Thursday, October 16, 2014

On the Rise/On the Slide

The countdown clock has crept below a year and unions are already setting their sights on the Rugby World Cup in England. Whilst we have leagues and cups a plenty to tie up between now and then, players could be forgiven for having one eye on the international showpiece.

From now on every performance is not only a step toward silverware, but a step closer to challenging for the William Webb-Ellis trophy. So, which players have staked a claim for a place in Gatland’s squad in the first few weeks of the season and who could fall out of favour?
 
Pacy scrum halves
Scrum half has been a particular talking point in the past few weeks with a real battle taking shape. Scarlets nine Gareth Davies has continued where he left off last year; scoring tries for fun, but now finds himself injured.
Webb has endured injuries and losses of form that had seen him slip down the ranks slightly for Wales. He clawed his way back into the Six Nations squad and - after getting injured against England - he looks rejuvenated. He has regularly found his way to the try line this season and his partnership with Biggar will enhance his chances.

Two of the Scarlets' Williams
Centre is perhaps the one area that Wales lack depth of international standard players. There can be no question about the abilities of Jonathan 'Foxy' Davies or Jamie Roberts, but below them there are few fighting them for their jerseys. Scott Williams has proven himself more than capable, however. He has been one of the few shining lights in the stuttering Scarlets backs division and after his previous Wales heroics (most notably against England) he can really put pressure on the centre pairing.
Meanwhile, his team mate and namesake, Liam Williams has been the Scarlets best player. With an incredible determination and innate  ability for find holes in even the tightest of defences, Williams' instinct is to attack with ball in hand which Wales have missed recently. He will get his biggest test this weekend taking on Halfpenny and his Toulon teammates.

Rhys Patchell
The Blues have looked about as much of an attacking threat as a toothless koala, but that’s not through Patchell’s lack of trying. Patchell has created well for the Blues, whilst taking the ball to the gainline and sometimes beyond. Even when switched to fullback he looked the most influential of the Blues back division and that may come in handy, coupled with long range kicking, if Halfpenny can’t return to fitness soon.

Dan Biggar
Solid and confident, Biggar has controlled the Ospreys in their dominant performances so far. Where once Biggar was volatile; he is now a consistent, level headed tactician with the ability to dictate play and an impressive conversion rate. His one of act petulance this term earned him a slap from Ian Gough. Biggar is maturing into an excellent modern fly half and if he continues to advance at this rate, he can match the finest 10 any nation can put forward in 12 months time.

Big Number 8s
It was looking like Talupe Faletau would be virtually untouchable in the eight jersey for Wales as no eights were near to the man formerly known as Toby.
Last year Dan Baker proved that he was more than capable of challenging the Tongan born Dragon and created some competition for a starting place, form which he has carried into this season.
It’s far from a two horse race though, as Rory Pitman has put his hand up for selection. Pitman struggled for game time at Ospreys and had shorts spells at Glasgow, Rotherham, Wasps, London Welsh and even rugby league before signing for Scarlets. Just three games in to his time with the West Walians and he has already impressed, but he needs to maintain it to have any chance of being considered come the autumn.
Josh Turnbull made way for Pitman’s arrival and some game time at the Blues will do him good. Turnbull impressed when given the chance last year, but it was disjointed. The Blues have shown their confidence in Turnbull and he has repaid them with line busting runs and bone shuddering tackles.
Faletau is ‘Mr Consistent’ and it is his place to lose, but there are people champing at the bit should he slip up.
 
Owen Williams
The Leicester Tigers outside half came within touching distance of a Welsh call up last year and may have toured South Africa were it not for a badly timed suspension. This year he finds himself unable to catch a break with new signing Freddie Burns seen as first choice. Richard Cockerill says Williams will get his chance at 10, but will the damage be done by then?

Lloyd Williams
Brynmor's boy had already begun to slip down the the pecking order with Wales, but now he's playing second fiddle at the Blues with the lively Lewis Jones the preferred option. Jones has started to build a decent partnership with Patchell and any hope Williams had of breaking Jones' hold on the jersey wasn't helped by throwing an interception that all bar condemned the Blues to defeat against Glasgow within minutes of entering the fray.

Jordan Williams
Completing a Williams trio, Jordan Williams saw his stock fall slightly after being exposed defensively by Leinster. The diminutive winger may have been unfairly single out after the disruptive loss of Liam Williams left the defence in disarray, but Gatland tends to like his players big and Edwards accepts no excuses for defensive lapses. Williams will need to toughen up in defence and get those dancing feet working again in attack.

