December 2011 Archives

This week saw Scott Johnson announce that he would be leaving the Ospreys at the end of the 2011/12 season. It has surprised few in Welsh rugby and the predictability of his departure was evident in its execution. There were no histrionics, there were no reporters clamoring for interviews outside the Liberty stadium, there were no shock media leaks.

This wasn't the sort of managerial sacking that rolls along the yellow 'breaking news' banner on the BBC Sport website. Johnson's departure was calm, premeditated and came complete with rose tinted comments from the Ospreys senior management. In fact, so gushing were the remarks that if you didn't know Johnson was leaving the Ospreys at the end of the season, reading the press release may have led you to believe that he was signing a new contract.

Andrew Hore, the Ospreys Operations Director said it was "a huge disappointment for us to be losing Scott at the end of the season". Roger Blyth, the Ospreys Managing Director said "Scott is an innovative thinker who has worked tirelessly for the cause since joining the Ospreys. While he has brought silverware to the Liberty Stadium, and we hope that will be the case once again this season, the real legacy he will leave is the systems and structures he has helped to develop."

The above comments not only highlight a carefully planned exit strategy, they also highlight the gulf that exists between the Ospreys senior management and their supporters. The Ospreys supporters don't want to hear about systems and structures, they want to see results. Andrew Hore may marvel at Johnson's ability to create structures, but the only structure that the fans cared about this season had 6 groups of 4 in it, and it's one the Ospreys now can't get out of despite having two games left to play.

This disparity of opinion between fans and rugby professionals towards Johnson isn't new. Whether it was coaching Wales, Australia, the USA or the Ospreys, few players, coaches, club or union executives seem to have a bad word to say about him. His closeness to the Welsh players was well documented during 'Ruddock-gate', and just this week Rhys Williams, the former Wales fullback, tweeted that "Scott Johnson was one of the best coaches I played under". Even the media seem to have a soft spot for Johnson with South Wales journalist Dafydd Pritchard tweeting that 'press conferences will be tamer for his exit".

Yet for all the quick thinking he demonstrated in press conferences, sharp thinking was rarely evident on the training ground or the touchlines. Recent examples include his decision to play 5 back row forwards at the expense of the in-form Ian Evans at Wembley and his bloody mindedness to continue with Kahn Fotuali and his prodigiously slow pass, whilst the highly able Rhys Webb warmed the bench at Parc Y Scarlets on Boxing Day.

But perhaps his greatest failing is the brand of rugby that he has created at the Ospreys. Johnson is a skills coach by trade, and has had some fine players at his disposal over the past 3 years, yet he has created a negative 'kick-first' mentality at the Liberty. It's a style of rugby that has favoured stodgy players like Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop and marginalised the talents of James Hook. It's also a style of rugby that hasn't sat well with Ospreys supporters - just ask the man responsible for counting the gate receipts at the Liberty.

Many have blamed Johnson's inefficiencies as a head coach on the simple fact that he seems more comfortable adopting the No.2 role within a coaching hierarchy - I'm sure many Ospreys fans will refer to him as a No.2 for quite some time. There may be some truth in this theory. It could explain Johnson's decision to accept the role of Andy Robinson's assistant at the Scottish Rugby Union. He has signed a 4 year deal with the SRU on a salary believed to be £200,000 a year and will join up with the squad on their June tour to Australia, Fiji and Samoa.

Johnson may have yet again wowed his peers with his ability to create developmental systems and structures at the Ospreys, but 'Great Scott ' he certainly was not. Who knows, things may work out for him at the SRU, where the title would be more apt.

Scarlets v Ospreys 26.12.11

The Scarlets treated a rare sell-out crowd to a win over their biggest rivals the Ospreys at Parc-Y-Scarlets; there was nothing to celebrate for Adam Jones on his 150th appearance for the Ospreys however, as the prop left the field with an injury during his team's loss. The West Wales derby is always a fiery one and this Boxing Day clash was no exception. Two squads packed with big names and rising stars lined up on a muddy pitch to do battle.

There were fascinating line-ups throughout the sides, with Rhys Priestland v Dan Biggar, Shane Williams v George North, Matthew Rees v Richard Hibbard just a few among high-profile clashes. Arguably the two in-form Welsh regions going into the festive period, both sides had suffered disappointing defeats in the Heineken double-headers. It was the Scarlets who seemingly had the upper hand following the European bouts, having suffered two agonisingly close losses to perennial European challengers Munster; while the Ospreys came off second-best by larger margins to English Premiership champions Saracens. And indeed it was the Scarlets who had the upper hand on Boxing Day, out-manoeuvring the Neath-Swansea outfit throughout the side.

