Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Judgement Day II

There is peace in Europe. After a life time of negotiations, all parties have put pen to paper in what has become European rugby's equivalent of the Treaty of Versailles.

However, things are not as rosy in Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union and the regions remain at odds with each other as neither party appears to be willing to relent on an agreement of what is best for Welsh rugby in the coming years. 
Judgement Day II, WRU, rugby, Wales, Millennium Stadium, Blues, Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, rugby

With the prospect of replacing the regions or the current regions joining other tournaments seemingly diminished by the European agreements, there appears to be little option aside from both parties working together. In Metallica's judgement day song 'Four Horsemen' rock legend James Hetfield sings "With the four horsemen ride, or choose your fate and die." For some that is the same fate that has befallen the WRU, ride alongside the four regions or accept the consequences.

This weekend will be a test of just how well the partnership can work as all four regions come together at the Millennium Stadium for the second ever Judgement Day, a showcase of all Welsh regional rugby has to offer. How apt that a chance of a new birth for Welsh rugby should fall on Easter Sunday.
John Barclay, Scarlets, Llanelli, Flanker, Scotland, rugby

The Blues and Scarlets kick off the event with Simon Easterby's men desperately fighting for a place in the top tier of the new European Cup setup. Recent wins against Zebre and Connacht have put the West Walians firmly in the driving seat and a win against the Blues would help to ease a little bit of pressure on them whilst the playoffs seems a bridge too far. They will want to end the season on a high, with a Champions Cup spot in the bag and look to building for next season with Europe.
Sam Warburton, Wales, Cardiff, Blues, Flanker, Captain

Victory against the Blues will not come easily though. The team from the capital have hit a seam of form and a surprise victory over Ulster, coupled with the return of their captain, Matthew Rees, has filled them with confidence. Now they find themselves in a tussle with their nearest rivals the Dragons to restore some pride into what has been a lackluster campaign. Neither will want the label of Wales' lowest placed region, even if the Champions Cup isn't a prospect for either.

Toby Faletau, rugby, Newport, Dragons, Gwent, Number 8, Wales,

By the time the Dragons trot out onto the pitch they will know what if they can leapfrog the Blues. Having spent much of their existence as also rans, this seemed like the season that the Dragons could emerge from the shadows and challenge for a European spot. New signings, new coaches, new attitude; The Dragons hit the ground running this season to the delight of the Rodney Parade faithful. However, a dip in form and increase in injuries (especially in the front row) have seen them fall away. The restructuring of the Euro qualification put the final nail in the coffin of their European dream and left them battling with the Blues for bragging rights.

Alun Wyn Jones, rugby, Ospreys, second row, Wales, captain

They will need something special to turn over their opponents on Sunday though, the Opsreys have restored themselves as Wales' premier region this season. Their Champions Cup place is booked and they are trying to chase down fourth placed Glasgow and a coveted playoff spot, but to maintain any realistic hope they will need to win all their remaining games; That starts with the Dragons on Sunday.

Regardless of who wins or what effect it will on the season, Judgement Day promises to be a fantastic day for rugby fanatics and those new to the game.

Metallica - Four Horsemen

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Smiling Through the Dark Days

Sometimes on the roller coaster ride of rugby it can be easy to lose sight of things that are a whole lot more important. Missing somewhere between an awe inspiring reverse cat flap and the seventh consecutive collapsed scrum. In amongst a 79th minute winning try and the dodgy hands of your ball fumbling winger it leaves us. Amid the ecstasy and agony that present themselves within eighty minutes, week after week and season after season it disappears.

As we become enveloped and engrossed in the game that we hold so dear and we forget that there are things far more precious. It's something that Matthew Rees will not need to be told.

If the Blues and Wales hooker had lost any perception of the importance or fragility of mortality he was given a stark reminder. In October the former Scarlet and Celtic Warrior was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This time cancer picked the wrong fight.

Matthew Rees, Blues, rugby, Cardiff, Smiler, cancer, Wales, All Blacks

Rees proved to be as dogged off the field as he is on it. His determined personality has seen him rise through the ranks, from club rugby to region and onto Welsh captaincy and test starting British Lion. All the while his affable nature landed him the nickname 'Smiler.' Both traits have helped him considerably in a battle against a terrible disease. 

In the latter part of last year Rees underwent surgery and chemotherapy at Cardiff's Velindre hospital. This weekend, just five months after missing his first game, Smiler returned to action in regional colours of the Blues. It was that capital region's last game at Cardiff Arms Park this season and the return of their skipper helped them pull off a shock result against Ulster to rival their victory against Toulon. Despite the surprise victory, the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for the remarkable return of the man from Tonyrefail.

After the game it was true testament to Rees to have Blues' caretaker coach Dale McIntosh speak of him in glowing terms. "I would say there was added inspiration in Matthew Rees, the guy's an icon," said the Welsh/Maori. "We look at him and he's an example to us all," added 'The Chief, who himself knows all about being an icon. Few people at any club are held in the same regard as McIntosh is at Pontypridd and it was at Sardis Road he and Rees played together.

Matthew Rees, Blues, rugby, Cardiff, Smiler, cancer

Rugby reacted to the news in the only way it knew how, pulling together to give support and a little bit of ribbing. Rees received messages from across the globe, his team mates shaved their heads and on BBC's Scrum V Kingsley Jones told of how he teased him about his chances of making a World Cup squad while Martyn Williams poked fun at him "carrying a bit of weight." Rees says that's what rugby is all about; "As much as on the field you want to kill each other, you come off and, when things like this happen, everyone just gets together."

There has been no time to rest for Rees though; no time to dwell or mope. He has worked solidly during his enforced lay off and pushed himself as hard as possible to return before the season was out. He says rugby played a big part in preparing him physically and mentally for the most ultimate of battles, "rugby gives you certain values and that's probably carried me through the past five or six months." 

It's hard to think what may have happened had he not had that rugby element in his life through those 'dark days,' but rugby can certainly be grateful to have people like Matthew Rees in it's game.

It's almost impossible to pin point exactly what makes a good man, but whatever it is Rees has it in abundance and all associated with the sport will be glad to see the man and that smile take to the pitch again.

Welcome back Smiler.

The Heavy - What Makes a Good Man

To donate to the Velindre Cancer Centre who helped care for Matthew and continue to care for countless others on a daily basis, please click here.