November 2011 Archives
I grew up in South Wales in the 1990's, like many of us I was drawn to rugby but my early memories of the national team are not good ones. Thinking back I remember heavy defeats to England and France interspaced with the occasional flash of hope.
I came to love the sport and the Welsh side despite the lack of success, hoping perhaps that one day a team could emerge to repay all of that faith. Eventually such a team did form, the players at the core of which proving themselves good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Welsh legends of the past.
I'm speaking of course of the three great icons of the 2005 Grand Slam side, Shane Williams, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams.
On Saturday Shane Williams will play his last game for Wales and it seems increasingly likely that both Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones already have. It's a sad thought but what remained of the heart of the 2005 side is set to be lost to rugby history.
Shanes achievements in the game are well documented. 85 caps and 56 tries speak for themselves. After making his first appearance at 22 years of age Williams spent several years out of favour with the Welsh management before exploding back onto the international stage at the 2003 World Cup. The rest, as they say, is history.
Martyn Williams will be left painfully stranded on 99 Welsh caps. So often the best player in poor Welsh sides, he is famous for his quick thinking and high skill level. Williams was also incredibly tough and uncommonly brave. It is a shame that so often this wonderful player had to express himself from behind a Welsh forward pack that imploded in front of him.
Stephen Jones is often thought of as a steadying influence in any side in which he features. His attacking play (fine tuned during a stint playing in France) is often unfairly overlooked. Also a powerful defender Jones saw off many young pretenders pursuing the red number 10 jersey.
This group of players crowning glory will always be the 2005 Grand Slam where everything seemed to come together for them. A spine of quality held the team together and around that limited but brave grafters filled in the gaps.Not much was expected of the side and yet they went on to win the Six Nations title playing the most wonderful brand of attacking, all action, rugby.
It nearly never happened. the whole thing came perilously close to falling apart on the 26th of February at the Stade De France when Wales came up against a French team in deadly and determined mood. After a bruising first half Wales were hanging by a thread tha nks to Stephen Jones' accurate goal kicking. Fearless captain Gareth Thomas was injured and had to leave the field. Wales needed a miracle, luckily on the day we had at least three.
The reason Stephen Jones isn't often though of as an attacking stand off is all to do with his running style. Broadly builtwith powerful shouldersyou will never see him glide around the pitch like James Hook. Quite simply, he looks a bit awkward when he runs.
It was this distinctive running style, combined with a mistake from Damien Traille, that began to turn the tide in Wales' favour. France continued the second half on the front foot before Traille spilled the ball. Stephen Jones collected with space ahead of him and charged down field. He must have made 50 meteres at least before the French could hall him down and Wales never looked back.
Occasionally sport can be exhilarating but never before has it been so exhilarating and equally hillarious. For Jones the drop goal was the start, he went on to win the game for Wales with a nerveless display capped with a brillaint drop goal which gave Wales enough breathing room to hang on.
Of course he was not alone in conjuring this famous win. The Williams boys had a big hand in it to. Both Shane and Martyn had endured very tough first halves where there resolve was seriously tested. Both small men in international rugby terms they were finding it hard to deal with the powerful French, Shane at the hands of the mighty Rougerie and Martyn seemingly from the entire French pack. To turn the tide both men had to revert to their strengths. Rougerie may have been to strong for Shane but Shane was to nimble for him and fed Martn Williams for a try after turning the giant winger inside out.
Martyn Williams added a second try by doing what he has always done best, being swifter of thought than the oppostion. A quick tap penalty and a stretch past the fearsome Fabien Pelous and Wales were on their way to one of the great come backs.
There were many heroes that day but for me the ones I have written about here were the most vital. For years they have been at the heart of the Welsh side through good times and bad. Stephen and Martyn may miss out on the great send off that Shane will get this Saturday but in my memories these players are so strongly tied together through their triumphs that I will always think of them standing side by side and not as individuals.
When it comes to talent pools, Welsh rugby has always splashed around in the shallows - after all, Wales only has 49226 registered male players to select from (IRB 2011). During the professional era the national team has on occasions fielded a competitive starting 15, but rarely anything more - the bench cover and supporting squad has always looked a little diluted.
But over the last 12 months things seem to have changed. The Welsh setup finally has some depth. It may not be the 'Olympic size' pool of talent that England and South Africa are fortunate enough to swim in, but the Welsh selectors are no longer just dipping their toes in a 'lido' - it's worth mentioning that whilst English Rugby may have a resplendent 'Olympic pool', they also seem to have recently installed an uncontrollable wave machine.
Wales's new found strength in depth was evident when Warren Gatland named his squad to face Australia. But it wasn't evident in the players that he selected, it was in the players that he didn't. There was no place for Aled Brew, Chris Czekaj or Tom James in the training squad. You may question my rugby knowledge for even mentioning those three players in relation to the Welsh squad, but that's exactly the point. 10 years ago all three would have been in contention to play for Wales. Lack of alternative talent would have resulted in Tom James's powerful running taking precedence over his inability to take the high ball or stay in the defensive line. Aled Brew's 'big' tries and big' hits would have over ridden his inability to do the small things right. And Chris Czekaj`s recent form in the PRO 12 would have resulted in calls for him to re-enter the Welsh setup at full-back.
The fact that Czekaj, James and Brew haven't been selected in the Welsh squad is due in no small part to the Welsh Academies and the WRU's development system. The manner in which the Welsh development system is producing talent makes the 'Fly Half Factory' of the seventies seem like a cottage industry. Quality young players are now flooding both the regional and Premiership squads every season. But it isn't just the rate at which they are being produced that is so impressive. It's the quality of these young players that's so breath taking. It used to take 5-7 years for a first-class team to develop a young player. They would arrive at 18, cement a place in the starting fifteen by the age of 22 and then, if good enough, attempt to break into the international set up at 25. But the Welsh development system is now producing players that are ready for regional rugby at 18 and test rugby at 21. They arrive 'out of the box' with the required muscle mass, fitness, skillsets and attitude.
Professional rugby players in Wales used to have at least 5 years breathing room between them and the young pretenders who were trying to take their positions at regional or international level. Thanks to the academies, they no longer have that luxury. Stephen Jones had over ten years at the helm before a genuinely credible alternative arrived on the scene in the form of Rhys Preistland. Preistland may be lucky if he has 2 years before Jordan Williams starts nipping at his heels at Parc Y Scarlets, and 4 years before he starts chewing on his thigh. It`s not inconceivable that the Welsh development system's current rate of production could spell the end of the 100 cap Welsh international. I wonder whether Steven Jones or Gareth Thomas would have achieved 100 caps if their international careers began today?