Scott Johnson's controversial comments about Welsh referee Nigel Owens's use of social networking sites only furthered the furore around the fixture, which was off to a tense start. Given most of the to-do was over an apology issued for the Ospreys scoring from a forward-pass in the same fixture last year, we can probably expect more, as replays showed the Ospreys only try through Barry Davies was the result of a forward pass.

The head-to-head between Biggar and Priestland began virtually from the kick-off, as the first twenty minutes of the game developed into a kicking contest as the conditions and the occasion got the better of the fast-flowing game the sides are used to. I think it's plain to see why Priestland has been knighted as the fly-half incumbent for Wales, particularly given Biggar's haphazard display. Very little the Ospreys 10 tried seemed to come off, and his petulant theatrics would have been more at home in a pantomime. If Biggar is to challenge Priestland for the Welsh 10 shirt, he needs to improve his decision making and calm down. Attempting a cross-field kick and ignoring an overlap is not something likely to be forgiven in Wales - particularly not in a team which features the deadly finishers of the likes of Williams, Bowe and Davies.

North was barely used in the first half by the Scarlets, and his presence was only slightly more amplified in the second forty. In saying that, the touches he had counted; a scintillating break down the right wing was only halted by some excellent Ospreys defence. Matthew Rees's performances for his region of late have highlighted the significance of his absence from the World Cup campaign. He is surely one of the most agile hookers in world rugby, and his work in the loose is outstanding. His performance edged that of his opposite number Hibbard, though both line-outs struggled throughout.
In all, the home side were deserving winners on one of the biggest days in the Welsh rugby calendar.

Both teams pride themselves on cultivating future stars, and there were several on show. On the losing side impressive performances from Ashley Beck and Justin Tipuric stood out; both looking like excellent prospects for the future. It baffles me why the Ospreys, with a class-act like Rhys Webb on the bench, persisted with Kahn Fotuali'i for so long, when the Samoan was clearly having a bad day of Eeyore proportions. With uncertainty over whether former Scarlet and Osprey Mike Phillips will make selection for the Six Nations, the scrum half berth will inspire some particularly interesting competition. To my mind, viable contenders come in the shapes of Lloyd Williams, Gareth Davies, Tavis Knoyle, Richie Rees and Rhys Webb (if he gets game time).

The Scarlets have shown throughout the season the benefits of a functioning academy system, and this game provided a platform for many of its youngsters to shine. Rhys Priestland, after a couple of shaky weeks in Europe, recovered to deliver an excellent display, controlling the game beautifully behind a scrum on the back foot. The turkey clearly agreed with him. Dom Day was having a stormer of a game until his untimely exit from the match through injury; though for me the outstanding forward of the day was Aaron Shingler, who was seemingly all over the pitch; making breaks, tackles and rucking like there was no tomorrow. If that performance doesn't warrant consideration for an international call-up, I don't know what does. Liam Williams has vindicated his selection for the Wales squad in December with a number of impressive performances at full-back and wing for the Scarlets, and could be challenging Leigh Halfpenny for the Welsh 15 jersey. Ben Morgan was a powerhouse behind the Scarlets scrum - the will-he, won't-he question of Welsh qualification must be getting louder in Gatland's ears..

On a day traditionally known for left-overs, it was largely a day for fresh offerings, as youngsters on both sides stood out.

I Want To Be Wrong....

By Rene Merideth on Dec 23, 11 07:20 PM in

Let me start this blog by saying...I want to be wrong. I've wanted to be wrong about Gavin Henson for the last year or so. But so far, it's been the same story. Although these last few months as poster boy for the Blues has at least kept him on the positive side of the headlines--and that alone does give me a new reason to pause.

I don't like to think that the Blues signed Gav as a publicity stunt. While I'm positive that was part of it, I think there are other factors. If he could manage to stay healthy (*eyebrow raise*) he could rise up again. But lets face fact. Henson will not be the force to be reconed with again. He'll come back to rugby form I'm sure, but it will be a different level. He's lived to much. He's gotten older. These are things all players face, but they become factors for Henson on another scale. I'm not hopeful today will see Gav race across the try line...first game back in ages, a lot of pressure, loads of things stand in the way. On the other hand we are playing the Dragons LOL

