RaboDirect PRO12 Preview: Wales
Team: Cardiff Blues
Director of Rugby: Phil Davies
Ground: Cardiff Arms Park, Westgate Street, Cardiff
Key Players in:
Lou Reed (Scarlets), Benoit Borrust (Perpignan), Andi Kyriacou (Ulster), Jason Tovey (Newport Gwent Dragons), Campese Ma’afu (West Harbour Pirates), Robin Copeland (Rotherham Titans), Rob Lewis (London Welsh),
Key Players out:
Richie Rees (Edinburgh), John Yapp (Edinburgh), Rhys Thomas (Wasps), Dan Parks (Connacht), Casey Laulala (Munster), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Xavier Rush (retired) Paul Tito (retired), Ma’ama Molitika (TBC), Deiniol Jones (retired), Martyn Williams (retired).
After last season’s underachievement there is a palpable sense of positive anticipation emanating from the Blues as the first day of the season approaches. Signings have not been of the “Marquee” type, which is normal for Cardiff, but they show a considered and constructive approach. Cardiff will play with a more coherent game-plan this time around and critically now look like they can play for the full eighty minutes. There is in place a very strong backline: Halfpenny, Roberts, Robinson, Williams and the clever Jason Tovey will offer threats from all over the pitch, whilst the recruitment of the formidable and huge French prop Borrust and the Scarlets lock Reed will give much-needed ballast and strength to the pack.
Will need to deal with the expectation of the fans: the team is rebuilding and will lose games this season and will take time to gel, but expectations are high. Tovey will need to play well and crucially stay free from injury as will the troika of Roberts, Warburton and Halfpenny. The pack could well be the team’s Achilles heel: last season they were often bullied and outmanoeuvred and certainly the scrum will be heavily targeted.
Cardiff has many players to choose from but, the selection of Andries Pretorius as captain, could well make or break their season. Blues director of rugby Phil Davies said: “I think Andries will grow into the role. He’s very much a doer at the moment, which is good; he’s a very good speaker and very articulate.” He is the sort of player that leads by example and thrives on hard work and will not duck any challenge be it on a wet and mucky night in Galway or on the more luxurious fields of France.
Cardiff finished seventh in the Rabo Pro12.
Although the Blues can look forward to the season with some optimism there is still a long way to go. The Blues will finish third out of the four of the Welsh regions and 6th in the RaboDirect Pro12 championship.
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Team: Llanelli Scarlets
Coach: Simon Easterby
Ground: Parc y Scarlets, Pemberton Retail Park
Key Players in:
Gareth Owen (Ospreys), Liam Davies (during season), Viliame Iongi (during season), Ruki Tipuna (Bay of Plenty, during season), Kristian Phillips (Ospreys), George Earle (Cheetahs), Tomás Vallejos (Harlequins), Jake Bell (unattached).
Key Players out:
Stephen Jones (London Wasps), Dominic Day (Bath), Lou Reed (Cardiff Blues), Damian Welch (Exeter), Ben Morgan (Gloucester), Sean Lamont (Glasgow), Ruki Tipuna (Bristol, during season), Iestyn Thomas (retired, during season).
Last season promised much but ultimately fizzled out into disappointment – but that could well prove be a very useful source of motivation for the new coach of the Llanelli Scarlets, Simon Easterby. Scarlets, as always, will be an exciting team to watch, but it remains to be seen if they now possess the maturity and coolness to close out the tough games. On the other hand they have at their disposal a superb backline oozing talent, confidence and serious pace. North, Davies, Scott Williams, Priestland and Knoyle will give opposing coaches sleepless nights and then when you add into the mix the returning mercurial Stoddart and the ridiculously quick Kristian Phillips, then Scarlets will be scared of no-one.
The loss of the imposing figure of Ben Morgan could be very significant and the trio of Turnbull, Shingler and McKlusker must now turn athletic promise into consistent ball-winning and ground-gaining prowess. Ken Owens has to bulk up into the formidable scrummager that Matthew Rees is otherwise the scrum will be ruthlessly targeted, especially with the retirement of Iestyn Thomas.
Player to watch:
With so many quality players it is difficult to single one out but Rhys Priestland will need to rediscover his RWC form and show that he can properly manage games, getting the best out of the outstanding players around him. But, for the Scarlets to thrive they will need their set piece to work consistently well and in Ken Owens they could have the next Welsh and Lions hooker.
