Guinness Pro 14: Welsh Team Review

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Welsh teams well primed for competitive seasons

A mixed off-season for the four Welsh regions ahead of the newly revamped Guinness Pro 14 league. Cardiff Blues and Dragons have or had financial issues hanging over them while Scarlets and Ospreys have moved to strengthen their squads. Hawkeye Sidekick casts an eye on the comings and goings in Wales.

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Cardiff Blues – financial issues a plenty

A summer of financial uncertainty for anyone associated with the Cardiff Blues. The decision of Peter Thomas to rein in his financial commitment has had immediate impact on the player recruitment.

Marquee signing Franco van der Merwe from Ulster in the off-season looks like he will be offloaded before playing for the club. The news that Leigh Halfpenny joined Scarlets and not Cardiff Blues was a surprise considering the players linking with Cardiff Blues club.

The player personnel issues have also being seen in the backroom staff. Billy Millard (head of player recruitment) left for family reasons while defence coach Graham Steadman has also left the club. Both staff members have yet to be replaced.

The redevelopment plans of the Arms Park needs to happen to increase revenue streams outside of rugby; they are currently on hold at the moment and there was discussions with WRU on ownership which did not reach an agreement. Uncertainty is in abundance at the club off the field, sad to see. Hope the club is able to move forward soon.

Players In and Outs

Three confirmed players have signed for the club. Franco van der Merwe arrived and now is being offloaded to London Irish.

Jack Roberts arrives from Leicester Tigers. The center is a promising player. His work rate and pace are key strengths and with cameos for the Tigers means that the Blues have a player who is well equipped to the challenge of the Guinness Pro 14.

Damien Welch joins from the Exeter Chiefs, a second row whose size and physicality will provide squad depth to the lock positions given the premature departure of marquee signing van der Merwe.

Sion Bennett arrives from Northampton Saints, a flanker who will look to push for game minutes but will be up against it considering the existing back row options containing Williams, Navidi, Warburton.

Two significant departures from the club. The excellent Cory Allen moves to the Ospreys is an intriguing development. The center player whose pace and try scoring ability is to the fore. A big loss for Cardiff Blues and a player who should feature further in the national side leading into RWC 2019.

The versatile Jarrad Hoeata was a tremendous servant to Cardiff Blues; his ability to fill multiple positions in the second row and back row was excellent. Another loss to the club who moves to North Harbor in New Zealand.

The other departures saw Marc Thomas move to Yorkshire Carnegie, Liam Belcher to Dragans while Cam Dolan and Pele Cowley were released. Six departures from the club so the question is whether Cardiff Blues can compete when the international fixtures take place.

Verdict:

The current squad has several marquee names and should suggest that the team should be further up the league. Warburton, Navidi, Williams are immense back row options. Jenkins and Rees are still on the books and their front row guidance to young, up and coming talent can be only beneficial to develop the academy.  Lloyd Williams at nine is a superb talent, his passing range and ability to spot defensive line gaps is always on point. The back line is full of talent with Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Steve Shingler.

The squad looks competitive but with the ever precarious financial problems at the club, will the board decide to raise further liquidity and offload some other prized assets similar to the van der Merwe deal?

The club are at a standstill and until issues off the pitch are resolved, Cardiff Blues will struggle. A good European Challenge Cup combined with a competitive Pro 14 season are the objectives. International fixture windows will speak volumes on Cardiff Blues squad depth which is reduced; just outside the top three for me.

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Dragons — new look setup

It is all change down at Rodney Parade. Financial issues cast a shadow over the region early in the off-season but the region relaunch and the appointment of Bernard Jackman as head coach has created optimism in the camp.

Jackman’s appointment on paper looks an astute appointment. I have already being impressed by Jackman’s viewpoint on the game and his twitter exchanges have endeared him to the Dragons fan base.

Jackman will take his experiences from Grenoble and attempt to assist a Dragons squad whose young age profile is complemented with off-season signings of Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner.

Grenoble last season was a difficult time for Jackman as his side struggled early in the season. Jackman was not only to blame for the relegation but the budget size indicated that the club should have being challenging further up the table.

Players Ins and Outs

The key marquee signings were the signatures of Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner. Both players can fill multiple back line positions. Henson is an excellent footballer and will relish the chance of becoming a team leader in the squad. His game management at ten or twelve will prove crucial in addition to his feedback to up and coming squad players.

Kirchner at Leinster was a superb overseas signing for the Irish province. Reliable, professional and committed to the cause, the South African will add pace and quality to the back three. His ability to play full back will be a valuable asset to the squad particularly in the international fixture windows.

Liam Belcher and Gerard Ellis arrive to the club looking to create a positive impression to the Dragons management; the objective is to get game minutes so these signings are very much a work in progress at this time.

Seven players departed the first team squad in the off-season. The significant departure was the exciting back player Tom Pyrdie who moves to regional rival Scarlets. Other players to depart Rodney Parade were Shaun Knight who moves to Bath Rugby, a prop who is well regarded and is a loss to the club. Nick Crosswell moves to Manawatu Turbos. Darran Harris and Craig Mitchell were released while retirement for T.Rhys Thomas.