So my greatest hope for today's game is that the coaching staff at Cardiff has hoped for the best and planned for the worst. And I think they have. Roberts is on the bench for back up and Laulala is starting. Halfpenny and Cuthbert can handle wings with no sweat and our scrum is argueable the most solid in Wales with Rush, Warburton, Tito, Filise and Jenkins. Looks like kicking duties are falling to Halfpenny? Well, there's another thing to hope for...and I'm tired of fairweather fans yelling "bah humbug" when Halfpenny gets up to kick. (it's a lately thing--and I hope confined to the Los Angeles Welsh)

I'm not going to count out the Dragons entirely. All the pieces above are no good if they can't keep it together. And if Henson goes stupid in the back, well I don't see where the Blues make that up easily without some shifting of game style. Blues, in my opinion suffer from a bi-polar disorder on the field as it is, so that big of a shift will be very hard to overcome.

Where does this put us with this Rabo12 game before Christmas? Well, the Welsh-blooded lover of rugby who believes in Christmas and knows that Santa still owes her for the dollhouse fiasco of 1987--will cheering and seeing visions of an uber win 26-6 over the Dragons and an inch to within one point of overtaking the Warriors in the Rabo standings. However--my actual prediction is this--12-9 Blues, Henson injured and doesn't return in the second half. And our win moves us neither up or down in the standings.

And in that other match today---Treviso over Arioni! One Bergamasco is no good without the other!

Happy Holidays everyone!!
Rene Merideth

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Scott Johnson Twitter.png

The biggest news in Welsh rugby this week has been the introduction of a salary cap into regional rugby. It is understandably difficult to predict the outcome of such a thing in Wales. Was one of the motivating factors in its implementation the need to avoid a scenario commonplace within some of the regions, wherein a marquee foreign player gets paid the same as three young Welsh players' salaries combined? It is all the more troubling when these big names are at the end of their career and aren't pulling their weight as much as they once did.

The general feeling among rugby fans I've spoken to is that the regions don't need to be decreasing wages - they need to be increasing them to keep the talent in Wales. But does the salary cap seek to avoid an escalation of commitment, or what we might call 'throwing good money after bad'? The dismally low crowd numbers at regional games tell a story. There wouldn't be much point for the regions to spend ever-rising numbers of money on keeping their big-name players when there are more S4C cameramen than fans watching. As for purchasing more marquee names, it's unlikely they would be able to afford the likes of a Rocky Elsom or a Digby Ioane even if they were so inclined.

London Welsh coach Lyn Jones was accurate in his assessment that New Zealand have been suffering this player exodus since the game went professional and deal with it efficiently, with their fertile talent farms continually producing players of the highest calibre capable of replacing the exiles.

When All Blacks fly-half Andrew Mehrtens left for Harlequins in 2005, his Canterbury Crusaders understudy wasted no time in picking up where he left off. New Zealand haven't looked back since Dan Carter put on the number 10 jersey (after a spell at inside centre). That is until he pulled up with a groin injury at the World Cup; then they brought in Colin Slade, who got injured; then his replacement, Aaron Cruden, got injured in the final. Stephen Donald, a fourth choice and highly able fly-half, stepped up to the plate and kicked the winning penalty for the All Blacks in the final.

New Zealand, the world's greatest rugby nation, can't afford to hold onto their players long-term, but for every Sitiveni Sivivatu who leaves for riches in Europe, there's a Cory Jane or a Richard Kahui to replace him. Their player base is bigger than ours, granted, but the untapped talent in the Welsh Premiership and at lower levels is incredible. This, I suppose, is the remit of the development officers.

The unofficial line seems to be that we can't blame our Welsh players for wanting to take an astronomically larger pay packet in France. What is worrying is that it's not just our older internationals -Lee Byrne being a prime example- heeding the call of the Euro, but those in the prime of their careers, such as James Hook and the outgoing Luke Charteris. Argentina make do with having their best players dotted around the world and more often than not turn up on the day a tenacious outfit. But that is not a path down which Wales should be looking to tread.

This is a debate which looks set to rage on for some time. If Wales win the World Cup in 2015 the salary cap will be hailed as a stroke of genius. If we don't, we'll do what we seem to do best: point fingers.

On a lighter note, Christmas is upon us, which means only two things: lots of unapologetic boozing and the highly anticipated local derbies. These faint reminders of the old, pre-regional tribal rivalries couldn't come at a better time after the ignominy of all four regions losing over the last weekend. From glory to tears, in one fell swoop. The Heineken Cup had started so well, too.

