Is This The Most Challenging Year in Welsh Rugby Yet?

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Over ten years of regionalism in Wales has seen many ups and downs for the five, then four, regional teams since September 2003. Sadly, irrespective of Wales’ success over the past decade – the regional sides have regularly failed to impress past the domestic league.

Europe has not been a happy hunting ground for the Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets. Despite the Blues clinching the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2010, there has been no sustained success outside notable wins that have turned out to be flashes in the pan.

Up until last season, the Pro12, formerly the Magners League, has provided the Welsh teams an easy route into Europe. Now the league, along with new sponsor Guinness, is being taken far more seriously due to its qualification route for the newly revamped European competitions.

Last season was the poorest in ten seasons for the Welsh teams. Not only did the regions fail to reach the knockout stages of Europe; but they failed to reach the playoffs of the Pro12 with the Ospreys the only team within touching distance.

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However, in an off-season that has been as turbulent as ever in the Welsh game (a high standard of chaos, if there ever was one) there are rays of light that bode well for the upcoming season.

In recent years, the traffic has been one way with the vast majority of players, both Welsh and foreign, opting to leave the regions for the halcyon surroundings of the English Premiership and the most intense, lucrative and utterly flamboyant league in the world in the French Top 14. Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies and Dan Lydiate are just a few who have opted for the Gaelic super-league; with George North, Paul James and James Hook opting for the power of the English Premiership; with the latter joining via a three season stay with Perpingan which ended prematurely due to the Catalan club being relegated from the French top flight.

However, this off-season, despite the aforementioned turbulence, has a tinge of optimism; not least because of the recent agreement of a peace deal.

Another reason for optimism is the sponsorship from BT Sport.

BT has signed up to become the lead shirt sponsors for the Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets; and have taken the naming right for the iconic Cardiff Blues’ ground; now known as the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park.

This sponsorship, along with a more cash-friendly agreement being drawn up for the regions (we assume, and hope, will be finalised before the start of the season) has given the four professional teams more clout in the marketplace and it a step in the right direction for them being competitive against their English, Irish and French counterparts.

No Welsh team will ever have the capital at the disposal of Racing Metro or Toulon; the economy in Wales does not have those types of benefactors. But what it does have is committed rugby men such as Peter Thomas and Mike Cuddy. Neither is afraid of dipping in their own pockets and splashing the cash. In recent seasons, star names coming to Wales have been few and far between, but this summer has seen some of the regions bringing quality in to replace the quality that have exited for pastures new.

The most notable of recruitment drives is the capital city region, Cardiff Blues.

Jarad Hoeata, Manoa Vosawai and the new supposed saviour of the Welsh game, Gareth Anscombe, have been drafted in to replace payers that lead the Blues last year such as Robin Copeland, Bradley Davies and Leigh Halfpenny.

All three signings look like they will not only replace the quality that has left Cardiff this summer, but will go some way in bettering the Blues team this year. It was only Copeland who was a regular performer for the Blues last year, with Davies and Halfpenny being injured and away on international duty respectively for large periods.

Along with Anscombe, Hoeata and Vosawai; the Blues have drafted in Craig Mitchell, Ieuan Jones, Tavis Knoyle, Josh Turnbull, George Watkins and one Adam Jones. The forwards have been bolstered comprehensively; and look to be the pack in Wales to favour. The signing of Adam Jones from the Ospreys, reuniting the Lions 2009 front row in the process, caused a bit of a stir to say the least.

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Aside from frayed relations between the Blues and Ospreys; placing question marks over the solidarity of RRW, the signing of Jones to the capital city proves that the Blues are not scared to get the chequebook out.

The past two seasons in Cardiff have been an exercise in running a lean outfit, yet a cash injection from sponsorship, a likely healthier deal from the WRU and a state-of-the-art artificial pitch which adds to their income stream as a rentable asset has allowed the Blues to recoup losses made from their disastrous move to the Cardiff City Stadium in 2009 that lasted three seasons.

In stark contrast, the same seems to happening 40 miles west at the Ospreys. The Swansea-based outfit had long flown the flag for regional rugby and have won the domestic league four times since its inception in 2003. Labelled the Galacticos – they have boasted a squad with the cream of the Welsh squad mixed with quality overseas signings such as James Hook, Marty Holah, Justin Marshall, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones, Jerry Collins, Tommy Bowe, Lee Byrne, and the Blues new signing Adam Jones.

However, this season they have arguably the weakest squad in their existence with Dan Biggar and Alun-Wyn Jones the only notable stars left.

Hanno Dirksen, Elii Walker, Sam Lewis and the heir apparent to Adam Jones; Aaron Jarvis are the new breed circling Ospreylia. Along with Biggar and Wyn Jones, those players are now tasked leading a young and inexperienced squad. With most writing the Ospreys off this coming year, the strength in depth of Steve Tandy’s squad will be severely tested, especially during the Autumn International and Six Nations periods.

