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A Cool Start . . . Now Resting Welsh Regions Need To Turn Up The Heat

While Wales take on Australia this weekend, the four Welsh regions take a breather for the next three weeks until the Guinness Pro 14 resumes. Geraint Powell takes the temperature of the four of them and says all need to warm up quickly when the action resumes.

The first block of the Welsh regional rugby season is over.

The first eight rounds of the Guinness Pro14 and two rounds in Europe have been completed and the best Welsh rugby players are now in Test camp with Warren Gatland.

In fact, the out-of-window fourth Test matches have been played early this year.

Wales secured a hemisphere victory over Scotland in Cardiff to get their November campaign off to a rare opening win, Ireland defeated Italy in Chicago and England narrowly defeated South Africa amid injury time controversy over tackle height and wrapping arms.

Welsh rugby now turns its attention to the three Regulation 9 Tests, beginning on Saturday evening against Australia and then followed by Tonga and South Africa.

The media spotlight so far this season has inevitably been upon the Scarlets, the flag-bearers for Welsh regional rugby in recent seasons under Aucklander Wayne Pivac.

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And with a wider interest in their form this season, with Pivac already appointed as the next Welsh national coach to follow the end of the long Warren Gatland era after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

As the leading Welsh region, with an inevitable focus on Europe and player conditioning for October, it was always going to be very difficult to draw too many conclusions from their September form and results. This was compounded by a significant early season injury list.

There were disappointing defeats in Ireland to Ulster and Connacht, but hard fought home wins over a similarly October-focussed Leinster and local rivals, Ospreys.

The opening two rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup were disappointing, a late home defeat to Racing 92 followed by another defeat against Leicester at Welford Road.

Conventional wisdom is that it is almost impossible to recover in Europe at nil from two, but the Scarlets did just that last season and were only minutes away from being nil from three. But it will now require no more defeats at home, and wins in Belfast and Paris.

Whatever happens in Europe, the Scarlets will be reasonably relaxed with their current third place in Conference B of the Pro14 and will back themselves to be in the mix at the end of the season.

The other Welsh region in the Champions Cup is the Cardiff Blues, for the first time since it was the old version of the Heineken Cup.

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Inconsistency has been their problem, excellent wins over Munster and Lyon balanced by less impressive defeats against Glasgow and the Cheetahs in South Africa.

A frustrating opening to the season, late leads surrendered to a second string Leinster, Benetton and Zebre in successive weekends. The result: nil from three, when it could so easily have been three from three.

The Blues have a decent squad, the strongest schools districts pathway with three strong WRU Premiership feeder clubs. Patience will be needed whilst their new head coach, John Mulvihill, settles in and fine tunes his selection and tactics with an inherited squad.

The Blues have never been an apolitical organisation where it has been safe for newcomers to come in and rely upon advice and recommendations from others, and the new coach could probably have done without the seemingly liberated departing head coach raising expectations by delivering the Challenge Cup trophy at the exit gate.

The Blues would be better positioned than fourth in the Pro14 table, save for their closing out shortcomings in the opening weeks, but you would expect them to improve as the season progresses. Europe will be a tough ask, with both Saracens and Glasgow also the possessors of 3G pitches and therefore nullifying that potential advantage.

This season in Europe might be more about re-acclimatising to this level of competition, with a view to being really competitive in future seasons.

The recent story of the Ospreys, for so long the flag bearer of Welsh regional rugby, is that they now find themselves reduced to the European Challenge Cup.

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Their once fearsome pack breaking-up in the regional rugby funding contraction in the aftermath of the last UK recession, now even Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb have left for exile. Nowadays, they are very much living in the shadow of the Scarlets region across the Loughor.

But the rebuilding Ospreys will be reasonably contented with their current start to the season and their third place position in the Pro14’s Conference A.

In the Pro14 five wins and a narrow defeat to the Scarlets in Llanelli, the only real black mark being a weakened side going down heavily to Munster in Cork. The defeat last Friday at home to Edinburgh did perhaps highlight the lack of depth at the Welsh regions, though.

In Europe, a comfortable home win over Pau was followed by a narrower away defeat at Worcester. December will be pivotal for the Ospreys, with home and away back-to-back matches against a Stade Francais side that have already lost to Worcester and Pau and whose interest in this plate competition is likely to already be somewhat waning.

The currently unbeaten Worcester will visit the Liberty Stadium on the penultimate weekend of pool matches in January.

Head coach Allan Clarke will be looking to keep grinding out wins in the Pro14, with the Blues and Connacht close on their heels, and with the Challenge Cup providing another opportunity for silverware and additional revenue.

Lastly, as so often the case in the last 10-15 years, we turn to Gwent. The Dragons find themselves marooned at the bottom of the Pro14’s Conference B.

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To all intents and purposes they are organisationally being rebuilt from scratch, since the final departure of Newport RFC from the professional regional game in 2017, but without any “special measures” procedure to financially fast track their recovery in a city that 20 years ago witnessed a professional club’s overhaul by a private benefactor throwing money at a recovery.

A summer recruitment drive heavily focussed upon Welsh exiles coming out of contract and an increased player budget permitting a stronger squad. But they are inevitably somewhat unbalanced by a player wage bill millions lower than the other Welsh regions and with a current squad therefore vulnerable both to gelling/cohesion requirements and above average injury lists.

The region has so far been within acceptable parameters on the injury list front, but it is fair to say that there has not been a quick gelling of the re-shaped squad and there have been post-recruitment drive cohesion issues with the line-out, in attack and – particularly – in defence.

A revolving door of outside-halves as a result of injuries and poor form has not helped the spine of the team in terms of settling into a pattern.

The Pro14 has seen home wins over the Southern Kings and Zebre, and minnows Timisoara were accounted for in the Challenge Cup, but otherwise there has been precious little cheer in Gwent and it is very much a case of grin and bear for the time being until things start to fall into place for head coach Bernard Jackman.

The region will be looking to pick-off a few home wins, and a long overdue away win, but attention will probably already be turning to further re-shaping their squad for next season and one which will probably be based more on making room within the existing budget than on expecting to receive additional funding.

With the possible exception of the Scarlets losing at home to Racing 92 and the Blues’ first three Pro14 matches, it was an opening block of the regional season which very much reflects the overall state of the regional game.

 

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