So the Welsh talent pool finally has a deep end. That is unless we're discussing tight-head props. Because as Scott Andrews' inclusion in the Welsh squad has highlighted, when it comes to tight-heads, Wales are still bobbing around in the paddling pool.
The regions have yet to lose in this season's Heineken Cup - although some made life harder for themselves than it should have been.
With London Irish down to 14 men after a red card for Steven Shingler, Cardiff Blues couldn't make this 60-minute advantage count enough for the bonus point, winning 24-18. While it would be too simplistic to equate a red card with a flood of points, many sides -including the Exiles, I'm sure, given their profligacy with red cards of late- train for such scenarios. Still, the combination of the away team's defensive stubbornness and Blues' poor discipline ended hopes of a straightforward bonus point victory.
Lloyd Williams' solo try was a fine example of what this supremely talented number nine brings to his side: vision, blistering pace and game-breaking ability.
There was also Alex Cuthbert forcing turnovers at the ruck in the first five minutes. I believe he's earned his call-up to the international team. It's all too easy to claim somebody's star is in the ascendant when they've performed well at club level, but something tells me that George North on one wing and Cuthbert on the other would cause no end of difficulty to opponents.
The Blues topped off this performance with yesterday's demolition job of Aironi, winning 38-0. Leinster next Friday in Dublin will be a different proposition, but confidence is high at the moment.
How did the hardest game for the Welsh regions end up being not only the most convincing win of the weekend, but also one of the greatest Welsh victories in Heineken Cup history? The most impressive aspect of the Scarlets' defeat of Northampton Saints was their adeptness at dealing with their scrum going backwards at a rate of knots.
The sign of a good fly-half is his ability to perform well behind an impotent scrum (no lurid jokes, please), so Rhys Priestland's stocks and shares can't be higher right now: a good place to be with a forthcoming Test against the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium.
The fly-half's kicks were more probing than an impromptu visit onboard a UFO, and he paired up well with George North for a powerful upfield surge that ended in a try for the Scarlets and himself when they'd just had a man sent to the bin.
It was joyous to see Scarlets flanker Mat Gilbert score a try. Gilbert is severely deaf, but this hasn't stopped him from playing top-class rugby; firstly at Hartpury College, Gloucester 'A' and now Scarlets. He has also represented England Deaf Rugby.
Highlights of the Saints match included replacement scrum-half Rhodri Williams making a sidestepping run that was eerily reminiscent of Shane Williams, as well as Jonathan Davies putting in some brutally hard hits. Northampton fans didn't like this game one little bit. The travelling Scarlets fans must have become intoxicated on the fumes of their misery. They were more than audible.
There is much to come from this Scarlets side. At times, with their previous lacklustre results, they have been like the duck that glides unassumingly across a lake. Underneath the surface of the water, however, it's a different story: they're paddling away furiously. After beating the Saints, they now seem ready to fly.
You live and die by the pen, and I was far too cocky in my assumption that Ospreys would stroll to a win over Treviso. How wrong I was.
You kept imaging it was only a matter of time before Ospreys scored to put the game out of reach for the Italians, but it never came. Matthew Morgan (who, depending on whic spurious stats you believe, weighs somewhere between eight and nine stone), fresh on the field, stepped up to take the very difficult equalising kick at the last minute. He might just have saved the Ospreys' Heineken Cup campaign. Not bad for a player who apparently weighs the same as a Chinese gymnast.
So, another Ronan O'Gara drop goal to win the game for Munster against Castres; this one even harder than the last. Treacherous as it may sound, what might have happened had it been O'Gara wearing the Welsh number ten shirt in the final minutes of that semi-final against France, and not Stephen Jones? There is often bluster about devaluing the drop goal, but it's just that: bluster. It's a kick that takes a lot of skill and, more often than not, composure. Unless you're New Zealand, they also win you World Cups.
Their importance is highlighted even more in defeat, as with Wales's first pool game against South Africa, when Rhys Priestland's missed effort showed a lack of practice in the drop-kicking department. It's something all good fly-halves should have in their arsenal.
Those who cynically see forthcoming international matches that fall outside the IRB window as nothing but money spinners would do well to take in another big game happening on December third. Twickenham plays host to the Heroes Rugby Challenge (KO 4.30pm), with a bevy of star names ready to perform in aid of Help for Heroes.
In a changed format of Northern Hemisphere (managed by Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Leonard and Ieuan Evans) versus Southern Hemisphere (Sean Fitzpatrick and Michael Lynagh), it will showcase well-known players, as well as those of the Armed Forces and various rugby academies.
Some of the names you'll more than likely recognise are recent World Cup-winner Adam Thomson, Serge Betsen, Phil Waugh, Danny Grewcock and Alan Quinlan.
I for one will also be keeping an eye out for some of the relative unknowns - and for good reason.
When they held the first match in 2008, among the International XV taking on the Help for Heroes XV was a little-known, freckled outside half from Carmarthen. Fast forward three years and that very same lad was lighting up the World Cup in New Zealand and is now doing the very same in the Heineken Cup. (It was Rhys Priestland, in case you were still wondering...)
This event, in the name of such a good cause, has brought to mind the current furore surrounding the RFU's so-called 'darkest day', as one newspaper described it. A soldier friend of mine put this continual outpouring of scandals into perspective, arguing that England rugby's darkest day was when 26 of its international players were killed in the First World War. Perspective indeed.
Rugby continues to lead the way in its support of our troops. Given what's happening at the RFU, this game couldn't have come at a better time. The only hope is that the occasion doesn't get overshadowed by politics and in-fighting.
For more information on the Heroes Challenge, go to: http://www.helpforheroes.org.uk/heroes-rugby-challenge-2011.html
Took me a minute, but I'm back...just in time for the announcement of the Welsh squad to face Australia on December 3rd.
FORWARDS: Scott Andrews, Huw Bennett, Ryan Bevington, Lloyd Burns, Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies, Ian Evans, Lewis Evans, Toby Faletau, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Ryan Jones, Danny Lydiate, Matthew Rees, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (Captain)
BACKS: Dan Biggar, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Tavis Knoyle, George North, Rhys Priestland, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Lloyd Williams, Scott Williams, Shane Williams.
