anticipated and attacked the Welsh defensive line which was fatiguing, losing it’s shape and with limited line speed. Wales’ play had been largely positive, attacking wider channels and stretching New Zealand’s defensive line which resulted in a good try for Alun Wyn Jones. Opportunities however became limited as once again lineout accuracy dwindled, particularly when in promising positions on the field.
Parts of the media and TV coverage labelled this mornings match as Groundhog Day because we have seen it all before. The same statements have been a constant throughout the Warren Gatland era, “competitive for (insert number) minutes”, “in need of a reliable lineout”. If Wales are going to develop further then coaching changes have to be made and it needs to be now. The management team has been unchanged for 8 years now and has grown stale with the Wales team stagnating whilst England and Ireland with new voices at the helm have progressed.

Defence – Shaun Edwardsimage

Once again Wales’ defence conceded five tries in a match, granted against some very talented players but that takes the total to 21 tries in only four matches this summer. The intimidating Shaun Edwards can no longer dine out on the fact that eight years ago Wales only leaked two tries in five Six Nations matches. Whatever the defensive system is, it simply isn’t working. On numerous occasions during the Chiefs debacle earlier this week players were easily stepped inside as they drifted too far and the inside defenders were absent. Attempts at an aggressive, pressurising blitz defence is proving impossible for players to maintain, particularly against a team as consistently intense as the All Blacks as fitness too comes into question.

Forwards – Robin McBryde

For as long as I can remember the lineout has been an Achilles heel for Wales at international level. Without the ball, teams simply cannot attack the opposition. All too frequently Wales get attacking lineouts in the opponents 22 but cannot be clinical. This inability to retain possession cost Wales dear with tries coming from lost lineouts this morning and against the Chiefs on Tuesday. Luke Charteris with his height is a perfect target but to only throw to him would be easily predicted. The coach responsible for this area has to bare the brunt of criticism because his players are simply failing to execute, especially when it matters.

imageBacks/Attack – Rob Howley

Wales’ attacking game has shown signs of developing during this summer campaign, with the shackles finally taken off and talented players reacting to what is in front of them. Rob Evans’ early try against England was a positive indication that the hard running around the corner style can be effective but it didn’t last. Taking on the All Blacks, Wales attacked wider channels and refreshingly ran at holes instead of at players in the bludgeoning ‘Warrenball’ style. Liam Williams has stood out in the first two tests because of his ability to cut through a defensive line by doing exactly that; running at the gaps, not at the men. Gwyn Jones referenced the dogged use of the phrase “earning the right to go wide” which, as New Zealand proved, is a nonsense. They attack you from anywhere and everywhere, from first phase and from repeated phase play. Howley also still has yet to be held accountable for Wales’ failure to score tries in the World Cup against 13 Australians when it really mattered, which highlights another major skill issue, the inability to convert overlap chances. When Wales do make breaks and have numbers out wide their skills are so poor that all too frequently a miss-pass is thrown, undoing all the good work inside and the opportunity is lost.

Warren Gatland

The man ultimately responsible for all three areas of concern outlined above is the Head Honcho, Warren Gatland. For all the positives that the New Zealander has delivered, Wales have not won the Six Nations championship since 2013 and have an embarrassing record against the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks. The decision not to select another specialist openside flanker in the squad embarrassed Gatland when makeshift 7 Dan Lydiate got injured and Elis Jenkins having to be parachuted in but captain Sam Warburton still had to start against the Chiefs despite only recently returning from a shoulder injury of his own. The fitness of the squad which once proclaimed the benefits of cryogenic training regimes looked inadequate against New Zealand as the All Blacks ran in tries during the closing stages of the First Test. However his tired excuses bemoaning the intensity of the Pro 12 were ridiculed by Ireland as they secured a famous win in South Africa, something Gatland’s Wales also failed to achieve.

The humiliating defeat against the Chiefs earlier this week brought doubts on Warren Gatland’s suitability to take control of another Lions Tour but questions surely have to be asked about his role continuing with Wales until the 2019 Rugby World Cup let alone with the Lions.

Leicester City – Premier League Champions

imageLeicester City are Premier League Champions. As Rafa Benitez would say, “Fact”.