Three of the Racing Metro Four
Lydiate was one of the players on which Wales built a virtually impenetrable defence only a few years ago. This season the former Dragon has only one Top 14 start to his name with six games gone.
Lions scrum half Mike Phillips has just one more and giant Luke Charteris remains injured. Only Jamie Roberts can be cheerful, having appeared in five games and played over half their total game time.

Leigh Halfpenny
Injury means Halfpenny has played a solitary game in France and eccentric Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal had said he was considering terminating the former Blues man's contract. Some had called Halfpenny's place into question last year for a perceived lack of attacking intent. Halfpenny needs to get game time soon to prove any doubters wrong with Liam Williams on top of his game.

It's a long way to go until the squads are announced for the World Cup and anything can change between now and then.

Engagement Isn't To Do With Scrums

Two weeks ago on a cold Monday night Wales took on Cyprus at the Cardiff City Stadium, looking for a place in Football’s European Championship. On the pitch Wales boast little star quality aside from Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale and – the currently injured – Aaron Ramsey. Before kick off however, they showed some real star quality with Lucie Jones singing the national anthem.
Afterwards a number of people took to Twitter to congratulate and compliment Jones on a job well done. Inevitably the suggestion of the singing belting out the anthem before the rugby came up and Jones made it very clear she would relish the opportunity and included the WRU account in her tweet.
@GravProsser, @luciejones1, Twitter, tweets
I hope whomever is in charge of the WRU account raises this as a genuine invitation to the union to get in contact with Jones and make this happen. Rugby has become a business and everything possible needs to be done to make this business prosper. That means that match days are longer about the 80 minutes so that the players are out on the field, but offering something to fans before they even squeeze through the turnstile.

Match days have become a full entertainment experience; from the atmosphere in the streets of Cardiff before a game and the pyrotechnics at pitch side, right through to the final whistle and beyond. It’s about entertaining supporters who are there as well as attracting and retaining new ones, Lucie Jones could help provide the accessibility for younger fans.

Jones has made the journey from X Factor to the West End via modelling, acting, MTV presenter and a studio album. She has even sung in enemy territory at Twickenham before Harlequins Wasps and she's still only 23. 

Lucie, Jones, Twickenham, Twickers, X Factor, Reality TV, talent show, Harlequins, Quins, Wasps, Premiership

If she could create a connection with Welsh youngsters it would pay dividends for the WRU and the future of rugby in Wales. Similar to the way Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins added to the atmosphere during the cool Cymru culture that straddled the millennium Jones could add a little glitz, glamour and relevance to those lurking on the edge of our national sport. She has already professed to be a rugby fan with her Twitter account including photos of her supporting Wales, the Lions and her home regions the Blues.

She was an X Factor rarity in as much as she possessed discernible talent, but that seldom matters in the 'talent' show and she lost out to big haired, irritating Irish idiot sibling leprechauns Jedward.

That prompted over one thousand complaints and showed how popular the Pentrych girl had become. Another of the show's alumni, Rhydian Roberts has both the love of rugby and musical talent to offer a similar effect. He joined Jones at April's Judgement Day double header in a role that felt a little misguided, forced and stilted. A more natural role would suit him excellently. So too Sophie Evans; Since she appeared on Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for Dorothy Over the Rainbow she too has conquered musical theatre and released a studio album as well as appearing in Edgar Wright's The World's End and hit British film Pride. Her rugby connections run deep too; she isn't just a fan, her other half is flanker Ellis Jenkins.

Rhydian, Roberts, Sophie Evans, X Factor, Over the Rainbow, Talent show, Reality TV,

Some while say this is trivial. Traditionalists will say it should be about the rugby and rugby alone. However, like it or not, rugby is now firmly part of the entertainment business and that won't change anytime soon. The WRU need to embrace it and appeal to the public.

The union can't run the risk of looking dated. Many remember the Jenkins, Church and Boyce taking to the field before the 2005 Grand Slam to create an electric atmosphere. Similarly we all remember the cringe inducing embarrassment of Wynne Evans, wandering across the pitch after the haka. It's a shame that such a talented singer and radio presented will always be remembered for Go Compare adverts and meandering across the turf in shirt that looked as ill fitting as Adam Jones pulling on Shane Williams' jersey by mistake, singing to a bemused crowd.
 
Engagement is a big part of any successful company and people like Lucie, Sophie and Rhydian could help the WRU connect with young would-be fans.
 
Lucie Jones - Edge of Glory