Honestly. Are we all really that surprised by these selections or lack thereof?
We knew Sam would be Captain again. We knew that the Cardiff Blues would be well represented in Davies, Jenkins, Warburton, Halfpenny, Roberts, Williams, Cuthbert and Andrews....wait...wait...wait....NICE it's about time Cuthbert got some attention. Ok color me very pleasently surprised!
OH I'm supposed to be surprised by who was NOT chosen? Well, to be honest, where is Mike Phillips? But to tell the truth that's the only one of the them I'm truely going to miss.
You can boo hoo all you want about Hook & Byrne, but let's break it down--we got Halfpenny who's proven himself under pressue at 15 and Priestland brings a solid boot to the table...so I see no reason for sniffles or ruffled feathers.
Also, this "Dove Cup" is only important in terms of pride and prep for 6nations. You're gonna see a similar Aussie squad that's unafraid to have new faces step up--this is the time to do it.
Besides how are you going to give hope for a spot to the younger guys in the U20's and U18's if you keep singing praises of older players and don't recognize their talents. You don't find George North and pull him up to the Internationals by crying in your beer on the non-selection of Shanks, nor do you see the epic leadership potential in Warburton by punching the wall when Martyn Williams isn't chosen.
But lets not kid ourselves...Mike Phillips will be back for 6Nations...as will probably James Hook and the rest...so my fellow Welsh supporters--stop it right now....beer is for drinking, don't dilute it with salt water.
And all this is just foreplay folks...the day will belong to Shane Williams! If you think for one moment that we are walking out of there without a win you are wrong. This squad and every supporter there is going to see Shane score at least (AT LEAST) one try and we are going to get to say goodbye to one of the finest players and a right gentleman as well with a win. Congrats Shane on a fabulous career! We love ya!
Forwards: Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Scott Andrews (Cardiff Blues), Lloyd Burns (Dragons), Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Luke Charteris (Dragons), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues), Dan Lydiate (Dragons), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Lewis Evans (Dragons), Toby Faletau (Dragons), Ryan Jones (Ospreys)
Backs: Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Shane Williams (Ospreys), George North (Scarlets), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets)
So to answer my previous question, Gatland and co have largely gone with an experienced squad to challenge the Wallabies. The squad selection has been hindered by players being ruled unavailable by their non-Welsh clubs.
After a strong showing away at Northampton I think one or two of the Scarlets' forwards can be disappointed at not being included this time, though it is good to see Ian Evans finally making his return to the international stage after a series of blighting injuries. Speaking of injuries, Wales have been dealt a series of blows in most key positions; Adam jones is reportedly out with a calf injury, Paul James carrying a thumb injury and Craig Mitchell unavailable Wales are somewhat short at the front row, with relatively inexperienced players Scott Andrews and Ryan Bevington looking likely to play. On the whole the forwards look to have the edge over the southern hemisphere side; they performed well in the Bronze Medal final in New Zealand and with the additions of Evans, Andrews, Lewis Evans and Justin Tipuric the pack should have an added aggression this time around.
The backs, shorn of overseas players James Hook, Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne, Dwayne Peel and missing Aled Brew and veteran Stephen Jones, still look an exciting prospect. Liam Williams, who has made an excellent debut for the Scarlets earns a call-up, and could challenge Halfpenny (if he recovers from injury) for the full-back berth. Alex Cuthbert of the Blues also deserves the chance of a first cap, though could find it difficult to stake a claim, with one wing already taken by the retiring Shane Williams and the other likely to be claimed by George North, assuming his groin injury has healed by December.
Injury concerns are rife throughout the squad, the Wales selectors having named eight players currently carrying injuries in the 28-man squad. Injuries to Jamie Roberts, North, Rhys Priestland, Halfpenny, Dan Lydiate, Jones, Luke Charteris and Huw Bennett could be either a blessing or a curse to Gatland. Injuries caused the arrival of Toby Faletau, Rhys Priestland and more onto the international scene, and could therefore be seen as a stepping stone for Williams, Andrews etc. On the pessimistic other hand, injuries could easily be exploited by the hugely talented Aussie backline. Assuming all the players currently injured can't play in the game Wales will be in a little bit of a crisis, with so many important leaders and positions ruled out.
The squad selection has raised several eyebrows, including both of my own, for the omission of Stephen Jones. I'll admit bias, being a both a Steve-o and Scarlets fan. However I don't think this was the right way to deal with the current overflow of fly-halves. I also am unsure as to the readiness of Dan Biggar to re-attempt taking the reigns at international level. I personally think Stephen Jones deserves to be played, and the squad needs him to be selected. He's a steadying influence, able to control the game and is experienced enough to take on the Australian back-row and backline. This is also an opportunity for Wales to take an elusive victory over a southern-hemisphere side that Stephen Jones deserves to have a chance at participating in. I think retaining Sam Warburton as captain for this match is a fair decision, with Gatland citing his reason as carrying on with the momentum from the World Cup.
The inclusion of the uncapped players shows promising continuity with the practice of introducing new players to the team, in practice for the future. There is a possiblility this squad is a bit too much of a gamble in terms of injuries and omission of experience. However this will be a great send-off for one of Wales' greatest ambassadors both on and off the field, and Shane Williams deserves all the celebration he will surely get on December 3rd, as one of the greatest wingers ever to take the field.
Okay, cheesy title I know, but it has to be celebrated.
I was lucky enough to be at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night to watch the Heineken Cup clash between the Scarlets and Northampton Saints. It was a brilliant occasion for all those wearing red, but judging from the occasionally violent reaction of the Saints fan in front of me, this jubilation was not one shared by all...
Before the game I had my doubts as to how the Scarlets' pack could stand up to the formidable Northampton scrum, but was pretty sure the Welsh backline had a considerable edge over the likes of Ashton, Artemyev et al.
I'll be honest, quality-wise it was a reasonably bad game. The Saints in particular had appalling handling and at times the Scarlets themselves seemed determined to give the home side an actual try-scoring chance. But nevertheless it was the Scarlets who struck first, and from a scrum, no less. Liam Williams crossed the line after three minutes, before anyone could make sense of the Scarlets' strong start. With the conversion added by Rhys Priestland the visitors were off.
