It’s derby day in Wales this weekend and Robin Davey is feeling optimistic that all four regions now have sufficient quality to make the outcomes difficult to predict. But he still fancies the Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets.
A fairly uneventful start to the Guinness Pro 14 season is about to explode into action with the arrival of two hotly contested derbies on Saturday in front of near full houses.
In the west, the Scarlets take on the Ospreys at Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday afternoon and just over two hours later in the east the Dragons face Cardiff Blues at Rodney Parade.
It’ll be fast and furious with bragging rights very much at stake and all four sides eager to go into European competition next week with an all-important win under their belts.
Unlike far too many of these fixtures it recent years, much-needed unpredictability has made these matches significantly more appealing,
The Blues have got the Indian sign over their rivals for the Dragons haven’t beaten them since 2014. This time there appears to be little in it, though, with the two teams having almost identical records.
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Both have won two matches and lost three, but the Blues sit higher in their conference table because they have earned five bonus points compared with the Dragons’ paltry one.
The Blues lost their opening three games against Leinster, Benetton and Zebre after leading each time, then recovered to thrash Munster only to trail against lowly Cheetahs but manage two late tries to secure a narrow victory.
The Dragons, coming from a far lower base, have managed home wins against Southern Kings and Zebre after losing their opener against a more than useful Benetton side, then getting thrashed by a near full strength Leinster in Dublin and losing in Glasgow last Saturday.
But those two wins meant that before the end of September they had managed as many victories as in the whole of last season. It is now imperative that they build on that, and victory over their near neighbours wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Their squad has been strengthened considerably, Ross Moriarty their star signing. but they’ve also brought in players of the calibre of Rhodri Williams and Jordan Williams, both back in Wales after spells with Bristol, plus front row trio Richard Hibbard, Aaron Jarvis and Ryan Bevington and Samoan lock Brandon Nansen, among others.
There is a new resolve among their ranks which, allied to the possibility of exciting developments off the field, bodes well for the future after years of under-achievement.
Cardiff Blues are taking time to adapt to new Australian coach John Mulvihill after the departure of Danny Wilson, but they have got plenty of firepower in their ranks and will take some holding on Saturday.
Ellis Jenkins has started the season pretty much where he left off in the summer when he was joint Wales tour captain with Dragons lock Cory Hill and his battle with the highly rated Ollie Griffiths on Saturday should be one of the highlights.
The Scarlets and the Ospreys also have remarkably similar records this season, both lying second in their respective conference tables.
The Ospreys have two more points as they have won four matches compared with their rivals’ three, though the Scarlets have two more bonus points.
Last season’s runners-up started the campaign with a horrendous number of injuries and travelled to Ulster with 14 players out of action – key performers Jonathan Davies, Rob Evans, Johnny McNicholl and Jake Ball among them.
But significantly Davies, player-of-the-series for the Lions in New Zealand, made his long awaited return against Southern Kings last weekend and celebrated by scoring two tries in the 54-14 rout, also playing the full 80 minutes.
Wayne Pivac, in his final season with the Scarlets before taking the reins with Wales, was delighted with Davies’s comeback which puts the team in great heart for Saturday’s derby.
But the Ospreys will be similarly buoyed by their 22-8 victory against Zebre, the fact that it was in Italy – not such an easy place to win these days – even more gratifying.
They seem to have overcome the loss of Dan Biggar, now impressing for Northampton, and in Luke Morgan and George North possess huge menace on the wings.
Morgan has arrived via the Wales Sevens circuit where he is their all-time record points scorer and he was a constant threat against Zebre, apart from scoring their only try.
Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards, with the Ospreys on a consultancy basis, has predictably had a galvanising effect alongside fellow coaches Allen Clarke and Matt Sherratt.
Everything points two a couple of titanic derbies with all four sides fancying their chances.
In both cases I reckon it’s too tight to call, but maybe edging towards the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues emerging triumphant.