New Year but same old pecking order for the Welsh regions? Coach and rugby analyst Tomas Marks examines the evidence from the Boxing Day derbies and looks for clues as to what might happen on New Year’s Day when the Ospreys host Cardiff and the Dragons welcome the Scarlets.
Cardiff and the Ospreys were the resounding winners of the Boxing Day derbies with Cardiff blowing the Dragons away with ease within 40 minutes.
The Ospreys survived a tough first half against the Scarlets but managed to score 25 points in the second half to win at Parc y Scarlets for the first time since 2015.
Cardiff had a good Christmas off the pitch with the positive majority shareholding news and that transcended on the pitch with their best team performance of 2023.
The city slickers performed brilliantly with forwards Rhys Carre, Lewis Belcher, Teddy Williams, Alex Mann, James Botham and Mackenzie Martin in fine form.
Williams was impressive throughout the match with seven carries, one line-break, a try assist, 14 tackles and was their main line-out jumper with five takes.
Former Wales U20s captain Alex Mann continued his impressive transition into pro rugby with a dozen tackles and 16 carries.
According to the URC website, Mann is at the top of the tackle chart with the most tackles made – an impressive 114 and a 91% tackle success.
Rhys Carré adds his second try of the game
What a game we have at the Arms Park
Cardiff Rugby 14-7 Dragons
Watch Live on BBC Two Wales
— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) December 26, 2023
Botham scored a brace of tries on his return and the 25-year-old could add to his nine Welsh caps if he continues this level of performance in January.
Martin has also risen from the shadows in December to stake a claim to be in the Six Nations squad in 2024.
Physically, he’s a big brute at 6ft 5in and over 18 stones and what stood out in this East Wales derby was his desire and workrate on both sides of the ball.
The number eight made 88 metres in his 15 carries against the Dragons and made 14 tackles to highlight his worth as a back rower.
The Cardiff half-backs – Tomos Williams and Tinus De Beer – controlled the match with Williams scoring two scintillating tries.
Williams scored following two superb line breaks from centre Rey Lee-Lo and second row Williams and he was the first to react to gain the scoring passes.
Fly-half De Beer has been a shrewd signing for Cardiff this season as he’s second on the points chart in the URC league with 71.
He has a 91% tackle success rate and the club will get the best out of him as he’s at the peak of his physical ability at 27-years-old.
Y Tîm | The Team
5⃣0⃣ up for @JimboBotham
The Lane Train is back.
— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) December 30, 2023
De Beer added attack and defensive value in this match as he gained two turnovers at the breakdown and a try assist for the Keiron Assiratti score.
Lee-Lo rolled back the years with a sublime performance with three clean breaks and over 128 metres gained in attack.
Full-back Cameron Winnett continued his assured start to the season with a try and Mason Grady outshone his opponent Rio Dyer.
Grady has been used as a winger this season and this has been a clever tactic by Matt Sherratt as he’s made 10 clean breaks in the competition.
Cardiff have shown the Scarlets the template to beat the Dragons by attacking the seams from the line-outs, using the power plays of the pick-and-go, utilising the driving line-out shift, and being courageous after a transition from defence to attack.
Despite only winning one more match than the Scarlets, they have excelled in attack – scoring 27 tries and they are at the top of the tree in terms of clean breaks and off-loads in the competition.
If they want to get into the URC play-offs or top eight they will need to continue blending the experienced and emerging players for continued success.
Credit must be given to academy manager Gruff Rees for his work on transitioning the academy players into the senior environment as this has started to bear fruit with the levels of competition within the Cardiff back row and back three positions.
Another positive influence to this young Cardiff squad is the impact of the senior playing group and coaches.
It’s very noticeable that Gethin Jenkins is helping the mercurial Rhys Carre, Josh Turnbull is supporting the likes of Williams and Mann and the sidelined Taulupe Faletau is improving Martin with the dark arts of playing number eight.
It’s apparent that there is good leadership, mentoring of young players and a style of play at the club and it will be intriguing to see if they can do it on a heavy Brewery Field grass pitch on New Year’s Day!
Here’s how we line up for our New Year’s Day Derby against @Cardiff_Rugby at the Dunraven Brewery Field in Bridgend
— Ospreys (@ospreys) December 30, 2023
The Ospreys weathered a strong Scarlets storm in the first half of the game in Parc y Scarlets to secure a first away win in eight years.
The Scarlets were buoyed with the return of Sam Wainwright, Sam Lousi and captain Josh Macleod.
They secured three scrum penalties in the opening half but couldn’t turn the pressure into points as Ioan Lloyd uncharacteristically struggled from the kicking tee.