Two more tries before half time from the Scarlets effectively sealed a famous victory for the Welsh team. Granted, the second try was kinda controversial. But hey, who's complaining? Well to be honest every Northampton fan sat around me, and very loudly at that. There was a pretty blatant knock-on off Sean Lamont from a restart and Aaron Shingler followed the most basic rule of rugby - he played to the whistle. Now, I'm not one to rub salt into the wounds of opposition fans after a loss... *Ahem*, but what were the Saints players thinking? You learn at Mini Rugby to play to the whistle, and all those irritating coaches at grass-roots level were vindicated on Friday when the Saints players halted in their tracks and allowed Shingler to score. They can blame referee Fitzgibbon as much as they like, but they shouldn't have let that go through. Simple.
Ryan Lamb added a few penalties to give the Saints a faint glimmer of salvaging the home-tie and were caught napping when Jonathan Davies set up Shingler's replacement Matt Gilbert who made it over the line to make it 21-9 at the break. Well-deserved, even if the swarms of Saints fans leaving to drown their sorrows after 30 minutes didn't agree.
I expected the home side to come out all guns blazing in the second half, and they really should have capitalised on the sin-binning of Scarlets' flanker Jonathan Edwards. Instead, bucking the trend it was the Scarlets who scored whilst they were reduced to 14 men, with Rhys Priestland hacked the ball ahead, highlighting George Pisi's defensive weaknesses in the process. Bonus point in the bag, and guaranteed happiness for the weekend.
I don't give any value to this talk of Jim Mallinder's links to the England job causing the Saints to play like buffoons. Northampton are usually a slick and powerful outfit, and with a professional of the calibre of Mallinder (unintentional rhyme) it's hard to envisage something like that getting in the way of the Heineken Cup. The defeat is simply down to the fact that the Scarlets took their chances, played by far the better rugby and had a game plan that was better thought out than that of the home side.
The Saints clawed their way back to salvage the losing bonus point, but two successive defeats seemingly spell the end of hopes of emulating last season's knock-out round success.
On the other hand the Scarlets are flying after two impressive victories in the first two rounds. They top the pool with 9 points, edging out next opponents Munster who are on 8 points. The Irish outfit will surely be the toughest opposition yet, and the next two clashes against them will prove crucial in the battle for quarter-final qualification. The only downside for the Scarlets could be a few injuries sustained at the game, with Shingler exiting the field after only 30 minutes, Matthew Rees having to have treatment on his recent neck injury, Iestyn Thomas being replaced after 65 minutes and George North being helped off the field after taking several knocks. But, with a whole raft of youngsters mixed with seasoned professionals in the Scarlets' ranks, the next few months will be fascinating, as two of the best-supported clubs clash. Which red will come out on top? Only time will tell.
(Well I had to have a cheesy ending to round it off, didn't I?)
So the Welsh regions continue to impress in European competition and reamin unbeaten after the first two rounds of games in the Heineken and Amlin Challange Cups.
The stand out result of the weekend has to be The Scarlets excellent win at Northampton. I don't think many people fancied them to get a result up there. I certainly didn't but victory has set them up nicely to advance from Pool 1. Of course they still have the ever difficult Munster to play, but on current form they can top the group.
Cardiff Blues won an ugly match against London Irish and are now placed second in pool 2 behind suprise leaders Edinburgh. The Blues did not play well on Friday but will be pleased to have got the result. They should be good enough to beat Edinburgh home and away to take control of the group.
Many saw the Ospreys draw in Treviso as a big dissapointment. Of course they would have wanted to win the match but the Italian team have improved this year. Just ask the Dragons who were stuffed there a couple of weeks ago. Yet again the Ospreys are in a difficult group and may struggle to advance because of the quality of the teams around them. As for Treviso I am certain that they will win at least one home game in this years competition.
The Dragons comfortable win over Perpignan on Thursday is difficult to judge in terms of quality. For me the Franch giants didnt seem to have their hearts in it from the start, although much credit must go to the Gwent region for the way in which they clinically put away a team that featured so many quality players.
As always here are a couple of photo's from the weekend, first up is Perpignan substitute Nicholas Mas (told you they had a quality squad) followed by some action from the Blues game Friday.
I'll be honest, a couple of months ago I was pretty sure we would be watching the World Champions (or at the very least some World Cup finalists) on December 3rd. Instead, we have what many perceive to be Damp Squib 2.0. The Third Place Play-off is not most people's idea of a scintillating contest, and this was reflected by the depleted viewing figures for the game and the decrease in fingernail gnawing across Wales. As such, one could assume the upcoming fixture against Australia would not really be such a big deal for Welsh rugby.
On the contrary, this game is hugely, vastly, astronomically important in terms of Wales' growth and development. Coming off the back of what was in reality a brilliant World Cup performance, the mood within Welsh rugby could be better. Most supporters still feel aggrieved, gutted and about 50 other synonyms for coming fourth. Because most of us got swept up in the wonderful performance within the tournament, most of us are forgetting to take each and every success and failure in the context of the team, squad and recent history. True enough, the IRB rankings mean nothing. Less than nothing. But it is important to remember that going in to the tournament it was not really widely accepted that our boys would end up standing toe to toe with teams like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France with regard to performance and prestige - and in some casesz coming out firmly on top. The barnstorming performances and gaining a solid place in the rugby world's heart was a big bonus to what most rational people were anticipating beforehand. Hence why a success in two weeks would be greatly appreciated.
It's important to carry on the momentum from the successful campaign in New Zealand. Okay, so it finished the way it started; with a loss. But those losses were minute. By the smallest of margins and left most rugby fans conceding the better team didn't win. With a whole fresh new crop of players the remainder of this season will surely set the tone for the next ten years of Welsh rugby.
There is a relatively big call to make as to whether Gatland and co. will opt for a strong experienced side (albeit sans Mike Phillips, James Hook, Lee Byrne and probably Stephen Jones), or whether they will continue to leave their faith with the 'youngsters' of the likes of George North, Tavis Knoyle, Lloyd Williams and Leigh Halfpenny.
Rhys Priestland looks to be virtually the first name on the team-sheet these days, with Jones likely to play for the Barbarians on 26th November. There is much talk of Dan Biggar of the Ospreys being drafted in as fly-half cover in the absense of former teammates Hook and Jones. There are, of course, various options Wales have at stand-off, with players playing outside of the principality such as Steven Shingler of London Irish, Nicky Robinson of London Wasps and Nick Macleod at Sale Sharks to name just a few. There are also excellent options at the four regions that are yet to get a real chance at staking a claim to a Welsh 23 spot; I'm thinking of the Dragons' Jason Tovey and the Scarlets' 10-in-waiting and great young talend Jordan Williams.