Ospreys saw a proud home record in Europe turn to dust by the bullying hand of Saracens. While the French referee acted as if he'd taken a wrong turn from a fishing trip and ended up officiating an important Heineken Cup match, the Saracens deserved to shade the match with their relentless defence. Dan Biggar's rare failure at goal didn't help matters either, but where this leaves the Ospreys -in the short- and long-term- is yet to be seen.

The Swansea region take on the Scarlets in a Boxing Day clash. Their last meeting was a dour affair, with the sides drawing 9-9. Both come off back-to-back losses to Saracens and Munster respectively and are in need of a win for both morale and league purposes. The game at Parc y Scarlets has apparently sold out, which is very welcome news indeed, but the powers-that-be should ensure such high demand for tickets aren't just one-off festive occasions.

An equally heated rivalry takes place on Friday at the Cardiff City Stadium, with Blues taking on the Dragons. Like the aforementioned derby in Llanelli, it will be a chance for Warren Gatland and co. to assess their options for the Six Nations. Some questions could be answered in both matches: Alex Cuthbert or Aled Brew? Matthew Rees or Richard Hibbard? Gavin Henson or... Well, it's Henson against himself because, at the risk of repeating myself, an in-form Henson should certainly be in the frame for Wales.

Yes, Gavin is back, and not just on the side of Cardiff buses, whose posters show him flashing his biceps with the tagline 'Flex Appeal'. He's become the South Walian equivalent of Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw (but the less said about my knowledge of that show, the better).

Conversely, while these derbies might act as a temporary panacea for the dip in Welsh fortunes, they can't cover up the fact that all the regions lost eminently winnable games last weekend. The so-called 'World Cup hangover' is being used as an excuse in some quarters, and whether or not this is a real ailment is for the players themselves to declare. If, as is looking increasingly likely, there will be no Welsh side in the final stages of Europe, the 'we lost in the semis of the World Cup' excuse will not be easily swallowed.

My favourite rugby tweeter, Gypo, whom I mentioned in my last blog, has been celebrating the festive season accordingly. He isn't one for getting carried away with the material excesses of the holiday season, though, as seen in his travel arrangements for the Scarlets' recent trip to Munster: "Arrived at Limerick Travelodge. 24 rooms at £20. McCusker's not happy sharing double bed with Ben Morgan. Told him there's a recession on. #Frugal".

His frugality has also extended to his fancy dress costume. His outfit of choice? Private investigator Jim Rockford (below left - or is it right?), as played by the legendary James Garner in the 1970s show 'The Rockford Files'.

Jim Rockford Gareth Jenkins.png

As it happens, Twitter is playing a big part in the run-up to the festive derbies, what with Ospreys boss Scott Johnson venting his disapproval at referee Nigel Owens' penchant for tweeting players he will soon be refereeing. The pick of Johnson's diatribe was a very pertinent admission: "[Twitter] is the bane of our existence because things gets said on there that you'd think you would want to remain private."

Which is precisely why rugby fans like to use it.

Master And Apprentice

By Jon North on Dec 13, 11 03:08 PM in

It's like Yoda said in Star Wars "Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice."

Here's a photograph from Cardiff Blues' victory over Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup last Friday.

Martyn Williams, back row legend, used to be the first name on the team sheet for The Blues. His understudy, Sam Warburton, was left with the odd cameo appearance. Now, as age seems to have finally caught up with Martyn, Warburton is the first name on the team sheet down at the Cardiff City Stadium. Sitting on the bench? Young Josh Navidi, Sam's apprentice, and so the circle of life continues...

Sam and Josh.jpg

Rugby has become a game whose rules and regulations are increasingly open to interpretation. The trouble is, when it comes to that interpretation, players, pundits, writers, supporters - and most importantly referees - all seem to be speaking a different language.

The laws regarding the breakdown are particularly hard to translate, but the scrummage is by far the biggest area of concern. Front row engagement seems to no longer even be an issue of interpretation; it has genuinely become a lottery. Referees don't appear to know who is at fault, "it could be you", but it could just as easily be the other tight head.

The lack of consistency and understanding of the front row collision has almost resulted in the modern scrum becoming redundant as an attacking platform. There was a time when choosing a scrum from a penalty award was a viable attacking option, but why now would you waste a penalty award on a scrummage when you could easily re-concede a penalty in the slip of a bind?

The refereeing of the modern scrum is unfathomable. Even after seeing three replays from Sky TV's seemingly infinite camera angles, it is still impossible to spot a scrummaging offence. And if you're watching the game live in the stadium without the benefit of television replays, you've got no chance. Understanding of scrummaging decisions doesn't appear to be any easier if you are part of the actual scrum in question. This week even the Osprey's Adam Jones and Bath's David Flatman shared tweets about the confusing nature of this weekend's scrummaging offences in the Heineken Cup.

