As the new season looms ever closer, here are five reasons that rugby in Wales will be a completely new game this season:
After arriving on the international scene way back in 2003, Adam Jones has become an icon of Welsh rugby, his long, trademark locks and huge frame instantly recognisable on the field. Jones (or Bomb, if you want to use his nickname) is one of the most successful Welsh players in the professional era, with four Six Nations Titles, four PRO12 titles and a Lions Series win to his name.
Following the well drawn out civil war between the regions and the WRU this season, Jones found himself without a club, leading to him begin pre-season training on his own and back at his old club Neath. Earlier this month, it was revealed that Jones had become a Cardiff Blues player; the club having snapped him up from local rivals Ospreys on a one year deal, following 11 years with the Swansea side. Pairing up with a Lions duo of Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins in the front row, the Blues’ new signing will have a point to prove when facing his former club this season.
Alongside the new sponsorship deal that sees the PRO12 branded as the ‘Guinness PRO12’, BT Sport have reached an agreement with all four regions in a multi-million pound sponsorship deal. The deal sees the home of the Blues being rebranded as the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, with the broadcasters also becoming main shirt sponsors for Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets. The four Welsh regions now join the two Scottish clubs, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh, in sponsorship with BT Sport.
Some fans will criticise the move and its commercial implications, particularly the rebranding of Arms Park, yet this isn’t so alien in rugby; Saracens play their rugby at Allianz Park, and the Australian national side have become Qantas Wallabies, to name but two examples. There are those that will blast the showing of matches on Sky Sports, too – some will still be shown on BBC and S4C – although it’s not such a negative move; it could actually lead to more bums on seats in the stadiums. In a period of financial instability in Welsh rugby, sponsorship deals on a scale such as this are an absolute God-send.
Wales captain Sam Warburton took a brave step in signing a central contract with the Welsh Rugby Union earlier this year, a historic moment and an audacious move against the outgoing flow of players to England and France. As the imminent peace deal between the WRU and the regions draws ever closer, details of other potential players on ‘dual’ contracts (which will be similar to, but not the same as, Warburton’s) have surfaced. The list includes a whole range of Welsh rugby’s biggest names; Ospreys lock Alun Wyn Jones, Dragons talisman Taulupe Faletau, new Scarlets captain Ken Owens, as well as inbound Blues recruit Gareth Anscombe, who has yet to make a senior appearance for Wales.
Whilst there hasn’t been any official confirmation yet, it appears that the WRU will offer central contracts to these players, paying their wages and in turn relieving the regions of some of their financial burdens. The ongoing civil dispute in Wales has almost diluted the importance of these contracts, which would bring Wales in line with other countries with the same system, like that of Ireland and the Southern Hemisphere nations.
In a supersonic whirlwind that’s spanned only a few months, three of four of the Welsh regions have appointed new head coaches for the forthcoming season. Kingsley Jones takes the reigns at the Dragons, Wayne Pivac replaces Ireland-bound Simon Easterby at the Scarlets, whilst Kiwi Mark Hammett is at the Blues. Hammett is arguably the most high profile of the three, having just left the helm of the Hurricanes in the Super 15. These new appointments will no doubt be of huge importance on and off the pitch, as new personalities, ideologies and tactics will surface.
Scarlets ran the risk of becoming too repetitive and predictable with their attacks and runs towards the end of last season, whilst the Dragons looked overworked and exhausted at times. The Blues may have had a better run-in than their compatriots but it’d be wrong to look past their horrific form earlier on in the season. New faces will be a much-needed breath of fresh air and an exciting revitalization for fans and players alike.
Over the last few seasons, it’s become more and more apparent that the Welsh regions are inadequately equipped to compete with the big money offers from over the bridge and across the English Channel. England and France boast a vast range of foreign stars playing for their clubs, so much so that France captain Thierry Dusautoir has publically condemned the influx of foreign players and the consequential impact on home grown talent. This season was no different, as Leigh Halfpenny, Richard Hibbard and Jonathan Davies (amongst others) left South Wales.
Yet things are on the up, as a great deal of players are actually returning to our shores. This season will see the likes of Ian Gough, Andy Powell and Lee Byrne team up at an impressive Dragons side, the latter of whom has been announced as captain for the region. Elsewhere, Craig Mitchell and Tavis Knoyle will represent the Blues this year, whilst the Ospreys have added experience in Cai Griffiths and Martin Roberts. As Irish fly-half Jonny Sexton looks on the brink of returning to Leinster from Racing Metro next year, and with Jamie Roberts hopeful of a return to the Blues in the future, it may well be that we could be seeing a massive change soon, with some of Wales’ biggest names on their way back home.
By Jack Hoare (@jackhoare)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images