The squad selection for this game is likely to generate almost as much debate as the game, so watch this space.
The Welsh players and their individual skillsets have attracted many plaudits over the last few months -Preistland for his distribution, Warburton for his jackling and Lydiate for his tackling. But there's another member of the Welsh set-up whose key skill has gone unnoticed recently, and that's The Welsh Rugby Union, whose 'handling' has been superb over the past 12 months.
The WRU is often criticised and rarely praised. Sometimes that criticism has been deserved. Many of the Welsh Valley communities still feel the loss of the Celtic Warriors (the Pontypridd based region who were disbanded by the WRU in 2004). Some still rue the governing body's decision to dismantle the Welsh A-team, and more recently there has been an outcry over the price of tickets to watch the national team play.
But whilst some may suggest that the WRU has dropped a few balls in the past, recently, their handling has been calm and assured.
Re-contracting Shaun Edwards until 2015 is a monumental achievement. His impact on the Welsh squad has been marked. Wales's defence is arguably the most effective that it has ever been, certainly since the game turned professional. But it isn't just the tackling, defensive organisation and rapid line speed that can be directly attributed to Edwards, he seems to have hammered a solid steel core into all aspects of the Welsh game.
The WRU has in recent days cut the ribbon on their North Wales Academy. The facility will concentrate on developing rugby within the region and will also house a North Wales representative side which will join the national league system from next season. It is a master stroke. Historically North Wales has been seen as unfertile ground - the rugby desert of Wales - but that's only because it hasn't been irrigated properly. The new academy should ensure that North Walian talents like George North and Rob McCusker are no longer a rarity, but the norm.
Despite being almost 16 years into the professional era, money is still deemed a vulgar subject by many in Welsh rugby. But talk about it we must. And whilst we are talking about it, the WRU are doing a very good job of making it and looking after it. Last year the WRU posted a pre-tax profit of £26.2 million and allocated £19.3 million of that into the elite and community game across Wales. That's very good going during a recession.
The WRU should also be congratulated on its dealings with unruly players during the pre - World Cup build up. 'Burger Gate' threatened to derail the ambitions of the Welsh team and the career of Mike Phillips. But the WRU chose to act quickly and slapped Phillips with an immediate and undefined ban. It did the trick. Phillips went on to play some of the best rugby of his career during the World Cup and reasserted himself as Wales No.1 nine and the form scrum half of the tournament.
The WRU's restructuring of the Welsh Premiership for the 2012/13 season should not be underestimated. The concentrated, 10-team format will undoubtedly focus the Welsh talent pool and increase the skill level and intensity of the competition. We also shouldn't underestimate Roger Lewis's bargaining skills in reaching a restructuring agreement at all - the quality of rugby and its future impact on the national team will bring smiles to the faces of the Welsh public, but it can't have been easy negotiating with hundreds of grumpy old men.
But the WRU's greatest achievement by far is stability. There's no more hiring and firing in car parks and the soap opera style histrionics seem a distant memory. Gatland and his backroom staff look set to stay for another four years and guide this exciting squad through to the next Rugby World Cup. Keeping the same management team until 2015 will give the Welsh squad 7 years of consistent leadership and preparation, something the national Welsh team has never managed in its history.
The Welsh players may have attracted the plaudits for their skills in recent months, but the WRU's handling' should not be over looked. They haven't dropped the ball in a long time. The same cannot be said of their English counterparts.
Well I say weekend but the games are all over the place. Anyway, I will be at two and they are both interesting encounters. First up on Thursday night we have The Dragons vs Perpignan. I've not had any team news yet but chances are that James Hook will start for the French club.
Despite some slightly dissapointing performances at the World Cup I am still a big fan of Hook and I hope that his time away from Wales works out for him. If his game improves by the same amount that Stephen Jones' did during his time in France we will have a back as good as any in world rugby.
I'm also looking forward to this game because I think The Men Of Gwent can record a famous win against a top class side. They will miss Lydiate and Charteris no doubt but it takes a good side to come to Rodney Parade on a Thursday night and win.
Following Thursday's action I'm heading up the road to the Cardiff City Stadium where the Blues take on London Irish. Last weeks win in France has put Cardiff in a strong position already, in theory they have now already won what should have been the hardest match in the group. I'm sure it won't be an easy game but the Blues should win and take early control of pool 2.
As always, I will do my best to share some photographs here, so in that spirit here's a couple from The Scarlets win over Castres on Saturday.
Positivity is coursing through the veins of Welsh rugby this week. A Heineken Cup treble against French opposition is no mean feat. Last season's winners Leinster could only manage a 16-16 draw with Montpellier, while Toulouse overcame an admittedly inspired Gloucester 21-17.
It was a good weekend overall for the Celtic nations. Dark horses Ulster continue to impress, as their thrilling fly-half Ian Humphreys scored all his side's points for a 16-11 win against Clermont Auvergne, for whom Lee Byrne set up the only try. Glasgow also shocked Bath, with pocket-sized dynamo fly-half Duncan Weir in fine form.
Munster rained all over Northampton's parade from a great height in a manner that epitomises why they could easily be considered one of the greatest club sides of all time. 41 phases to set up a winning Ronan O'Gara drop goal: priceless, with just a tinge of lunacy. Say what you like about the Irish 10, but every team would love to have him. With Edinburgh shocking London Irish at home in Reading, our domestic competition can afford to be a little smug.
Looking at the form of the Welsh regions, it was one of the finest performances from a Cardiff Blues back three in recent memory. Chris Czekaj, Tom James and former UWIC alumnus Alex Cuthbert posed a triple threat to Racing Metro, showing bundles of strapping energy and speed, breaking through defensive lines when they had almost no right to. It was rousing stuff from them.
Unleashing them was a battling Blues pack that bounced back from a horrific leg injury to second row James Down. They gave a solid performance, often gaining more than just parity against a weighty Racing scrum. Sam Warburton, like the rest of his forwards, was unfailing proficient in ensuring a precious away win in Paris. A nerveless Dan Parks showed his worth with the boot, not only with some tough pots at goal but with his tactical kicking.
