In the final preview ahead of the new RaboDirect PRO12 season, we take a look at the Welsh regions.
Team: Cardiff Blues
Coach: Phil Davies
Ground: Cardiff Arms Park (Cap. 12,500)
Key Players in: Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Mathew Rees (Llanelli), Miles Normandale (Cardiff Met University)
Key Players out: Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), Tom James (Exeter Chiefs), Ceri Sweeney (Exeter Chiefs), Michael Paterson (Sale Sharks), Campese Ma’afu (Nottingham), Cory Hill (Moseley), Jake Cooper-Wooley (London Wasps), Nathan Trevett (London Welsh), Jason Tovey (Newport Gwent Dragons)
While Jamie Roberts leaves, the presence of Lions captain Sam Warburton in the squad will provide a level head both on and off the pitch. The return of Gethin Jenkins – alongside the signing of Welsh front row team mate Matthew Rees – should go a long way to ensuring Cardiff’s scrum can contend with its rivals. But it is the stalwart boot of Halfpenny which will drive the Blues’ attack; the ability to ping penalties from anywhere within your opponents half is as much a psychological advantage as it is tactical.
The departure of Jamie Roberts will be a massive blow to the Blues’ midfield, considering the way he rounded off his Lions tour. Upcoming winger Harry Robinson needs to start coming up with the goods on the offensive – 2 tries in 1477 minutes of rugby last season was not good enough. Under all of this, the ongoing saga of the Welsh exodus continues to rage; the worry over retaining players could overshadow the work on the pitch, especially when the Blues boast Halfpenny and Warburton, arguably the most treasured pairing in Wales.
Player to watch:
Tough to look anywhere apart from at the bastion that is Leigh Halfpenny. Player of the tournament in the Six Nations, player of the series for the Lions – his star keeps on rising. Unless injury blights his season, expect Halfpenny to be the rock upon which the Blues will build their campaign.
Last season: a disappointing campaign saw them finish 9th.
Prediction: Although improvements have been made, it is unlikely they will be challenging towards the upper echelons of the tournament. 7th.
Team: Llanelli Scarlets
Coach: Simon Easterby
Ground: Parc y Scarlets (Capacity: 14,870)
Key Players in: Steven Shingler (London Irish), John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors), Kyle Evans (Llanelli RFC), Darren Harries (Cardiff Blues), Josh Lewis (Ebbw Vale RFC), Frazier Climo (Taranaki RFU)
Key Players out: Mathew Rees (Cardiff Blues), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers), Andy Fenby (London Irish), George North (Northampton Saints), Dan Newton (London Scottish), Tavis Knoyle (Gloucester Rugby), Johnathan Edwards (Cardiff RFC), Peter Edwards (London Welsh), Kieran Murphy (Brive), Rhys Jones (Released), Dale Ford (Neath RFC), Richie Pugh (Released)
Ever since their glory days of yesteryear, the Scarlets have been happy enough to trundle along around the doldrums of the Rabo12. They have failed to impress, yet at the same time, they have never been particularly disappointing – at least not in the eyes of the neutral. Last year saw the first signs of change, as they managed to finish 4th, losing out in an away semi-final to Ulster. This year, they will have a strong platform to build upon following such a strong outing.
The biggest (perhaps literally) change to the Scarlets team sheet this season will be the absence of Wales and Lions star winger, George North. North has well and truly established himself as one of the most prolific wingers in the Northern Hemisphere. His transfer over the border to Northampton Saints will have many Scarlets fans fretting that their attacking bite has lost its most powerful fang. The loss of Tavis Knoyle will also add to those worries.
Player to Watch:
After the departure of George North, Jonathan Davies stands alone as the only British and Irish Lion of 2013 within the Scarlets squad. Davies had a fantastic tour, made all the sweeter in that he stood up to the mark when he was threatened with being dragged into the whole debacle surrounding BOD-gate. He will need to be on top form to allow the Scarlets attack to perform to its ability.
Last Season: A return to the right end of the league saw them finish 4th, losing in the semi finals.
Prediction: They might not have the same level of ‘big name’ players as their rivals, but that did not stop them from trumping them last year. 4th.
Team: Newport Gwent Dragons
Coach: Darren Edwards
Ground: Rodney Parade, (Capacity: 11,676)
Key Players in: Richie Rees (Edinburgh), Kris Burton (Treviso), Netani Talei (Edinburgh), Tetaz Chaparro (Stade Francais), T.Rhys Thomas (London Wasps), Jason Tovey (Cardiff Blues)
Key Players out: Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro), Tom Brown (Jersey), Tim Ryan (Coventry), (Dan Watchurst (Retired), Tonderai Chavhanga (Released), Hywel Stoddart (Released), Josh Tyler (Released), Jamie Smith, (Released), Anitelea Tuilagi (Released)
Never say die. This was the attitude that – admirably – Newport embraced so well last year. And well they had to. Some of last season’s results, namely the 60-3 loss at home to Glasgow Warriors, will haunt the dreams of Newport fans for years to come. However, their attitude and determination never faltered, and was a strong indication of how close this squad is as a unit.
Defence. Although their attitude may have been admirable, Newport’s defence was the major thorn in their side throughout last season, which saw them finish 11th, but with the worst points against, of 589. The loss of Dan Lydiate, who was so vocal in his rallying of the team following on from those big defeats last season, will be felt throughout the squad. And it will be missed even more out on the pitch.
Player(s) to Watch:
This year’s signings of Kris Burton and Richie Rees could prove to be vital. If they become the starting halfback partnership, they could provide Newport with the base in attack which they have been sorely lacking.
Last season: only finished above Zebre, who couldn’t manage a single win, in 11th.
Prediction: the loss of Dan Lydiate will prove to be disastrous. 11th.
Coach: Steve Tandy
Ground: Liberty Stadium (Capacity: 20,750)
Key Players in: Tyler Ardon (Ontario Blues), Jeff Hassler (Prairie Wolf Pack), Tito Tebaldi (Zebre), Mathew Dwyer (Bridgend Ravens), Jamie Murphy (Bridgend Ravens), Sam Williams (Aberavon), Aisea Natoga (Nadroga)
Key Players out: Kahn Fotuali’i (Northampton), Campbell Johnstone (Krasny Yar), George Stowers (Tasman), Jonathan Thomas (Worcester Warriors), James Goode (Released)
Under the captaincy of Alun-Wyn Jones, the victorious 3rd Test Talisman, the Ospreys can call upon no less than five British and Irish Lions (Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ian Evans, and Richard Hibbard), four of whom featured in the pack of that famous 41-16 win over Australia. That pack will be the backbone of the Ospreys campaign.
Relying on so many internationals has major disadvantages. Come the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations, the Ospreys are likely to lose vast swathes of their starting team to their respective international sides. When that time comes about, Ospreys may struggle to maintain their form and possible momentum. The likes of Newport and Llanelli are unlikely to be as affected, and will be licking their lips to have a go at a Ospreys team deprived of its most prized talismans. There is also the risk of player burnout following on from such a demanding season last year.
Player to Watch:
With Sam Warburton facing a lengthy layoff, Alun-Wyn Jones must be relishing the opportunity to put his hand up for Wales. The best way for him to do that is to lead Ospreys the way he led the Lions; with courage, ambition, and raw commitment.
Last season: just missed out on the play-offs, finishing 5th.
Prediction: Fotuali’i is a huge loss, and their international contingent will be tired/absent for large parts of the season. Expect them to come out of the blocks firing, but to fall out of the running mid-spring. 6th.
By Will Taylor
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images