Let us be clear about this. Such a feat should be theoretically impossible. But in sport nothing is impossible.

Since the advent of the Premier League, the division has become the richest in world football, earning staggering revenue from television rights alone, watched in practically every country on the planet. Within that structure there are giants. Manchester United, who under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson dominated the competition. Liverpool, five time European Cup/Champions League winners. Arsenal, the only team ever to go through a whole Premier League campaign undefeated. In recent years huge financial investment has also brought trophies to Chelsea and Manchester City. All five of these teams are global brands, raking in millions and millions from sponsorship deals, merchandise and ticket sales. This allows them to recruit some of the best players in the world, genuine world class talents that warrant extraordinary sums of money and weekly wages. Against this backdrop a team with the more modest resources of a Leicester City shouldn’t be able to compete, let alone defeat these monsters.

image.jpegHowever, that is the beauty of sport. Football still remains human being against human being and Leicester City have proved that consistency of performance achieves results. This is no cup run, fortuitous draws culminating in a succession of one off performances. The beauty of a league table is that it cannot lie. The team who picks up the most points, playing exactly the same teams as everybody else, finishes top. Of their 37 matches, they have won 23, drawn 11 and only lost 3, the best results of any team in the division and that is why they are champions with a game to spare. How they have achieved that is for pundits to discuss but the fact is that nobody can deny this achievement is probably the greatest sporting triumph ever.

There are always shocks in sport, unexpected results that few would’ve predicted. Japan beating two time Rugby World Cup winners South Africa, Greece winning Euro 2004, the list of underdogs defying the odds is endless. Whilst Nottingham Forest’s European triumphs were equally unlikely, football’s evolution has certainly made it an unequal playing field but yet this title win defies that. Given the context of how money has changed football in England in the past decade, Leicester’s victory is without doubt the most remarkable. To win a competition which started back in August 2015 and concludes nine months later, requires more than sheer luck or good fortune. Leicester City have therefore managed to offer hope to every team and every player that the impossible can and sometimes does indeed happen!

WRU Judgement Day : a flawed premise

imageToday, Saturday 30th April, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff once again hosts the fourth annual Judgement Day event with all four Welsh regions coming together for a doubleheader of rugby action. With nearly 70,000 tickets sold it is likely to be hailed as a big success. However, if regional rugby is going to grow and capture the imagination of the Welsh people this event is not the way to achieve it.

In theory 70,000 fans equally divided between the four regions would equate to a fan base of 17,500 people. Getting that number to regularly turn out at the Liberty stadium or Arms Park is a completely unrealistic expectation. This is because the ‘fair weather’ supporters happy to attend the festivities of a Saturday in Cardiff have little interest in following the rugby on a regular basis. If they did attendances at regional grounds would be regular sell outs. Crucial to growing attendances and building local support of regional rugby is to appeal to those most passionate about Welsh rugby, those who support their local club. However, the scheduling of Judgement Day forces those supporters to make a choice to determine which team their priorities lie with. Perhaps typical of the WRU, the regional game is elevated as the most important in the country, belittling all beneath it. With a message like that from the governing body it is no wonder grass roots rugby is struggling to attract players and supporters.

The Ospreys and Cardiff Blues match kicked off at 2.30pm, clashing with grass roots fixtures all across the country. Whilst Sam Warburton ran out for the Blues his local club Rhiwbina had fixtures for all three of their senior teams. In Ospreylia Glynneath were lining up a fixture with Bridgend Athletic, whilst remaining in the Championship Bargoed had a huge clash with historic club Pontypool. At youth level both Merthyr and Pontypridd had matches scheduled so any potential appeals to entice those young players to back the Blues with a Judgement Day showcase was wasted. This just goes to demonstrate that those with a consistent record of supporting Welsh rugby; players, officials, supporters and referees who all sacrifice their spare time for a love of the game, are being robbed of a chance to support the professional games biggest day.

Although there were a number of grassroots fixtures across the country on Saturday, Judgement Day was scheduled for a free weekend, learning from previous years when more clashes prevented fans from attending. These games were largely rearrangements given the poor winter weather and is evidence perhaps that this appropriate scheduling may have contributed to the attendance increase of over 15,000 people from 2015.