The outstanding Welsh fly-half in this round was, without a doubt, Dan Biggar. His eight from eight gave him a haul of 23 points against Biarritz. Thought the scoreline shows 28-21, it should have read more convincingly in favour of the Ospreys - despite the dangerous yards gained by the clever and hard-running Basques. An intercept try for Iain Balshaw turned what looked to be a dead-cert victory into a very tense finale indeed for the region.
Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i had on the previous weekend been named man of the match against the Scarlets; a stagnant game where nobody stood out. This time out, he pushed half-back partner Biggar very close for the accolade, and at times had the Ospreys stringing together some lovely phases of play.
Jonathan Humphreys will have been pleased at the way his charges scrummaged against a formidable Biarritz pack, especially with Adam Jones' back-up, Aaron Jarvis (formerly of Bath), proving himself a worthy candidate at tighthead when the British Lion departed. An A.J. for an A.J., if you will. In the future, the Welsh selectors just might.
Lastly, there was the Scarlets who edged Castres and denied them the losing bonus point so precious in this competition. Though the region scored three tries to two, Castres were unfortunate to have their flanker Steve Malonga commit the ultimate embarrassing act on the field: dropping the ball over the try line. Such errors by the opposition should be seen as a gift to the Scarlets, and not to be dwelt on, because there was much to be happy with, especially considering the pulsating form of their big name players. At the moment, they don't get much bigger than George North, and he is lighting up the game in West Wales.
Up next for the Scarlets, Ospreys and Blues are, respectively: Northampton Saints (A), Treviso (A) and London Irish (H). Nigel Davies's men face undoubtedly the sternest opposition in this round for the regions, with the excellent Saints snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at Thomond Park in the best game of the weekend.
Despite their good form in the Pro12, after Treviso's 42-17 capitulation to Saracens, a loss to Ospreys is all but guaranteed. The Swansea boys have got too much class (although Treviso's wing Brendan Williams is electric), regardless of the Italians' home advantage.
Blues must carry on their good work in Paris against an Exiles team which lost at the Madejski to Edinburgh. Toby Booth's side are always great to watch, and with Blues showing real attacking intent, this should be one of the livelier games of the weekend.
Still, another treble wouldn't go amiss; thus the onus is on the Scarlets to push their game to the limits in one of the most demanding venues in the UK, Franklin's Gardens.
The Northampton faithful are always out in force, but the same can't be said for their counterparts in the Welsh regions for the opening round of the Heineken Cup. It was disappointing enough to see that almost 6000 fewer fans turned out for the local derby between Ospreys and Scarlets compared to last year; but to then see fewer still present for the Biarritz clash was mind-boggling.
Some people would go to extreme lengths to witness rugby legends such as Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili in action. No doubt many were there on Saturday afternoon, but a crowd of under 8000 isn't an adequate reflection of the occasion. I heard a depressing claim that some our regional stadia generate enough funds from hospitality boxes not to worry too much about dwindling crowds - which is about as sad as it gets.
It has been suggested that big crowds come with success, which is perhaps why Munster and Leinster have such phenomenal attendances (nearly 50,000 this month at the Aviva). Some of the newer grounds face accusations of being devoid of atmosphere, to which I would say this is down to a dearth of ticketholders. The Liberty has a similar capacity to Toulouse's Stade Ernest Wallon and both are equally no-frills. The difference is the crowds.
Are economic factors driving this downturn? I still believe, as many do, that more can be done to bring schools into games, which would boost not only the atmosphere but the sport at that age group. Either way, something must be done, and soon.
I failed to mention the Dragons in last week's column, despite having a soft spot for the Men of Gwent. Currently in the second tier European competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, they beat unknown Italians Cavalieri Prato 33-3 in a game which saw the return of the deadly duo Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
For them, this season's Heineken Cup might have proved to be a bridge too far - better that they gain some confidence in the Amlin, especially with Thursday's home game against James Hook's Perpignan to come. Rodney Parade: now there is a ground with atmosphere, but one whose capacity is in keeping with realistic expectations.
I'm sure I wasn't the only person who breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that Shaun Edwards would be continuing his role as Wales defence coach. Unusually for a coach, he is the poster boy for the national side's tenacity; his presence alone gives the side an edge.
While he's yet to reach the giddy defensive heights of 2008 with Wales, when only two tries were leaked in five games, neither has anybody else. Quite simply, he is the best man for the job - as is Warren Gatland.
There was an interesting circus of speculation in the papers recently, with The Sunday Times proclaiming confidently that Edwards would continue with Wales, while the The Sunday Telegraph said he wouldn't. I was nervous. In the event, Edwards has proven himself a master in the art of contract negotiation.
It is likely he will one day be coaching England. We can take heart that, by then, he will have sown the seeds for a generation of Welsh players to come with his innovative approach to the game.
The most shocking thing? He claims he wasn't even approached by the RFU for a role with England. Rob Andrew seems to be the Emperor Nero character in this charade, playing his fiddle while the RFU burns down around him.
As a member of the Twitterati -that is, someone who tweets- I'm still trying to find my feet and often question whether it is worth the effort. I was recently marvelling at some of the dross that is posted on the site when an image posted by one of the Ospreys reminded me of why I signed up in the first place. If you're a rugby fan and are yet to become a member of this social networking phenomenon, perhaps this image of these familiar -if youthful-looking- faces will make you consider it.
So after the dissapointment after last weeks derby match being called off I'm back into the photo work with the return of the Heineken cup.
Currently I'm sitting in the press room at the lovely Parc Y Scarlets awaiting the Scarlets vs Castres match. Hopes here are high that this young Scarlets side can grow into something special and a quick look at their backline today makes me think the same.
The test today will come up front against a traditionally big and mean French pack led by former All Black and Richie Mccaw understudy Chris Masoe. It wont be easy, but the pack should be able to win enough ball to allow this backline to sparkle.
Best advice I've been given so far today? "Keep an eye on George North, he's on fire."
I plan to do so, I recommend you guy's do as well.
Tales of eccentricity among the historic Racing Club (now Racing Metro 92) are legendary in French rugby circles. Born out of aristocracy, the club stayed true to its blue-blooded roots by performing such zany antics as wearing berets, wigs and bow ties during matches. (The bow ties would later lead to some of their players forming the clothing company Eden Park.) They famously drank champagne at half-time during a domestic final in 1990. How deliciously wacky of them. Racing were a precursor to the Stade Francais of today, who have made it okay for men to wear pink on the rugby field. Men in the Rhondda Valleys rejoiced!
