Warren Gatland gathered more than 60 players together at The Vale this week to detail his plans for the year leading up to the Rugby World Cup, and how his Wales squad for Japan would more than likely consist of 31 of those present.
“We feel like we’re in a really good place at the moment,” the Wales coach told the gathering. “There’s real competition in the room because we see you guys in here as the players potentially in contention for the next 12 months.”
That message certainly resonated with the Wales-based players, as many took part in two pulsating, fiercely competitive derby games on Saturday.
Aside from the Dragons, who have reason to feel aggrieved having finished their contest with the Blues at Rodney Parade without at least a bonus point having dominated the opening quarter, none of the regions left anything on the park.
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The Scarlets were pushed incredibly close by the Ospreys on home soil, an impressive second-half rearguard action from their visitors almost proving key, while Blues boss John Mulvihill will be delighted with how his side wore their hosts down before claiming victory.
Had these been the only games of PRO14 rugby you had watched this season, it would have been impossible not to conclude that the regional game is in rude health. Indeed, after six games three of the top five performing teams across the two conferences are Welsh.
The positivity with which Saturday’s two games were played must now be harnessed as the European season gets under way next weekend.
Welsh sides have struggled in the top tier of continental competition recently, with only the Scarlets, who reached the semi-finals last season, and the Blues (quarterfinalists in 2011-12) making it past the pool stages since 2010.
The reasons for those woes are myriad. At a time when Wales lost two of its guaranteed spots in the tournament, club sides in England and France have grown ever stronger, while the big two in Ireland, most notably Leinster, have been able to plan for Europe with great effect.
But on the back of the Scarlets’ exploits in the Champions Cup last season, and with the Challenge Cup-holding Blues joining them at the top table this term, now is the time for the regions to make a mark in Europe.
No-one expects either the Blues or the Scarlets to win the competition, but what the two teams achieved last season should give them the confidence to tackle the challenge head on, without any fear.
Certainly the message from the Blues camp is that, while continuing to build a sustainable platform for future success, they intend to attack the Champions Cup.
“We’re going to go at every game looking to win, we won’t put second teams out,” Blues boss Mulvihill told RugbyPass last month. “We’re going to go in, both home and away, looking (to win). We want to win a couple of games in Europe this year.
“There’s no point me beating around the bush, we do. We’d like to win a couple of our home games and we’d like to pick up a couple on the road.”
That ambitious target would put the Blues well within contention to qualify from Pool 3, although it will not be easy with an opening trip to Lyon next Sunday followed by a home match against Glasgow and a double header against Saracens.
Mulvihill believes those two games against the English champions – within six December days – could represent “the biggest week of our whole season”.
“We’d really want to get something out of that,” he added. “I’m not saying we want to win two games but if we perform really well it will give us good momentum going into the second half of the season.”
Mulvihill and the Blues need not look too far for inspiration with both the Ospreys and Scarlets securing draws against Saracens in recent seasons, albeit without either region navigating the pool stage that year.
In Newport on Saturday there were signs that the Blues were finding their feet under the Australian. Man of the match Gareth Anscombe and wing Owen Lane, who snagged his first two tries of the season, both impressed while the back-row of Josh Navidi, captain Ellis Jenkins and Nick Williams harried their hosts all evening.
Depth was also a feature of the Scarlets’ victory over Ospreys, albeit from the start. Despite missing Uzair Cassiem, James and Jonathan Davies, Rob Evans, Aaron Shingler and with Steff Evans continuing his return to fitness with the ‘A’ team, the hosts were able to get the job done.
Kieron Fonotia has been a revelation since making the switch from the Liberty Stadium in the summer, while Will Boyde, Wyn Jones and Ed Kennedy – who provided a crucial try assist for Rhys Patchell – once again proved themselves to be much more than mere squad players.
It was always going to be difficult to replace the Irishman, even without the injury list that head coach Wayne Pivac has had to contend with, but ahead of their clash with Racing it looks as though the Scarlets are clicking into gear, with Blade Thomson looking another shrewd acquisition.
Pivac will hope to welcome Jonathan Davies and potentially Steff Evans back for the opener next Saturday. The Kiwi might also hope that Gatland’s words are ringing in his Test contingents’ ears.
Competition for places on Wales’ flight to Japan next September is fierce. No better way to put down a marker than with a series of performances that propel your team past the Champions Cup pool stage and help restore the reputation of the regions in Europe.
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