Whilst an argument can be made that Judgement Day has the potential to grow the rugby going audience the scheduling of the event must not rob Welsh rugbys most fervent supporters of the opportunity to see their region at the National stadium. Sadly the likelihood is that those attending Judgement Day will have their enthusiasm muted by overly crowded trains, undoing the good work that our best rugby players deliver on the pitch anyway. As a result the regions will continue to fail to attract significant fans to their stadiums for home matches, which their Irish rivals achieve on a weekly basis, and clubs at the grassroots level will also struggle to attract players and supporters. Instead of causing conflict and a divide between the professional and amateur games, the two have to unite for both to stand a chance of survival and prosperity.

England 25 – Wales 21

Eng Wal 2016 3As is sometimes the case in sport the scoreline is not always a fair reflection of the match and never is that more true than with this result. Incredibly, Wales could have won at the death and hopefully they would’ve been arrested for robbery had that actually happened. The cold truth is that there was only one team in the contest and they were wearing white.

Eng Wal 2016 1England

Firstly, credit where it is due. England were excellent, playing with a power and a dynamism which had been lacking in previous years. In Maro Itoje they have a superstar in the making, his athleticism and skill made him an easy selection for man of the match. England’s tactics were clear, targeting Wales’ right wing defence,  namely the woeful Alex Cuthbert. Stats don’t lie, he missed 4 tackles and flapped aimlessly at a kick which mercifully he at least knocked backwards and as a result England gained easy territorial advantage.

England have already secured the championship, with France losing in Scotland, and could easily capture a Grand Slam given how lackadaisical Les Bleus have been under new boss Guy Noves. However, this is not a great England team, they can get better. The balance of their backrow is not right yet with Itoje and Jack Clifford a much better option at openside flanker to partner a revitalised Chris Robshaw. Similarly, the centre combination is not one which will win a World Cup with George Ford mercurial at 10, possibly flaky, and largely non-existent against Wales. With the streetwise experience of Eddie Jones in charge the only way is up for England.

Eng Wal 2016 2Wales

Where to start with Wales. The first half performance was one of the worst delivered under Warren Gatland and huge questions have to be asked why there was such lethargy. Every Welshman, woman and child was up for this game except for the fifteen players who took the field. Teach them all the words to the National Anthem, get them to belt it out and maybe they would have the emotional edge which clearly helped England. The defensive system renowned for it’s line speed and aggressive blitz was sorely lacking. Worst still there was an astonishing 19 missed tackles in the first half alone, typified by Biggar and Baldwin left on the ground as Itoje put the ball out wide for England’s try, and generally allowed England to get momentum into their attacks. In contrast Wales had lost their basic skills, being picked off at multiple lineouts and giving away easy penalties. It was one of those situations when frankly they didn’t deserve nil, minus points would’ve been a better reflection of their performance. Whilst no player sets out to put in a poor showing the evidence suggests something at fault with their preparation and the way the team is being managed and coached.

Whilst the coaching set up has had plenty of success, things seem to have grown stale with that team being in place for a number of years now. The set piece game continues to be hit or miss, selection has been widely debated and consistently the team starts slowly in matches giving the opposition a head start. Warren Gatland has admitted changes were considered after 25 minutes and it could be argued that a better manager wouldn’t have just considered changes but actually made them given the positive impact those changes would have later in the match. Wales’ attacking game has also come in for huge criticism over the last 12 months, failing to score against 13 Australians in the Rugby World Cup, for example. Things have to change and Rob Howley’s job must come under threat, 8 years in the role is more than enough particularly given the world class players who are failing to reach the heights that they are capable of. Few will have failed to notice how Wales managed to score 3 tries when seemingly the gameplan went out the window and the players actually played what was in front of them instead of sticking to a rigid plan based on contestable kicking.

The frustration from Welsh fans is because we recognise that this squad is full of talented players and we expect more from them. Last season’s game against Italy proved that Wales can run in the tries from all over the field. That sort of endeavour is completely absent this season, criminal given how Ireland were hampered by injuries and retirements leaving them vulnerable and a dreadful France team who should have been given an absolute hammering. Grinding out wins against France and Scotland was all well and good but if Wales are to threaten the All Blacks in the summer, another team who will be vulnerable, they have to deliver higher standards.