I bring you this opaque sporting history lesson in light of the recent moratorium on fake tans and flash boots -which could be the title for the new Stereophonics album, should they ever choose to go back to their roots and make a good album- at the Ospreys. It's a story that has caught the attention of even the most rugby-shy media outlets.
In looking to shake off their 'glamour boy' tag, are the Ospreys relinquishing the very thing that has given them such a high profile? Probably not. Gavin Henson's multicoloured boots don't make him a great player, regardless of his 'I look good, I play good' rhetoric: hard work and bags of talent does. The same could be said for James Hook, Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips. It is no surprise that this new rule has come into effect now that all of the above are Ospreys no longer; or that they've all chosen sunnier French climes, for that matter.
Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys says it's a move to ensure fans don't get alienated, and his views will be welcomed by many a fan of the game in Wales, not just 'Libertines'. For a moment, it was like listening to Arthur Scargill, former President of the National Union of Mineworkers, in his pomp:
"Sometimes the values that come from being working class is what we want to be. This region stands for those values. This region represents the steelworks, this region represents BOC in Margam, this region represents the road-sweepers. It doesn't represent people in banks, it doesn't represent city slickers."
Dramatic? Yes. Humphreys would have been better suited standing on a soapbox in a colliery in Gwent, rather than sat at a table in a non-descript media room. But he should be commended for speaking out for the working class people who pay through the nose to watch regional rugby. Maybe it's not so much the fake tan itself, but what the fake tan represents, that has led to the ban.
Fake tans are so widespread among young men and women in Wales, it's become a non-issue, commonplace. In fact, on nights out, you'd think some girls were paying homage to their grandfathers' mining days - such is the deep, ochre-like colour of their skin. The question of whether or not it belongs on the rugby field is one the Ospreys have deigned to answer themselves.
Flamboyance is accepted in French rugby, even though they've been known to chop the heads off of those who take it a bit too far (hello, Marie Antoinette!). The fact of the matter is, fans of Welsh rugby don't have much in common with Parisians. Except for their love of rugby, of course.
Incidentally, Racing Metro take on the Cardiff Blues tonight. With such renowned professionals as Juan Martin Hernandez (sorely missed by Argentina recently) and Lionel Nallet in the team, chances are slim that they'll be popping open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot at half-time.
Time was in Welsh rugby when our boys would have been the first to get their hands on the bottle, but this was Pre-Warburton (or P.W., as the era is now affectionately known). A period when to be a Welsh rugby player and not drink was anathema.
Warburton went to New Zealand a boy and came back a man. Along with Lloyd Williams, he managed to cram an awful lot of experience into a short space of time at the World Cup, and I imagine that Blues will reap the benefits.
Wales' first choice number seven was in the news recently 'admitting' that his red card was the correct decision against France. Of course he was going to say that. He's clearly well versed in the art of diplomacy (and the black arts of Public Relations), and his level-headedness in such situations is one of the main reasons he was given the captaincy. All eyes will be on him tonight.
Ospreys versus Biarritz is an opportunity for the Swansea side to rectify another costly refereeing blunder, again from an Irishman. In the 2010 Heineken Cup, George Clancy had indicated a penalty in front of Biarritz's posts after a deliberate knock-on from Dimitri Yachvili, but failed to make good on that promise. 29-28, another one point loss. Tomorrow's match will determine how much the manner of that defeat affected the Ospreys.
Biarritz are most certainly there for the taking, especially when you consider that a) they lie bottom in the Top 14, and b) they are playing in the Ospreys' backyard, where the home side very rarely lose. It would be a great start for Alun Wyn Jones's men to put away a side that has historically done well in the Heineken Cup.
It is time for the regions to step up their European ambitions. That goes for the Scarlets too, who take on Castres on Saturday. A tough challenge for Nigel Davies' men, Castres lie third in the Top 14 and have a squad which includes Scotland centre Max Evans, former All Blacks flanker Chris Masoe and the talented South African scrum-half Rory Kockott.
What they don't have is class throughout their squad, which arguably the Scarlets do. Importantly, the West Walians have some of Warren Gatland's stand-out performers starting for them.
There is a very realistic chance that our representatives in the Heineken Cup can do the treble on the French this weekend. It wouldn't make up for the semi-final debacle, but it would be a good start.
This week the International Rugby Board (IRB) decided to turn a blind eye to Aurelian Rougerie's alleged gouge on Ritchie McCaw during this year's Rugby World Cup Final. The IRB stated that the video evidence was inadmissible as it fell outside the three day 'citing window'. That's not a very good window then is it? Surely one of a window's primary functions is its ability to be opened once it has been closed?
This ill-judged decision sums up the IRB's recent cock-eyed approach to overseeing the game as a whole. Gouging is the foulest act that can be committed on the rugby pitch. 'Tip tackles', raking and the odd punch are rightly frowned upon in the professional era, but their presence was an integral part of the amateur game and their occasional reoccurrence is arguably palatable. Gouging however has never been part of the rugby code, written or otherwise. It is the scourge of the game, particularly in France, and within a sport that rewards bravery and courage, gouging remains the preserve of the gutless.
The IRB's lack of focus on eye related offences seems at odds with their recent obsession with teeth. During the Rugby World Cup they imposed a series of fines on players who were wearing 'unofficial' gum shields. Manu Tuilagi, Lewis Moody, Courtney Lawes were all charged with wearing inappropriate mouth protection. Don't get me wrong, I rarely long for the 'amateur' days and I appreciate the commercialisation of rugby more than most. Squeezing every last drop out of official sponsors allows the IRB to cascade money throughout the game - but teeth protection should not take precedence over eye protection.
The IRB's short sightedness doesn't end there. Their recent interpretation of what constitutes a 'tip tackle' is more blurred than ever. After Sam Warburton's red card in the semi-final against France we heard endless recitals of law 10.4(j) which reads: "Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player's feet are still off the ground such that the player's head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play".
Yet last Saturday's Pro 12 fixture between Ospreys and Scarlets saw Steven Jones lift Tommy Bowe off his feet and then plant his head and shoulders into the ground. Whether you agree with the current interpretation of 'tip tackles' or not, according to the rule book, Jones's offence was as bad if not worse than Warburton's, yet it only received a yellow card on the field and no further punishment off it.
