The State Of The Nation

This will be my first address to our avid readers and be depending on reactions maybe the first of many welcome, or not, opinions, comments, discussions and wishes for our game, both national and regional. I hope to reflect on what has happened and speculate on what is to come on the Homefront in the game we love and hold closest to our hearts.

The title, chosen for what I hope to pass on and hopefully more regularly than that used by our colonial cousins across the Atlantic when their illustrious leader annually addresses his adoring public ( Mr Trump take note – that is adoring). I will at times find it extremely difficult to hide my affections for my beloved but battered Cardiff Blues, however, I will endeavour to remain as impartial as I can whilst loyal to the core. Loyal, that is, to the players ……. But I will return to this “even hotter than usual” topic a little later.

Let’s start this week on a high note, and there are so few around at present. The Scarlets once again showed us what a happy camp, run by a progressive, intelligent and underestimated coach, can really do. Yes their re-emergence as a Welsh regional power has been sometime overdue, but with the financial issues they have had resulting in a necessity to blood youth, it has taken time, but when a ship is steered well it will eventually reach calmer waters. The right approach to holding onto experience to guide the youth, intelligent recruitment and perseverance and belief has resulted in a side that is so easy on the eye going forward that they are a pleasure to watch. This week, once again they showed us all what they are about. Free flowing exciting rugby, intelligent options, and great angles. It looks unstoppable at times. Unfortunately, it seemed their defensive frailties surfaced again against a determined Connacht side, who themselves like to play rugby the right way ( and must sometimes be glad to be free from the wild winds that can afflict their Galway home so that they can accurately play the way they want to). The men in green were committed and more than capable of accepting some of the gifts passed their way. Great entertainment for the neutral and, eventually the right team won. So with that victory accompanied by the bonus point, The Scarlets sit proudly on top of Conference B.

Let’s stay with conference B and another Welsh success this week, for the Dragons no less. That’s two wins for the much-beleaguered men of Gwent, even if the opposition wasn’t necessarily of the highest quality. Their neighbours who are both blue in colour and mood at this point would love to have the same record. A refreshing attitude and willingness to play shown by their young talented back line led by two not quite so young half-backs. Sarel Pretorius showing what a nuisance he can be to opponents and also giving the time and service for the prodigal son at standoff to orchestrate his team. How does a man with barely a second to spare look like he has all day to solve the next puzzle placed in front of him. It has been said many times that ‘ if you’re good enough then you’re old enough’, well it may well be true also that if ‘you’re good enough you’re young enough’ too.  It was also good to see the prodigious talent that is Hallam Amos back and on the score sheet, although his current visit to the Dragons first team and the Pro 14 will be somewhat short-lived with yet another injury depriving him of Derby action this week. It seems that WRU ownership could be the dawn of a new era in the east. Early days and there will be a lot of ups and downs but the mood is better and that is most definitely a move in the right direction.

Now to conference A, and whatever has happened to the Ospreys this season? With the return of their Lions and with three more central contract players than any other side, they are not firing at all. After the previous loss to a buoyant Treviso side in Italy, showing belief from their away victory in Edinburgh, they were travelling into the unknown in being the first Welsh region to visit our more than welcome fifth nation the home of the exciting Cheetahs. The Cheetahs themselves had attractively dismantled a rather shell-shocked and lacklustre Leinster the week before, so what were we to expect? Tries, definitely, and they delivered. A fast track? Yes, of course, another tick here. So an exciting enthralling game ??? Ah, no… Poor error-strewn and somewhat disjointed. The Ospreys possess the weaponry, they have just failed to load the gun. They are showing a rather worrying pattern of wrong decision making and disorganisation in the face of the enemy . Very lucky that that was not the case at Rorke’s Drift many years ago. ( The Irish don’t give us much here in Wales ( the Scarlets have just discovered this to their detriment with the impending loss of Tadgh Beirne), but one of their ancestors did lend his name to the venue for that glorious day in Welsh history). Let’s hope better times are ahead for the perennial standard bearers for Welsh regional rugby.

And now, staying in Conference A, I finally arrive at the Cardiff Blues, be honest what were we really expecting at Thomond Park? Yes, they gained a well-deserved victory the previous year, albeit at the lesser favoured of Munster’s home grounds, and yes they arrived fresh from a gutsy, brave determined performance and well deserved victory away at Connacht the previous week. But, and this is a big but, with the news coming out just days before that coach Danny Wilson was to leave and then making eight changes from the team that had literally gutsed out the win in Galway there was only going to be one outcome, or was there?  For forty minutes Cardiff Blues played intelligent calculating rugby using the touchline intelligently controlling the ball well and defending bravely and with an organisation. This left them taking a lead into the halftime break. However, what happened in the dark depths of the changing room I do not know but the same team did not appear for the second half. error-strewn and disorganised they failed to add a single point in the final 40 and as had happened in Dublin earlier in the season, Cardiff Blues limped off the field at the final whistle, well beaten.

I have read a few articles this week and numerous tweets questioning the temperament of our young outside half Jarrod Evans, however, no player with questionable temperament, would have the ability to judge and execute a kick such as he did under enormous pressure and in very testing conditions the previous week to win a game at the final whistle. It was truly sublime. So what is it when the same player, twice in three minutes kicks haplessly out of hand to a team with superior numbers to freely run back at them and turn a game on its head that they had worked so hard to be in. Maybe it’s game management, choices, I don’t know. But I hope he finds his course soon as his ability is not questioned, just the application of it may be.