When discussing the inept refereeing of the scrummage, the finger of blame usually points to the fact that few top grade referees have played in the front row and therefore they lack the understanding required. It would therefore seem logical for the 'front row union' to dictate the way in which the scrummage should be officiated. But as often happens when front row forwards get their heads together, a disagreement ensues. In October of this year Fran Cotton, Mike Burton and Ray McLoughlin submitted a paper to the IRB that sought to improve the scrummage and its interpretation, only for Brian Moore to call their proposal "flawed."

It is unfair to blame rugby's scrummaging ills on referees. It isn't entirely their fault. The biggest problem is the new ultra streamline, elite level shirt designs. These shirts use highly sophisticated materials and are designed to limit the chance of an opposition player being able to grab hold of you. That is all well and good until you enter a passage of play where the whole point of the exercise requires you being able to grab hold of the opposition's jersey.

Whilst the scrummage may be the hardest area to interpret, it isn't the only area where rugby is fumbling its lines - communication at the 'breakdown' appears to have completely broken down. 'Sealing off', 'Side Entry' and 'not rolling away' have become rugby's mucus, and they are choking the game. Scarlets V Munster during Round 3 in the Heineken Cup was a perfect example of where a referee's interpretation allowed one team to stifle what could have been a free flowing showpiece. As Steve James commented in the Telegraph, "it appeared that Munster were constantly 'sealing off'".

But this isn't a problem that just affects Munster; it is affecting the game as a whole. Rugby is already struggling to fill its stadia, and the complicated laws and their interpretations don't help attract new audiences. How can we expect casual supporters or newcomers to get their heads around the rules when professional players and referees can't? There surely isn't another sport in the world where players have to look at a referee's reaction or ask if they will be committing an offence before they act. You don't see cricketers asking the umpire if they are allowed to swing their bat as a ball whistles past their earlobes.

Rugby needs to take note of the reforms that have revolutionised cricket. Cricket used to rely heavily on interpretation and subjective opinion, but thanks to technology and a forward thinking governing body it has become one of the most objective games in the world.

The IRB are obviously aware of the problem. In a recent interview conducted by the BBC, Nigel Whitehouse, the 'Referee Performance and Development Officer' at the Welsh Rugby Union stated: "We are looking at law changes being put forward for next year and I know they [the IRB] are doing a lot of research in relation to the scrummaging to see if we can make it better."

Rugby needs to hire an interpreter, and quickly, because at the moment some of the interpretations leave me lost for words.

It seems like an eternity since Wales worried about its players 'going north'. During rugby's amateur era a steady flow of Welsh talent found their way to the paying, northern clubs of rugby league. But the advent of the professional game in union has changed the direction that Welsh talent is leaving the principality.

Money is a powerful magnet and it has caused rugby's compass to swing. Welsh players are no longer traveling north; they're all heading south to France. It's hardly surprising; this season Toulouse, Clermont, and Racing Metro each had an incredible 20 million euros to spend.

This week the French newspaper L'Independant revealed the probable transfer of Luke Charteris from Newport Gwent Dragons to Perpignan. Apparently nothing has been confirmed, but this appears to have the same unsettling blueprint as the James Hook deal.

Charteris's move to France follows that of Hook, Phillips and Byrne, but in many ways the signing of Charteris is far more pertinent than the previous three. Despite having a great World Cup campaign Charteris isn't exactly a marquee name in world rugby. Unlike Hook, Phillips, and Byrne few of Perpignan's supporters would have heard of Charteris prior to this season, if at all - and it's for this reason that Welsh rugby should be concerned. Many supporters, writers and coaches expected the big French clubs to target Wales's star players, but few would have expected them to start targeting the relative rank and file of Welsh rugby.

This problem is not unique to Wales. Whilst the WRU no longer has to worry about its talent heading 'north', the Sanzar nations do - with South Africa, New Zealand and Australia all witnessing a mass migration of their players heading to France. Luke McAlister has moved to Toulouse, Sitiveni Sivivatu to Clermont Auvergne, Neemia Tialata and Josevata Rokocoko to Bayonne, Luke Burgess to Toulouse, Matt Giteau to Toulon and Francois Steyn to Racing Metro (although it is rumored that may soon return to Durban).