The IRB are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the game, yet at times their approach borders on the senseless. Rogueries' alleged gouge may well have forced the IRB into reconsidering their citing procedure in recent days, but the actual reform can't come a moment too soon.
If the IRB continue to turn a blind eye, that may well be the outcome.
Well it wasn't the weekend of Welsh derby action we hoped for was it? Firstly the Dragons vs the Blues game had to be postponed due to a waterlogged pitch and then the Scarlets and Ospreys never really got going as much of a spectacle.
I felt very sorry for everyone involved at the Dragons, they were desperate to get the match on and had made a real effort organising the official opening of the new Bisley stand. Sadly it wasn't to be and fans and photographers alike left dissapointed. I did grab a few photographs of the water though first.
The West Wales derby is always an interesting spectacle to say the least. Rounding off a pretty barren weekend in the PRO12 as far as tries were concerned, the Liberty Stadium saw an awful lot of kicks, punches and general merriment on Guy Fawkes' Night.
Both teams had reinstalled their World Cup players into their squads, which in theory promised a fast-flowing, high-scoring game; this theory was wrong. From the outset the game was abrasive, physical and occasionally violent. Nothing wrong with that... Except when Alun Wyn Jones is picking fights for no apparent reason instead of actually concentrating on playing the game. But I guess he got bored without any coloured boots to look at.....
Punch ups were a-plenty in the first half, as the two local rivals struggled for parity. In the end the kickers were at the heart of the game - and not always for the right reasons. The game was a dead heat for the majority of the first half, both Dan Biggar and Stephen Jones missed early chances of taking the lead. It was eventually Biggar who drew first blood, when veteran Scarlets fly-half Jones was yellow carded for a tip tackle on Tommy Bowe, a la Warburton...?
The game was littered with missed chances: squandered kicks from Biggar, Jones and Scarlets full-back Dan Evans; a break from Ospreys scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'I that failed to produce a score as Ian Evans was bundled into touch inches away from the try-line; a barnstorming George North run that promised a five-pointer but ultimately resulted in only a penalty. In all, the game was seen by some as a disappointment, as the two form Welsh sides basically cancelled eachother out.
The try-less draw saw the home side climb to the top of the table level on points with Leinster, whilst the Scarlets can surely consider a draw away from home a decent result, in the context of a developing squad.
It strikes me as worrying that the Ospreys management felt the need to ban fake tan and coloured boots... it's like something out of a girls' boarding school. Are the players such 'galacticos' (whatever that even means) that they can't be kept under control if their skin and boots are orange? As far as I knew, the players who had been associated with all this grooming (I'm looking at you, Gavin Henson and Lee Byrne) were mostly gone, anyway. The Ospreys have the youngest average squad age of all the regions. So are these youngsters already too big for their multicoloured boots?
Sean Holley, Scott Johnson et al are going to need to do more than supply plain black boots if they want to reign in their charges. Cases like Alun Wyn Jones picking a fight with the Scarlets' back three, Matthew Morgan launching into a punching spree that (fortunately for him) went unpunished against the Northampton Saints, and Justin Tipuric seemingly not being able to remember the rules of the ruck despite being sin-binned are serious stuff. They stink of more than just fake tan. They stink of a higher problem.
The Ospreys have always been labelled as the 'golden boys' of Welsh rugby. Since their inception in 2003 they have developed and attracted some of the biggest names in Welsh, European and World rugby. The trouble is some of the players took the tag a bit literally and went a bit over the top with the fake bake. The 'Galacticos' of Welsh rugby developed a reputation for being 'fancy dans', or more accurately fancy Gavs, fancy Lees and fancy James's.
But this week the Ospreys Senior management pulled out the makeup remover and banned all Osprey players from sporting fake tans. It is a little ironic that this unusual decision has come at a time when the region's most notable 'golden boys' have left the club. Hook is at Perpignan, Byrne has joined Clermont Auvergne and Gavin Henson was told in no uncertain terms that he should no longer consider himself an Osprey.
The tan ban is an attempt to unpeel the 'Galactico' label and its implications. It can't have escaped Scott Johnsons attention that the over application of fake tan has led to accusations of under application on the field.
The Ospreys may have won three domestic titles, but their failure on the European stage is there for all to see. Three measly quarter finals are no reward for a team that has at times boasted a squad comparable to the giants of French rugby such as Toulouse and Stade Francais. When Warren Gatland took control of Wales in 2008, he selected thirteen Ospreys in his starting fifteen.
It is a little simplistic to blame the Osprey's lack of honours on a 20 quid bottle of fake tan. The regions enviable squad list has often been its downfall. It's all very well having a team packed with international players, but the trouble with internationals, as the name suggests, is that they don't spend much time at home.
The Ospreys have spent large chunks of recent seasons without key players in key positions. Even when the internationals return to the Liberty, you will hear loyal fans joking that the team look like they have never played together before, and sometimes that hasn't been too far from the truth.
This season the Ospreys seem to have adopted a different acquisition policy. Gone are the big name signings that dominate the back pages. This year the Ospreys have a recruitment model that is more reminiscent of the Aviva Premiership. Bearman, Stowers and Fotuali'i are solid players who will be available for selection all year round and that will form the nucleus of a team that can challenge in all competitions.
So the fake tans have faded at the Liberty Stadium. And rightly so. If you want to get a tan as an Osprey, there should be only one way to do it, and that's making sure you are still playing in Europe towards the end of May.
I've not been a supporter of this fixture since it was announced.
I had planned to take no interest in it, seeing it only as a money grabbing excerise from the WRU which exploited the two most important groups of people in Welsh rugby, those being the players (who must be thrilled at the chance of another highly physical match off the back of European Cup rugby with the regions) and more importantly, Welsh rugby fans, who it seems, despite the tough financial times we are facing, will again fill the Millenium Stadium and get behind their team.
Despite all of this however, I have found a way to take a keen interest in the game.
The match now seems set to become the Shane Williams farewell party and no rugby fan, Welsh or otherwise would begrudge us throwing one hell of a party for Shane.
There are very few players in last 10 years or so that will ever truly stand alongside the greats of the Welsh game but Williams most certainly does. Not just because of the incedible strike rate he holds but due to the way in which he plays the game. In modern rugby size matters more than it ever has, and there seems to be less room in the game for the likes of Super Shane. Quite simply, we may never see anyone like him pull on the red jersey again.
Sad as that may be I think we all owe Shane a big send off, so lets pack out the stadium and have a party.