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FEATURE Silver linings for Welsh teams but European struggles a sign of the times

Silver linings for Welsh teams but European struggles a sign of the times
6 months ago

The mood on the Saturday evening train back to Cardiff was sombre, with barely a hint of conversation. Somehow, it seemed as cold inside the carriage as it had been on the station platform.

Cardiff had just lost a Heineken Cup quarter-final 21-15 against Gloucester at Kingsholm.

The following day in 2001, Swansea exited the competition at the same stage as they crashed 41-10 to Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.

The Telegraph reported: “They travelled in hope; they returned in despair. The mood is dark all across Wales this morning after two of their finest were taken to the cleaners by English clubs.”

Gareth Thomas
Welsh teams had at least one quarter-finalist for the first nine years of Europe’s elite competition, but have only managed one in the last decade (Photo Steve Bardens/ Allsport UK/Allsport)

OK, it’s never clever to ship 41 points. But despair after seeing two Welsh teams in the last eight of Europe’s top-tier rugby event? What were people thinking? If such a scenario played out these days, there’d be calls for ticker-tape parades.

But the world has changed. Nowadays, there appears more chance of summertime snow in Furnace Creek, Death Valley, than there is of a couple of Welsh teams featuring in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The second weekend of the 2023-24 European season saw Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets all beaten, with three of the setbacks coming in the second-tier European Challenge Cup.

The Ospreys’ bench contained some players taking first steps in their senior careers.  In the matter of bench warfare, it really was no contest.

A channel hopper flicking between the Exeter Chiefs v Munster game and the Montpellier v Ospreys match might have struggled to recognise the matches as belonging to the same sport.

The game in Devon was fast-paced, intense and exciting, with passes sticking and the result in the balance until the very end. The encounter in France was one-sided and short on jeopardy. A young Ospreys’ side proved indisciplined, with three yellow cards, and struggled to hold onto the ball, with 21 turnovers going against them.  They also found it hard to finish the chances they created.

The hosts, who are bottom of the Top 14, brought on South Africa’s lightning-quick World Cup scrum-half Cobus Reinach and France’s Grand Slam-winning lock Paul Willemse, all 6ft 7in and 20st 4lb of him. The Ospreys’ bench contained some players taking first steps in their senior careers.  In the matter of bench warfare, it really was no contest.

Morgan Morse
Ospreys’ Morgan Morse played for Wales U20s as a 17-year-old and the teenage No.8 has been tipped as a future star (Photo World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Consolations for the visitors? Their No. 8 Morgan Morse put in 14 tackles and made 21 metres from 11 carries. For an 18-year-old making his first senior start, it was a superlative effort. Alongside him, flankers Tristan Davies and Harri Deaves worked hard.

The Scarlets had even more to mull over in Llanelli two days earlier, when they lost 23-7 to Georgian side Black Lion. The visitors had a lineout that looked as if eight strangers had met on a street corner before kick-off and been invited inside for a game – Vaea Fifita nicked possession off six of their throws – but the counterweight was they had a scrum that bristled with power.

It proved too much for the Scarlets, with a slew of penalties going against them. Young tighthead Joe Jones had a particularly traumatic evening, regularly incurring the wrath of the referee, while his replacement Harri O’Connor was lifted so high into the night sky at one set-piece he might have been able to see the Meridian Tower in Swansea.

Neither of the two flag-bearers from the west have the depth to guarantee results against anyone. Such is the reality of life in a Welsh rugby world of budget cuts and player departures.

The west Walians didn’t look like winning. They gave away 20 penalties on the night and when a side does that it doesn’t matter if they are playing the Red Lion, Black Lion or the Dog and Duck Seconds, the result will be the same.

There again, the side that prevailed in Llanelli are no pub team, notwithstanding their name. Black Lion are stuffed full of Georgian internationals, and they are capable of upsetting better teams than the one the Scarlets fielded last Friday.