Dwayne Peel’s men had 77% possession in the opening 15 minutes but couldn’t land a punch and turn the pressure into points.
During the first half, Adam Beard stole a red zone Scarlets line-out, second row Jac Price was stripped in a double tackle in the act of going for the try line, Gareth Davies was held up over the line, and Ryan Conbeer couldn’t release Ioan Nicholas and Tom Rogers on a three versus one scenario on the last play of the half.
Despite the scoreless first half it was encouraging for the Scarlets as they had a strong scrummaging performance, showed line-out innovation and created several scoring opportunities.
The Scarlets started the second half strongly with a superb Davies interception and impressive speed to score from 50 metres.
Unfortunately, all this work was undone as the Ospreys turned the tide and exerted their power game on the Scarlets.
The Ospreys scored after lots of red zone pressure with Reuben Morgan Williams burrowing over from a ruck.
Cyhoeddiad Tîm | Team Announcement
⚔️ Our 23-man squad to face @dragonsrugby on New Year’s Day at Rodney Parade (KO 17:15)
— Scarlets Rugby (@scarlets_rugby) December 30, 2023
The experienced fly-half Owen Williams slotted a penalty and drop goal to extend the lead to 13-5 ahead of a dramatic final quarter.
After sustained Scarlets pressure they gained a penalty under the posts and Owen Watkin got yellow carded for a team offence.
The decision to go for three points will probably haunt the Scarlets as they could have gone for the jugular and scored seven points against the 14 Ospreys players.
They narrowed the score to 8-13 but let the Ospreys off the hook.
Regrettably for the home team, the Ospreys regathered the momentum and scored themselves after a driving line-out and several pick-and-go plays from Sam Parry.
There was a crazy, non-stop three minutes of attack from the Scarlets with a two versus one missed and Ben Williams fumbling the ball forward in the act of scoring.
Ospreys defence coach Mark Jones would have been very impressed with his team and edge defenders for keeping the Scarlets to only 11 points.
The Scarlets chased for an unlikely draw at the final play but an inaccurate pass from Jonny Williams gifted Jack Walsh with the ball and he ghosted through the Scarlets to wrap up the match and the double.
In this match, the head-to-head battles were intriguing with Ryan Elias edging Dewi Lake at hooker with 16 tackles and 10 carries.
| Aaron Wainwright makes his th Dragons appearance as we take on @Scarlets_rugby at Rodney Parade on NYD! ⤵️
— Dragons RFC (@dragonsrugby) December 30, 2023
Second row James Fender grabbed everyone’s attention in this match to outshine his partner in crime Adam Beard with nine tackles, 14 carries and two turnovers in defence.
Alex Craig completed 18 tackles in this West Wales derby in a steely defensive performance.
Sam Lousi made a positive impact in his 53 minutes back on the pitch with a line-out steal, charge down and six carries and tackles.
Macleod and Teddy Leatherbarrow made 16 tackles each but the king of the tackles on the day was Ospreys openside Harri Deaves with a staggering 25 completed tackles.
Owen Williams eclipsed Ioan Lloyd at ten with a masterclass in game management with a strong kicking and defensive performance.
In the midfield, Jonny Williams made 12 carries and gained 95 metres and George North topped Joe Roberts with 13 carries and 79 metres for the Ospreys.
It will be fascinating to see whether Dwayne Peel will employ a Sam Costelow and Ioan Lloyd in a 10-15 axis in the future as Lloyd is sensational in attack with 11 carries and 121 metres in attack.
This could be a solution to be more clinical and accurate in the wider channels as they create enough opportunities.
Wales v. Scotland in the Six Nations is on 3 February. But a far bigger fixture will take place from New Year’s Day, when Wales bid to beat the Scottish teams and the Barbarians by clocking up more miles during Doddie Aid. Rugby legend Scott Quinnell is leading the charge. pic.twitter.com/WcbxR3kyS9
— Doddie Aid (@doddie_aid) December 31, 2023
The Dragons match against the Scarlets on New Year’s Day will be an enthralling encounter as both teams have similar attacking, scrummaging and discipline statistics this season.
The Dragons will be hoping to rectify their flat performance on Boxing Day that led to 35 missed tackles.
They will be hoping to replicate the Ospreys and keep the Scarlets’ ruck speed to a slow rate.
The Ospreys kept the Scarlets to 37% fast ball which helped them to nullify the Scarlets’ attacking threats.
One area of advantage for the Scarlets is that Craig Evans is the referee at Rodney Parade and the Scarlets players will have noted his tendencies at the breakdown and scrum.
The Scarlets will get stronger as the injured players return and there was a significant improvement with the trio last week.
An epic battle awaits as Peel and Flanagan attempt to start 2024 with a bang.