I finished on the Cardiff Blues for a reason, yes they are my favoured home, but they are also, as is becoming usual around CF10, this week’s hot topic. As all bar the Eskimos know, Cardiff Blues announced this week that their popular first-team coach, Danny Wilson will quit his post at the end of the year. It was stated that as in his agreement, he was offered a one-year extension to his current contract, but due to numerous changes in circumstances at the club in the recent past, he has chosen not to take up this opportunity. Danny is an honest man and has applied himself diligently to the task at hand with ever-dwindling resources and support around him. I won’t go into this further, just to say that if you have not read it then please visit this link to read Simon Thomas’s candid interview, where an honest trustworthy reporter chats with an open and proud coach (http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/ugly-news/danny-wilson-qa-leave-heavy-13712180).

So, the search has started and many experts, pundits and ex-players are throwing names into the hat that they think could be candidates for the thankless job that, at present, is the role of Cardiff Blues head coach, of course, there is the matter to consider of, who would actually want it? A lot of big names in the rugby world would hate to be hampered and restricted by the limited budget and development with the limited investment policy that the region has adopted in recent times. However, the tree that is the ‘ academy’ could in time, if well managed and nurtured, bare rich fruit indeed. Cardiff Blues have struggled for years in certain positions, second row and tighthead prop to just name two. But with a number of really promising players coming through, and not just in these named positions, this could be a big attraction to someone of the right calibre, experience and patience.

Could the Cardiff Blues yet take their place at the top table of European rugby in the foreseeable future?  Well only with the right man at the helm and only if enough funds are made available to keep enough of the senior players around to support these young talents on their potential journey to the top. There is, of course, the issue of leadership to be addressed, and not on the field. For years Cardiff Blues ship has drifted rudderless in the rough seas of professional rugby. Yes, the chairman has invested millions, we are ever grateful and understand why he has reconsidered and thinks it’s time tighten the purse strings, but there other aspects of leadership and Gwyn Jones highlighted them in spectacular, controversial but not untimely manner on Scrum V on Sunday. For those of you who missed it, please download the podcast. It is a must see. Mr Jones is a respected ex-player and gentleman. His views are always measured thoughtful and precise, we may not always agree with them but he makes his points clearly and explains why he has them. So for him to be this animated is rare but he is also correct, and it had to be said. I am just pleased that it was done by someone respected and on live tv. Scrum V has taken a new turn in the last year and with panellists like Mr Jones and Peter Jackson who are willing to step outside of the corridors of power and say what they see, it has become once again compulsive viewing. they are the educated voice of the people. More please gents.

Now onto the fast approaching Autumn International season and Wales’s games against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. After an eventful summer with our boys heading south strewn of our lions and then after the first weather-beaten encounter against Tonga in Auckland, the cupboard was left even bearer by the exit of the Geography lions. The young lads battled well in tough conditions against determined opponents. They were led well by some old heads and Jamie Roberts showed his mettle and experience guiding them through to two deserved victories. Some good game time for the youngsters and I am certain it will hold them in good stead moving forward, but the question around the first XV still remains. What will be our game plan going forward? In New Zealand Warren Gatland relented on his usual approach of a big 12 down the channel, and in keeping with what his much-criticised lieutenant had done in his absence, he decided to put an inside centre on the field with nous and guile. However, when returning from Lions Red to the Welsh shade of that glorious colour, will he be as bold? As always Jamie will be standing in the wings, and Scott Williams has shown his not to be shirked at skillset in the last year, but are we moving forward? Are we planning for the next World Cup? Are we? Are we? I will tell you something, just in case you may have missed it. The old enemy across the border have been planning for it for two years. And if we don’t get our fingers out of our proverbial, it will be too late. The time is now and not another moment to lose. Since the loss of Mr Henson, who could be trusted at inside-centre to make the big hits, give the back line its solidity and strengthen the defensive line as well as showing limitless skills in ball handling, kicking, running angles and distribution. Warren Gatland has been wary to opt for the latter over the former as our talent pool has not unearthed someone with the ability to offer both. However, hail the returning King. Gavin is back and firing on all cylinders. Surely not, could he? No no, hell why not?. Well for one Mr Gatland is not one who forgives easily, ask Mr Hibbard. But if we can’t cast our eyes east then why can’t we cast them west where a man of similar stature, speed and deftness of hand is leading the Scarlets revival,showing speed, strength in the tackle and a great plus too , he can kick the ball a mile ( which could help solve another of Gatland’s conundrums of fitting four into three at the back). Rhys Patchell may have left the Cardiff Blues to play at 10, and in the Wales camp, they may not see him as such, especially with his still-developing game management. But we are not asking him to play there and we are not putting him solely in charge of that aspect. What we are doing is asking him to place the lad at inside centre where this is a split second more time in set play and possibly acres more space in broken play. There he can bring his particular brand of magic to the Welsh game. With an experienced head inside him, such as Biggar, who is limited in his distribution but was excellent for the Lions in the summer, deserves his place, or even a resurgent Priestland or Davies or even Anscombe on his return as they have previous experience together and proof that it works. I eagerly await the announcement of the squad as with a number of senior players out with long-term injuries it will be the talk of many barrooms across the land as to who will be in to take their place. We will all have our favourites and we will all campaign diligently for our man, but whatever it ends up being I hope there are vision and promise, not just in his selections but also in our approach and style.

Well, that’s all from me for this week, if you’ve managed to stay with me throughout, well done, and maybe I can interest you to stick around for another episode in the near future.

This game infuriates us, it divides us, it frustrates us and it angers us, but it also unites us, enthrals us and makes us stand tall, we love it and we live it and it brings us some of the greatest moments in our lives. When it’s possible to say – ” I was there” RWC 2015 England 25 -28 Wales. Is it all worth it? Yes, too bloody right it is.

Andy Lewis