Verdict:

Transition is a keyword for the Dragons this season. New head coach who will look to implement key attacking and defensive components with the side; there will be breakdowns in each facet but the hope is that this youthful side can take some initial setbacks to improve as players and a team. Jackman will look for his side to become more disciplined in the set piece; quite a number of sin bins last season saw games slip away from the side. The conference will be tough given that Leinster, Ulster, Scarlets and Southern Kings are in the mix. The hope is that the team improve as the season progresses and for a lengthy run in the European Challenge Cup. A side whose speed and pace will be exciting to watch. Outside top three but competitiveness will be the key for this team.

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Ospreys look to push from last season

Last season and the business end of the season should act as motivation for the Ospreys. It all looked so good for the Ospreys prior to their European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Stade Francais. Flying high in the Pro 12 league. Imperious in European Cup action. It all fell a bit flat after a narrow defeat to Stade Francais and the form regressed thereafter with an unexpected Pro 12 loss to Treviso. The Pro 12 playoff loss to Munster was frustrating in the extreme; a good start but no scores on the board was then punished by Munster in the playoff semi-final.

Ospreys are an excellent side; several marquee established names in the squad. Alun Wyn Jones is an incredible leader and second row. The back row boosts the likes of Justin Tipuric whose breakdown work is world class. Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Ashley Beck, Dan Evans, Keelan Giles who had a breakout season last year are all superb players. Ospreys have signed three astute signings which will increase squad depth.

James Hook returns to the club from Gloucester Rugby. Hook has all the skills and attributes; his ability to identify space for line runners is exceptional and with an excellent kicking game from hand and off the tee, the Ospreys have a player who will fit seamlessly into the setup. An astute signing particularly when Wales are international action. The loss of Biggar and potentially Sam Davies is offset by this signing.

Cory Allen joins the club from Cardiff Blues. A player who will add squad depth to the three quarters. His pace and try scoring ability are to the fore. An exciting signing and one that will spark good competition for three quarter first team spots with the likes of Beck, Fonotia, Hook (potentially), Ben John and Owen Watkin. Competition for first team spots for sure in the three-quarter unit.

Brian Mujati arrives to the club from a spell at Sale Sharks. The South African prop is an excellent set piece operator and should provide stability and experience to a front row unit who at times at the end of the season struggled for form and confidence. Three signings which will add and enhance to the already excellent squad depth. Exciting times for the Ospreys.

Several notable departures from the club. Sam Underhill leaves for Bath Rugby. Tom O’Flaherty moves to Exeter Chiefs. Josh Matavesi departs for Newcastle Falcons while Joe Bearman has gone to Merthyr. Tyler Ardron makes the move to the Chiefs in New Zealand while Tom Grabham makes the move to the Scarlets. Dan Suter was released. Several high quality players making moves away from the Ospreys.

Verdict:

This squad is well equipped to yet again be at the business end of the Pro 14 season. A key match-up against Munster in the third round of the tournament could be a key indicator of how the Welsh region will fare. Ospreys’ summer arrivals will all enhance the existing squad and the experience of Hook and Mujati in particular will be a valuable asset at the business end of the season. Cory Allen is a signing of immense potential, will be interesting to see how the player goes. Ospreys are definitely a top three conference team. The question is can the Ospreys produce their best form to the business end of the season? If they can, then they will be a tough opponent for anyone.

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Reigning champions look strong

Scarlets arrive into the new season with confidence. A sensational Pro 12 league triumph where the team took apart all challenges at the business end of the season. Emphatic wins against Ospreys, Leinster and Munster showcased Scarlets in all facets of play. Defensively abrasive, quality breakdown work and expansive back play when opportunities arose. They were the complete package in the league last season. Deserving champions.

Player Ins and Outs:

A new season. Scarlets management’s objective was to identify a replacement for the Saracens bound Liam Williams. Mission accomplished with the surprise signing of Leigh Halfpenny, a player who most people would resign back to the Cardiff Blues. A superb player to acquire; Halfpenny will have plenty to prove after a disappointing Lions tour. He has all the skill traits and his penalty kicking will be a valuable weapon for the Scarlet in both domestic and European competition.

Paul Asquith and Tom Prydie join the club to bolster the back line after the departures of Liam Williams and D.T.H van der Merwe to Saracens and Newcastle Falcons respectively. Geraint Rhys Jones will look to increase competition in the back line with his move from the Dragons. Tom Grabham and Morgan Williams are unknown quantities from my perspective so it will be interesting to see if both players can make their way to the first team.

Liam Williams looked a massive loss but is somewhat offset by the acquisition of Leigh Halfpenny. D.T.H. van der Merwe moves to Newcastle Falcons, a consistent performer on the wing who can create tries from nothing. Stef Evans was a revelation last season and should continue that rich vain in form. Peter Edwards, Richard Smith, Morgan Allen have moved into the Welsh club scene while Aled Thomas has retired. Gareth Owens make the move to Leicester Tigers and Rynier Bernardo was released.

Verdict:

A squad who will grow massively from last season. Their ERC campaign was noteworthy for their competitive performances against Saracens and Toulon. The aim this season is to secure a top three conference place; given the squad depth, think this is achievement. Tadhg Beirne, James and Jonathan Davies, Jake Ball, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, John Barclay, Scott Williams; incredible options at the region’s disposal. Scarlets will realize quite quickly that they will be shot at given their champions status but the squad should be strong enough. They are the side to beat this season. Exciting times at Scarlets!

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