Whilst the French Top 14 poses a significant threat to the bloodstock of the Sanzar countries, the real threat comes from the Japanese. Japan used to be the pension pot for southern hemisphere players: George Smith (Suntory), Brad Thorn (Fukuoka Sanix Blues) and Mils Muliaina (NTT Docomo) have all been lured to the big Japanese clubs by hard cash and soft rugby. The Japanese rugby season is comparatively short, 13 games plus playoffs, but the real benefit is the standard of rugby - it's low, and so too is the impact on an aging body.

But the Japanese clubs no longer just see themselves as a destination for aging stars who fancy a stroll along rugby's retirement boulevard; they are now seeking players who are in their peak. Backed by generous corporate sponsorships the Japanese are putting together deals that will have the French moneymen choking on their Pétrus. Digby Ioane, who would currently feature in anyone's world 15, has recently turned down an undisclosed 7 figure sum from Japanese club Kubota and has instead re-signed with the Queensland Reds. But how many more players turn down such offers remains to be seen.

Whilst rugby may now operate in a free market, it does come at a cost. The cost is not as hard and fast as the vast sums that are changing hands between clubs and players, it's more intangible, but none the less important.

Rugby fans may soon have to accept that their nation's favourite players no longer play in their nation.

Unions such as Wales, Australia and New Zealand may soon have to address their policy of selecting only 'home' based players - Warren Gatland's repeated warnings that players face not being selected if they play outside Wales may soon have to be played on French radio stations; how else will the players will hear it? The only solution may be centrally contracting players, which is a very expensive practice for the unions and the rugby playing public, who will invariably foot the bill.

Ironically one of the biggest losers of the mass exodus to France could be the French. Their domestic league could become so full of foreign imports that it could jeopardise the progression of the national team. It's a very real threat, so much so that the French Rugby Union has recently insisted that 60% of all Top 14 rosters must be filled by French qualified players.

Rugby's compass has undoubtedly swung. Money is a powerful magnet and it is hard to avoid its pull. However unlike most magnets, this one seems to have more negatives than positives.

I'm not alone in feeling disappointed that Gavin Henson won't be playing against Edinburgh this weekend in the Heineken Cup. Being firmly in the camp that believes his return will be a boost for Welsh rugby, I know how strongly those in the opposition camp think otherwise. Welsh centres with his lightness of touch and passing ability are few and far between - and that's before we've even considered his famous defensive and kicking skills.

The Blues' 52-9 record loss to Leinster was, both literally and figuratively, indefensible. While Leinster are top of the league, Ospreys' narrow defeat of third-placed Munster that same weekend served only to highlight the disparity of strength in depth between the two Welsh regions. Both had international call-ups and injuries, yet Ospreys and Blues managed to field respectable-looking sides with vastly differing results.

Let's hope the return of the Blues' internationals can lift the heads of those who experienced that trouncing, because they're going to need some encouragement. Ospreys, on the other hand, have now beaten Munster twice in a row, setting up what could prove to be the biggest regional fixture of the season so far: Saracens at Wembley.

Where Scarlets beat Ulster 24-17 back in October, the Northern Irishmen saw fit to reverse the result this time around. Scarlets kissed goodbye to their eight wins on the trot in all competitions, despite scoring three tries to Stephen Ferris's two (one of which should be contender for try of the year).

Coach Nigel Davies will look at what happened at the RDS and feel that, all things considered, the result at Ravenhill wasn't a shameful one. Ulster have a terrific squad, among them John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar and Andrew Trimble. In Stephen Ferris they have one of the best flankers in the world, and the only surprise is that they are eighth in the Pro12 table.

With the burgeoning displays of Leinster back-rower Sean O'Brien, and all the acclaim that has gone with them, many forget that Ferris would have been first-choice blindside for the Lions two years ago were it not for injury. If I were to choose a number six for a Lions test tomorrow, he would edge out Dan Lydiate on grounds of experience.

(Side note: I was once told by a player at Ferris's former rugby club of Dungannon, County Tyrone, that the flanker's party trick is to do a standing jump onto a wheelie bin. There's power for you.)

Going back to the Scarlets, who face the might of Munster this Saturday. If you are a follower of the brilliant Gareth Jenkins-parodying @Gypo_ on Twitter, you might have been given a fantastical insight into the now Head of Development's methods down in Llanelli: "At Y Parc. Practising new 15 phase move where every player gets to run up the 10-12 channel at Ronan O'Gara. George is very excited..."