Likelihood is the same Wales players, minus Capt. Sam it seems, will be sent out again to rectify their previous performance against an Italy side who fell away against Ireland and could do the same in Cardiff. Wales should get a positive win and all will be forgotten but if this team is going to recapture a 6 Nations again, something they have failed to do in the last 3 tournaments, then changes have to be made so there are never any repeats of that 50 minutes shambles from Wales.

The State of Rugby Union

As 2015 draws to a close it is a time for reflection. It has been a year where the biggest tournament in rugby union came to the UK, the regional game in Wales continued to meander laterally and the laws of the game continue to baffle and irritate.

ChampsRugby World Cup 2015 was a huge success. Despite eye-watering ticket prices and a decision to have football stadiums hosting matches instead of the rugby heartlands the tournament generated fantastic atmospheres and delivered some particularly memorable matches. Few will forget Japan defeating the Springboks in the ultimate example of having confidence in ones own ability. New Zealand played a brand of ‘Total Rugby’ from a different planet against France in Cardiff. There was the controversy of Australia’s last minute victory against Scotland and Craig Joubert’s dash from the pitch. Wales overcame all the odds created by a lengthy injury list against England to pull off a famous win. The hosts failing to emerge from their pool, Stuart Lancaster losing his job and the entire Sam Burgess saga was pure sporting soap opera. The final match itself also provided a tremendous advert for the sport with plenty of action and drama, ably controlled by a Welshman.

WRU-home-kit-5-playersThe relationship between the Welsh Rugby Union and the professional regional teams has certainly been strained in recent years and 2015 was no different. Not that long ago we had the Faletau affair with the talented No. 8 venturing to Bath anyway, leaving the Dragons with no transfer fee and the WRU left with egg on their face. It is a peculiar situation with the Union trying to attract it’s big name stars back to Wales with central contracts but their contribution to their region is often limited. There are five professional teams, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, Blues and of course Wales, all with a core support. Plus, there is your local grassroots club in the town or village where you live. With so much rugby available, clashes are bound to happen, people have busy lives and responsibilities, the costs add up, plus the amount of television coverage, it is no wonder that attendances are hampered. In a few weeks the Six Nations will return and the nation will join forces again but the poor players will be flogged further after the tournament with another four Test matches by the end of June, three of which are away to the World Champions.

There is no easy solution. Fans will flock to see big one off games during the festive period and support their nation, proving that the sport still lies at the heart of Wales. However, finding the balance of encouraging those fans to support their local club, their region, as well as their nation is a tough ask. But unless a solution is found, one of that trio will suffer and fade away beyond all recognition.

Owens_ref_finalThe law book, refereeing and the crucial interpretation variations are probably the most debated part of the sport. A demand for accuracy has resulted in an increasing reliance on the Television Match Official hampering the flow, momentum and entertainment aspect of the game. The Maul in particular has proved to be an effective source of points because the whole area has become a shambles. Players join the maul in front of the ball, the player with the ball often detaches and moves to the back in order to guide the drive and defenders are blocked from tackling the ball carrier. Equally the scrum has resulted in plenty of lost time with teams using the set piece as a source of points instead of a simple way of restarting the match.

Despite these issues 2015 saw some incredible matches outside of the World Cup. Australia beat the All Blacks to lift the Rugby Championship. The final Saturday of the Six Nations was spectacular with tries galore. In Europe Wasps have been exhilarating in victories over Leinster, Bath and champions Toulon. In the English Premiership Exeter have been performing consistently and look a good bet to hold on to a top four place. In Wales the top of the Premiership is more competitive than in recent years with Pontypridd not running away with the top spot and Merthyr are living up to expectations in the Championship.

Jonah Lomu2015 was also sadly the year when we lost the first rugby superstar, Jonah Lomu. 20 years ago he changed the sport and became a global icon. His power and pace was matched by his humility. Sadly, he was never a World Cup winner but there is no greater tribute to Lomu and the equally imposing Jerry Collins, than having later All Black icons McCaw, Carter and others successfully retaining their trophy and cementing their place as perhaps the greatest sports team in history.