There would have been much soul-searching west of Bridgend this week, then, as coaches Dwayne Peel and Toby Booth try to lift their teams ahead of the Loughor Bridge derby on Boxing Day.

Tom Rogers
Scarlets suffered a morale-sapping home defeat by Georgian newcomers Black Lion in the Challenge Cup (Photo Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

But maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at those stories which panned out in round two of Europe. The Ospreys and Scarlets lost a lorry-load of players between them in the summer and were always going to find it difficult to maintain any sort of form.

Occasionally, when important players are fit and the stars align, they can both produce encouraging displays, as the Scarlets showed when beating Cardiff at the Arms Park at the start of the month and the Ospreys demonstrated when defeating Benetton in Swansea.

Rugby being what it is, though, injuries happen and players need to be rested – and neither of the two flag-bearers from the west have the depth to guarantee results against anyone. Such is the reality of life in a Welsh rugby world of budget cuts and player departures.

There was more positivity from the teams in the east, despite their defeats, with Cardiff coming unstuck against Bath at the Arms Park and the Dragons narrowly falling to Pau in France.

Winnett gave an assured display in all areas from a man who doesn’t seem overly familiar with the concept of panic, blessed as he is with the gift of time, the hallmark of a class player.

Cardiff have won just two out of nine but are playing with verve and giving supporters a reason to believe, as Rod Stewart might have styled it. Their starting line-up was littered with young players for their latest Champions Cup date, but they rattled Bath’s cage and played a full part in one of the games of the weekend.

The 20-year-old full-back Cameron Winnett took the opportunity to give Warren Gatland another nudge. He is only 20, but is mature beyond his years and doesn’t make many mistakes. The tone for his performance against Bath was set after barely 20 seconds when he soared into the air to claim a high ball.

There followed an assured display in all areas from a man who doesn’t seem overly familiar with the concept of panic, blessed as he is with the gift of time, the hallmark of a class player. He made a couple of solid defensive interventions, stopping Joe Cokanasiga and Miles Reid, and there was one beautifully judged touch-finder, but maybe his most eye-catching moment came when he took the scenic route around the opposition defence, smoothly motoring past Chris Cloete like a soft-top Audi.

None of which conclusively proves he is ready for Test rugby, but the queue for the Wales No. 15 shirt to face Scotland on 3 February isn’t exactly deep and there’s a developing case for believing Gatland could do worse than at least bring Winnett into the squad to have a look at him.

The other two youngsters who have been making waves at The Park are Mackenzie Martin and Alex Mann, the former because of his powerful carrying, the latter because of his appetite for tackling. Bath largely shackled Martin and he has rough edges, but the 6ft 5in, 18st 4lb No. 8 had a big game against Toulouse the previous weekend and is one who will interest Gatland at some point because of his size. Wales are not overly blessed with forwards who can carry, so the emergence of one who does so with no little aggression will not go unnoticed.

Alongside him, Mann has impressed with his Stakhanovite work-rate.  No-one else is close to him in terms of tackles made in the URC this season, with the blindside making 103 hits, and he didn’t go missing in action against Bath.

Mason Grady
Cardiff took Bath to the wire in a thrilling Champions Cup contest at the Arms Park (Photo Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Cardiff’s next challenge will be to win some matches, with the Arms Park team posting just two victories this season. But maybe patience for a young side will be needed. For the moment, they have caught the imagination of the capital city public – the Bath game attracted more than 10,000 spectators – who are clearly enjoying the way Matt Sherratt’s side are playing.

The Dragons, too, managed to find silver linings from their spirited effort in Pau, even without the consistently strong Aaron Wainwright and Rio Dyer.

But let’s be clear: Ultimately, for all the Welsh regions, the season is as challenging as carrying a tray of drinks across the deck of a storm-tossed trawler.

That being the case, if the coaches can improve the players and teams at their disposal, there isn’t much more that can be expected.

It’s where Welsh rugby is at.

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