Last season: A disappointing fifth.
Prediction: Second out of the four Welsh regions and third in the RaboDirect Pro12.
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Head Coach: Steve Tandy
Ground: Liberty stadium, Swansea
Key players in:
Stefan Watermeyer (Blue Bulls, during season), Jonathan Spratt (London Irish).
Key players out:
Paul James (Bath), Huw Bennett (Lyon), Nikki Walker (Worcester), Shane Williams (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Tommy Bowe (Ulster), Sonny Parker (London Welsh), James Goode (loan to Newcastle, during season), Tom Prydie (loan to Wasps, during season; Newport Gwent Dragons), Kristian Phillips (Scarlets), Cai Griffiths (London Irish), Gareth Owen (Scarlets).
In European and Pro12 terms, the Ospreys have a squad that should be challenging in all competitions, with a depth and quality that is the envy of many clubs in the league. But, its greatest attribute now appears to a palpable collective sense of purpose a desire to win trophies and make history. Ospreys skipper Alun Wyn Jones admits they will have to work “harder and smarter” to make history by becoming the first side to retain the Pro12 title. They possess the players to do it; Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and many more. Wherever they play the team will be respected and in many places feared.
Despite the gloss of last season’s terrific efforts there is still an air of occasional complacency about the team, exemplified by the home defeat to Glasgow. They can make careless errors, try to play too much rugby in the wrong parts of the field and communication – particularly in defense – can break down. The loss of Paul James will be significant, and it remains to be seen if Ryan Bevington can fill those big boots. The lineout can be predictable and Hibbard needs to be more disciplined and combine his aggression with proper fitness and self discipline. Despite the holistic threat that the Ospreys appear to exude, they still give opportunities for the opposition to attack them and that gives a good side confidence.
Player to watch:
There are several players in the Ospreys worthy of this consideration; Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Matthew Morgan. But, a player that has the ability to step into the boots of Tommy Bowe and will be vital to the Ospreys season is Hanno Dirksen. When he was on fire last season he was unstoppable and if he can avoid second season syndrome then the Ospreys will have another great year.
Last season: Champions
Prediction: First of the Welsh regions and the first team to successfully defend the Celtic title.
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Team: Newport Gwent Dragons
Coach: Darren Edwards
Ground: Rodney Parade, Newport
Key Players in:
Tonderai Chavhanga, (from Lions, during season), Andy Tuilagi (from Sale, during season), Tom Prydie (Ospreys), Dan Evans (Scarlets), Ian Nimmo (Cornish Pirates), Tim Ryan (Cavalieri Prato).
Key Players out:
Jason Tovey (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Jones (Bristol, during season), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Aled Brew (Biarritz), Martyn Thomas (Gloucester), Tom Willis (retired during season), Scott Morgan (TBC).
No club in Wales displays the togetherness of the Dragons. This strength comes from adversity and being the perpetual underdog. When the Dragons play at Rodney Parade they are always a force to be reckoned with using their sense of injustice to its fullest extent. They have an outstanding back row, full of skill, muscle and threat; the signings of Prydie and Evans has added some much needed pace and pedigree to the backs and the pack will always be competitive if prone to indiscipline. Rodney Parade is a real asset, the playing surface is excellent and the redevelopment has not taken away from its unique intimidating atmosphere. No side will relish playing there.
Opposition will target their games against the Dragons; the perceived wisdom is that they are the poorest of the Welsh regions in terms of resources and lumbered with debt. Loss of the totemic players, Brew, Tovey and the immense Charteris could well have ripped the heart out of the team. Critical positions lack quality: tighthead prop, second row, scrum half and outside half, and they need to learn to win on the road; most teams will have a “W” against this fixture, particularly at home.
Lewis Evans as captain is an outstanding player who has been with the region since he was at school and he will be an inspiring leader, although the loss of his rival Darren Waters to a bad knee injury is a cruel blow. Tom Prydie has the chance to reignite his career and the adage, “form is temporary, class is permanent” needs to be apt here. If he is able to find the form that so impressed Warren Gatland then he could make the season for the Dragons. But, the player to watch is the 25-year-old prop Hugh Gustafson; he possesses the attributes to become an international prop and the time has now come for Hugh to deliver on his potential.
Last season: Ninth in the Rabo Pro 12
Sadly they could well finish fourth out of the four Welsh regions, and tenth in the RaboDirect Pro 12.
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