Gareth Jenkins Twitter 1.png

If it were that simple, I doubt Munster would have won many games in Europe (instead of being twice Heineken Cup winners). Even our wee Shane Williams has run over O'Gara before (quite literally over him - see it on YouTube), but the clever minds at Thomond Park have worked out ways to avoid the kicking genius being clobbered and put off his game. Compare it to the 'chicken or the egg' conundrum. What came first: the huge Munster pack or Ronan O'Gara?

Saturday will be European Rugby's official greatest player's 100th appearance in the competition. For the Scarlets -and something tells me many a Welsh fan across the country- it would be a great coup to beat Munster on such an occasion.

(Side note #2: O'Gara was born in San Diego, and in the run-up to the 2003 World Cup was approached by the Miami Dolphins for the lucrative position of placekicker. Laces out, Ronan!)

Laces Out.png

The not strictly politically correct-named 'Gypo' does of course give somewhat fictional observations of life down at Parc y Scarlets, but they are hilarious nonetheless. Not long after that red card at the World Cup, he tweeted: "Alain Rolland rang. Says someone high up had him removed from Welsh games. Begged me to have a word with 'Someone'. Told him 'I already did...'"

These comments often take an even more comically surreal turn, such as the following: "Nipped into Starbucks on way to Y Parc. Decide to give an off the cuff Irish dancing performance. Crowd gathers. They love it. I've still got it."

My apologies to Mr. Jenkins, but now I can't seem to discern one from the other.

Much as it pains me to mention it, it would be remiss of me not to. Those of you who witnessed Dragons flanker Lewis Evans' dithering with the ball in his own in-goal area will have been screaming at your television screens. If you were actually at Rodney Parade for the Glasgow Warriors game, then I offer you my sincerest apologies. No fan should ever be subjected to such an abominable act.

On 74 minutes, with Dragons in the lead 11-9, Evans waited for an improbably slow ball to go dead -it never looked like it would- and replacement fly-half Scott Wight touched the ball down from under his nose.

Our minds turned to Wasps v Toulouse in the 2004 Heineken Cup final, when fullback Clement Poitrenaud did something similar, allowing Rob Howley to score the winning try. All I can say is, at least Poitrenaud was facing towards the Welsh scrum-half when it happened. Or is that worse?

Whatever the case, a 14-14 draw for the Dragons was snatched from the jaws of a win. The mistake by Evans (a very good player with Wales Sevens experience and a recent call-up to the full Welsh squad) should be a lesson to all young rugby players: the in-goal area is no place for dawdling.

A good Heineken Cup weekend for the regions would go some way to softening the blow of losing to the Wallabies once more in predictable fashion. By the same token, the stinking loss was itself masked somewhat by the perfume of Shane Williams's remarkable achievements for Wales culminating in the most fitting of endings when he scored a try.

He will go from one of the greatest sporting theatres in the world, the Millennium Stadium, to another, in Wembley Stadium, on Saturday. A real Welsh hero.

Ospreys fans will be happy to note that Saracens, last season's convincing Premiership winners, were proven fallible when they lost 30-8 to Northampton Saints two weeks ago. They lost to Leinster at Wembley last season also, and more recently lost away to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup. Saturday will be decisive in terms of the Ospreys' European legacy. Man for man, the 'Libertines' will turn up at northwest London with the better side. Whether they can overcome Saracens, renowned for their team-building exploits (which recently included a trip to Oktoberfest, but no midget-tossing) is another matter. It could prove to be one of their greatest European victories yet.

*(not really)

Shane. Williams.  There was a day when a scrappy little winger took the field and nobody cared. But it is not this day. A day when fans in the stands said... "our teams is crazy, he's too small, he's not rugby material."  Oh my friends it is definitely NOT this day.   On that day, Shane got the ball and like so many Welsh players before and so many to come...proved that it ain't the meat its the motion.

Admiral has even allowed it's logo to be changed on Welsh jerseys in Shane's honor--although I'm sure that had a little something to do with the opportunity to make a little money on sentimental sales.  Let's face it...this day is about to be very special indeed.

And I wish I could tell you more....I wish I could tell you the pride I feel watching Shane take the sit in the pub with my 630am cup of coffee and tear up as the crowd cheers.  I wish I could see Shane score a try or two today. To watch what here at the cusp of kick off, is a video montage of Shane moments.  But I can't.  The game is not being shown here in the states.  Even my back up to my back up of my back up cannot find it. 

So I will watch like so many other, on the Matchdaylive portion of the Wales website.  And hope (come on WRU front office--seize this opportunity just like the shirt) that there will be a video for sale.  Or also hope that my friends in Wales have a DVR and can burn me a dvd....

