Welsh teams eye up Heineken Cup final in Cardiff

Millennium StadiumFollowing the Irish article earlier, Paul French assesses the chances of the Welsh regions in Europe this season and whether one of them can make it to the Millennium in May.

Two results at the end of last season suggest that Welsh hopes of landing a first Heineken Cup may be more realistic this year. Cardiff Blues and The Ospreys secured silverware in the Amlin Challenge Cup and Magners League respectively, and did so the hard way with away wins in their respective finals.

Ospreys

This season’s draw has not been kind to one of the recent Welsh flag bearers in Europe, with the Ospreys finding themselves in the supposed group of death.

The expectation and pressure is always there with the Liberty Stadium outfit having been deemed the Galacticos of Welsh rugby, but this year places them in the refreshing position of being relative outsiders to win their pool.

Early season form has been mixed though. Two expectedly comfortable home wins against Italian opposition have been undermined by two underwhelming performances away in Ireland.

Defeat of the Scarlets on Saturday will have boosted the Ospreys confidence, as will the returns of James Hook and Ryan Jones. But Toulon at the Stade Mayol will be a further step up on Saturday; perhaps too early a step for their returning key names to hit the ground running.

The all-star French side are similar to the Ospreys in respect of their recruitment policy, however the nous possessed by Munster and London Irish’s recent performances, albeit inconsistent ones, should mean the main challenges come from their British and Irish opposition.

Sean Holley’s side can take confidence from the manner in which they managed to win last season’s Magners League, rising to the occasion to beat Leinster on Irish soil, but Munster in Europe are another level up altogether.

Cardiff Blues

The Blues enjoyed a real revival at the end of last season, culminating in Amlin Challenge Cup glory. However Dai Young’s side now find themselves at something of a crossroads.

Their Magners League form has been solid, but not spectacular. Questions remain unanswered about the solidity of their set-piece, with Xavier Rush continuing to compensate for a creaking scrum.

The introduction of Dan Parks does though give the Blues what they have been desperately lacking in recent seasons: stability at outside half. While they possess the players to throw it around in the backs, such as the brilliant Casey Lualua, the ability to play a more territory-oriented game will put them in good stead.

On early-season league form alone I would say that they will struggle to live with Northampton, but unlike their English counterparts, the Blues will have the ability to target their matches in December, such is the nature of the respective leagues.

Having developed a habit of beating sides of the stature of Castres and Edinburgh in recent seasons, the minimum expectation should be four wins.

Scarlets

There are signs of a revival at Parc-yr-Scarlets. Early season form has suggested that the West Walians are finally starting to move in the right direction.

Last season’s Heineken cup wins over London Irish were the exception to an otherwise unsatisfactory season.

However this campaign, Nigel Davies’ side appears to be maturing into a much more cohesive unit. But that is not to say they are quite good enough yet to make the knockout stages.

They have an ability to produce plucky wins in Europe, as demonstrated last year, but the potential for more upsets looks, in theory, limited against the well-oiled machines of Leicester Tigers and Perpignan.

To dismiss their credentials completely would be a mistake though. The Scarlets are a side with real momentum behind them, having only just been denied by poor officiating in last Saturday’s derby game against the Ospreys after having done something of a number on the Dragons the week before.

Should they manage to catch Perpignan cold in the opening round, and if their key pivot Stephen Jones can stay injury-free, they could surprise a lot of people.

Newport Gwent Dragons

The Dragons’ dismal start to the new season has been well documented. A glut of injuries has exposed the lack of strength in depth at Rodney Parade, but that can never be an excuse for the poor tackling and poor defensive organisation, so alarm bells should already be ringing.

In last season’s Heineken cup, Paul Turner’s side nearly produced a massive upset, just falling short at Kingsholm to Gloucester. Even the most optimistic of supporters will have written off pushing Wasps anywhere near as close when the sides meet in December.

The gap in class was evident when the Dragons played French opposition last year in the shape of Biarritz. It would take a truly gutsy performance to even contain a Toulouse team operating on a budget some four times their own.

That said though they still possess a handful of quality individual players, such as Dan Lydiate and Jason Tovey, but at this level of competition their squad is lacking the experience and quality necessary to compete.

A true marker of success for the Men of Gwent will be whether they come out on top in their now annual European tussle with Glasgow. Failure to do so may leave many questioning the direction the region is heading in under the current management.

By Paul French (@paulfrugby)