The Scarlets were head and shoulders above the rest in Wales last season. Pic: Getty Images.
The grass has been cut, the lines have been painted, and the pre-season friendlies are up and running as the new rugby season beckons. Robin Davey insists there’s much to get excited about.
It’s all systems go, at last – the new Guinness Pro 14 League fixtures are out, major pre-season friendlies start this weekend and the countdown is on for the start of what promises to be an exciting new season.
The Scarlets will defend the title they won so gloriously last season, the Ospreys look to rediscover the form they lost so dramatically, Cardiff Blues will aim to prove the doubters wrong and the Dragons will finally seek to end a shocking run under the management of the Welsh Rugby Union.
Just to add spice two South African sides, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, have entered the mix which will spark renewed interest, add some variety and should attract bigger crowds everywhere.
Most crucially of all their entry into the re-named Pro 14 League will provide much needed extra funds, for the new deal provides an extra £500,000 for every team in the competition.
Appropriately, it’s the Scarlets who get first taste of South African opposition when they host the Kings on the opening weekend of the season in just over three weeks’ time.
Dismay over the loss of Wales and Lions star Liam Williams, now with all conquering Saracens, has been balanced by the arrival of Leigh Halfpenny, signed as recently as last week on a dual contract welcoming him back to Wales.
Despite a bit of a decline in his form and a somewhat disappointing Lions tour, Halfpenny is far from being a spent force and will be out to prove just that.
A goal kicker par excellence, the full back will provide the Scarlets with a boost as they seek to defend their crown. Without the attacking capability of Williams, perhaps, Halfpenny is nevertheless an excellent 15, a superb goal kicker and not without attacking prowess either.
He will slot seamlessly into a Scarlets back division full of try scoring possibilities, capable of running tries in from anywhere as they showed at the back end of last season in particular when they blitzed most of their opposition.
Winger Steff Evans is surely on the way to becoming a Wales regular while at the other end of the experience scale Jonathan Davies rightly won the player-of-the-series accolade on the recent Lions tour of New Zealand, some achievement.
The threat doesn’t end there, far from it, for Scott Williams and Gareth Davies are full of try scoring possibilities while Johnny McNicholl has been a huge success.
They can’t really perform without the right platform up front of course, but they are often underestimated there for in skipper Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Aaron Shingler, ‘imports’ John Barclay and Tadhg Beirne and perhaps most of all, James Davies, they have forwards who are a match for most.
Davies, in particular, must wonder what more he has to do to prove himself to the Wales coaches, but it is his misfortune to be around when there is an abundance of back row talent available.
The Ospreys won’t have a better opportunity to hit the ground running for, like all the regions, they are at home first up, but in their case it’s against hapless Italians Zebre who almost went under during the summer only to be rescued by the Italian Federation.
The Ospreys’ fall from grace at the end of last season was alarming as they won just one of their last seven matches, well beaten by rivals Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets in particular.
They have lost Sam Underhill and Tyler Ardron while there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the future of Dan Biggar but they will be strengthened by the return of James Hook and Cory Allen should be another asset after joining from Cardiff Blues.
Much will depend on the form and availability of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric up front while Rhys Webb, Biggar, if he stays, and Jeff Hassler and Owen Watkin, now free of injury, will be key players behind.
Cardiff Blues have been subject of rumours about cutting back during the summer and added fuel to those was provided when they decided to let new lock signing Franco van der Merwe leave without even playing a game.
They also failed in an attempt to land Halfpenny as they declared their intention of developing their own. A big future is predicted for young lock Seb Davies while new signing from Leicester centre Jack Roberts should provide some impetus.
A few key players are entering the veteran stage while others are at an early stage of their development so it promises to be a season of transition for the capital-based team.
It’s been a summer of huge upheaval at the Dragons who at one stage were threatened with bankruptcy and in grave danger of going under.
Faced with that alarming prospect and contractually obliged to provide four teams at pro level, the WRU stepped in with an offer to take the Dragons over, keen to help a region boasting 73 clubs, the highest number in Wales.
It still required a 75% majority of Newport RFC shareholders-Newport owning Rodney Parade-for the WRU offer to go ahead for it required complete ownership, leaving Newport out on a limb and dependent on the Dragons for their own survival at Rodney Parade.
But the key vote gained an 81% majority and the WRU took control on July 1.They are now in the process of installing a new hybrid pitch after renewing the drainage on the old one and carrying out extensive ground improvements which were badly needed.
A new coach, Irishman Bernard Jackman has been installed and he is creating a big impression with his organisational skills and not least his ability to communicate with fans, a regular on twitter!
Recruitment has been limited to Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner-Henson apparently outstanding in training and ready to bring on a host of young talent-as Jackman pledges to give the entire squad an opportunity.
But if they show Jackman they are not up to the task, the coach will act pretty quickly even though it will be too late for major recruitment which will probably come in year two of a three-year project.
A new board with a new chairman has yet to be installed, but Jackman is convinced investors are out there and believes there are real grounds for optimism. A distinct improvement is his minimum requirement.
Exciting times for all the Welsh regions, then as we embark on an exciting new season.
It may well be an exiting time for the small diminishing elitist number of Super Club supports however, the foundation of Rugby its grass roots continues to decline and be deliberately undermined by the self interested parties i.e. Rich men and their allies in the WRU. The prime example of this is the inclusion of 2 South African sides which may or may not help South Africa but certainly won’t help Welsh Rugby’s strength in dept. While at the same time the restructuring of the Welsh Premiership is deliberately designed to undermine a building of the fan base and the neglect of structure within the area of the Super Clubs, while turning a blind eye to what was supposed to be the level playing fields of funding for Clubs to encourage the sustainability of the grassroots and once again allow Rich Men exploit their wealth to the detriment of the whole game.
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