No matter we win.  Today, when we should honor him....Shane Williams honors us...his performance will be strong and he will breathe the fire.  The Wallabies feel the same pride and respect  They know what's at stake.  It's not some trophy.  It's not even pride.  It's wide eyed wonderment as they stand shoulder to shoulder and watch the pride of Wales take the field in front of his team.

All the way from America.

We love you Shane!



Shane Williams

By Kumari Tilakawardane on Dec 1, 11 10:33 PM in

I can't find the right words to celebrate the career of Shane Williams. Not only a brilliant winger, a great sportsman, a fantastic ambassador for Wales and an inspiring role model.

Watching the BBC's tribute to Shane really highlighted how spectacular his rugby career has been. I was watching his greatest 10 tries as according to the BBC, and kept expecting it to be a different one. He's scored too many brilliant tries to remember and it's going to be many years before his Welsh record is broken.

He's been a stalwart of the team for many years, one of the first names on the teamsheet. He's defied critics of his stature to become one of the most feared wingers of all time. My personal favourite moment was during the 2005 Grand Slam. Prior to the game, most pundits were saying how Aurelien Rougerie would run all over Shane due to his superior height and weight. They gave Wales little chance in that area. Next thing you know Rougerie's trailing in Williams' dust as he sidestepped him, raced past him, and hauled him into touch on several occasions. That was a consummate performance by an athlete in his prime.

He will certainly be missed; not only by his teammates and Wales fans but by sports fans around the globe. Always with a smile and a positive comment even after a loss, Shane Williams has epitomised everything that is good about Welsh rugby and professional sport.

He's inspired a generation of rugby players, and there will be many more to come who will learn from and marvel at his infamous jinking feet and hurdling jumps over tacklers.

And so, before I get a lump in my throat, it's almost time for Shane's final hurrah. Here's hoping all the boys can help this great man go out in style. He certainly deserves it. There hasn't ever been another player like Shane Williams, and there never will be another who captures a nation's heart the way he has, and it's difficult to imagine Welsh rugby continuing without him.

In the words of Brandon De Wilde... Shane! Come back!


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Jamie Powell

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I’m Jamie Powell, a Welsh rugby exile living in east Sussex. My parents are from Ebbw Vale so growing up there was only one team for me to support! I watch all the Wales games and also try and watch as many club games as possible. I have also started to go to London Welsh games.

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Exiled Wirraller and Ospreylian trapped in the capital; by day I sort out the lives of others but by weekend I report on all things rugby for the womenfolk of this fair hemisphere.

When I’m not aiding and abetting the hot flushes of the femmes of terraces around the land, I help report on the RaboDirect Pro12 for some of the more serious websites, so I’ll be here to bring you the lighter side of goings on.

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My name is Jonathan North and as head photographer for Welsh photographic agency ASI I get to see a lot of Welsh rugby from up close. Through my work I enjoy rugby at all levels from the local club game right through to the national side.

In my blog I try and share my experiences from pitchside and the opinions that form there. As well as that I also include my latest photographic work to accompany my tales from the touchline.

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I live in Birmingham, raised in Swansea, I’ve just turned 32. I live with my wife, I’m a Welsh rugby fan as well as a huge Swans and Ospreys fan. Myself and a group of friends go away to Edinburgh/Ireland every year for the away fixture in the Six nations.

I get more excited about the Six Nations than I do about Christmas. It’s going to be a very difficult campaign with expectation very high due to us making the semi-finals of the World Cup. We have very difficult away fixtures in Dublin & Twickenham. I manage to follow most regional games on the internet so I’m able to see who’s in form etc. I shall be in Dublin in February for the fixture. I’m looking forward to seeing the Welsh players back at their regions, hopefully they will maintain their high standards.

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I'm a student from North Wales – where, believe it or not, we know as much about rugby as do those in the south! I am a former captain of the Gogledd Cymru Girls U18 Team as well as being a qualified coach and referee.

I fancy I could give Gatland a run for his money and I'm almost always convinced I'm right and the ref's wrong – something I have in common with most of Wales I think, particularly after recent events...


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American with Welsh heritage and a deep love of Welsh rugby in her blood.  So much so I blog from Los Angeles where International games are on at 6am!

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My name is Sebastian Barrett. I'm from Cardiff. Like most Welshmen, I view rugby as the be all and end all.

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34 years old, but I look 44. I work in advertising and if rugby OCD is a legitimate syndrome, then I have it.


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