The experience and leadership of key players such as Ashley Beck, new Wales cap Dan Baker and Rhys Webb – someone with a point to prove after his unfortunate injury last year – will be vital if the men from Swansea will have any success this year.

The story is similar 12 miles west at the Scarlets.

Key experience has left is recent years, with Jonathan Davies, George North, Josh Turnbull, Matthew Rees, and Deacon Manu all leaving with only the return of former star Regan King providing notable added experience for the upcoming campaign.

However, much like the Ospreys, the Scarlets will have to rely on a crop of young stars. Scott Williams, Jordan Williams, Jake Ball, Gareth Davies, Aaron Shingler and Ken Owens form the spine of the squad at Parc Y Scarlets along with forgotten man Rhys Priestland; who is no doubt in a mission this year to prove to Warren Gatland that he is the man to wear the 10 jersey for next year’s world cup.

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The biggest transition in Llanelli is new head coach Wayne Pivac replacing stalwart SImon Easterby after the latter’s move to the Irish national team as forwards coach. The exciting crop of young players in west Wales suggests that the attacking brand of rugby that is synonymous with the Scarlets and Llanelli RFC before them will remain intact under Pivac this coming season.

Liam Williams forms an exciting back three with Jordan Williams and ex-Cardiff Blues flyer Harry Robinson; deemed surplus to requirements in Cardiff.

Williams will need to pick himself up after a controversial end of the season which saw the fullback give away a match-losing penalty try against South Africa in the dying seconds after an illegal tackle on Cornal Hendricks.

The Scarlets man is compared to his namesake; the great JPR Williams, and he will need to be at his best if the west have any hope of pushing for silverware this year.

Over in East Wales, there is an air of optimism in Rodney Parade. The Men of Gwent have recruited well in the form of new captain Lee Byrne, fan-favourites Aled Brew and Andy Powell, South African Brok Harris and veteran Wales lock Ian Gough.

Along with their promising young talent, the Dragons look set to be a formidable unit at home; but the real test will come away from home where the Newport-based side have traditionally struggled.

Young starlets Jack Dixon. Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos look set to combine with the more experienced players at the Dragons; Jason Tovey, Richie Rees and Tom Prydie to set the backs alight at the Parade along with the aforementioned Brew and Byrne.

The pack has been bolstered to play alongside Netani Talei, Lewis Evans and Wales pair Talupe Faletau and Andrew Coombes.

The Dragons look to push all the regions this year, but false dawns have come and gone at Rodney Parade. After an encouraging start last season, they dropped off and finished their usual last place amongst the Welsh pile.

However, combined with a quality coaching outfit and recruitment of key experience across the field; the Dragons look set to outstrip the likes of the Ospreys and the Scarlets due to quality recruitment with minimal loss. The only black-mark in the transfer market for the Newport side was Dan Evans switch to the Ospreys during the summer; yet Lee Byrne as a replacement is nothing short of an improvement.

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The year ahead promises to be a testing time for all of the Welsh regions, yet the largely optimistic outlook due to recent reports of peace, and a positive recruitment period that has outstripped the flood of quality to France which has become the norm is recent seasons gives reason to believe that the Welsh regions will vastly improve this coming season.

It is hard to look beyond the Blues this season for Wales’ flagship team. With the surprise capture of Adam Jones, and the crop of new recruits that will be joining the exciting young squad at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park – they are set to challenge for the Guinness Pro12 playoffs as well as the second tier European Challenge Cup.

The Scarlets appear to do battle with the Dragons for Wales’ second spot, with the Ospreys seeming to become Wales’ bottom region. The poor recruitment and loss of stars may hit the Liberty Stadium side hard; yet they could prove to be the surprise package – especially during the international periods.

In a year where expectations are high due to Wales’ failure to capture the Six Nations for a third consecutive year, and another last minute loss to a Southern Hemisphere giant, a successful season for the Welsh region is a must just before a World Cup where going out at the pool stages is a very real possibility in the pool of death with England and Australia.

For the regions, if they are to gain any credibility after the very public feud with the WRU, they will need to step up and start performing consistently in Europe and will need to prise the Pro12 championship from the Irish monopoly of recent years.

Aside from the Ospreys Pro12 successes, the regions have largely underperformed since their inception over a decade ago. Only the Scarlets sole league win in the 2003-04 season, and the Blues EDF and Amlin Cup win spares them from complete embarrassment.

But let’s be honest, none of the above can compare to Irish success at club level.

The regions have long bemoaned the lack of a level playing field compared to other European clubs. Now that they have brokered a deal much more in their favour, along with extra cash to boot, they have no reason why they can’t go out challenge the top teams Europe.

Let’s see if they put their new money where their mouth is.

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