Thursday, January 1, 2015

Derby Day: Part One

Should I ever commit a crime so heinous that I am put to death, I hope the Scarlets are given the job of carrying out the sentence. Over Christmas their execution was simply terrible.
Against the Blues, opportunities were created and squandered with regularity. On Saturday they seemed not to even bother creating them; instead relying on the boots of Priestland and Shingler to drag them within contention. It’s been 10 months since Scarlets could boast an away win and if they can’t start converting chances into tries, that dismal record may continue for sometime.
Rugby in Llanelli has a history of flair and talent in the backs division, but things are different down West now. Where once the Ospreys would rule the roost come scrum time, Samson Lee and Rob Evans grunted and shoved their way around the Liberty Stadium pitch like seasoned pros. The duo grew into the game against the Blues and continued from there on Saturday.
Behind the scrum Ospreys dominated, created and controlled. Half backs Biggar and Webb ran the first half to international standard (a standard to which they should become accustomed soon). Webb took the man of the match award – largely due to his first half display – but Tylor Ardron, Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones have the right to feel hard done by.
Were it not for Liam Williams, the Ospreys’ scoreline would have been larger. His try saving heroics, his relentless work rate, Williams shone in a Scarlets back division that would have otherwise barely produced a flicker. Kiwi centre Hadleigh Parkes was solid on his debut alongside his fellow countryman Regan King.
Williams’ opposite number, Dan Evans, also showcased his ability at fullback with sublime counter attacking rugby. Evans has been somewhat over looked by Mr Gatland and co. in the Wales setup, but his successful switch to the Ospreys surely means he cannot be overlooked for long.
The Welsh derbies are about more than just local bragging rights. Each of these all Welsh games are proving to be important to Pro 12 standings and are a shop window for players to display their wares ahead of the final Six Nations before the World Cup. Evans will certainly be putting pressure on both Williams and Leigh Halfpenny if he continues displays as fine as this.
In the second half the Ospreys lost flow and attacking intent, but for the Scarlets it was the same story for the second time in a little over a week. Too little in attack and too many errors. The game, the momentum and the atmosphere drifted away – with a little help from a referee who appeared out of his depth.
The Ospreys held on for their 17th straight win against a fellow region and moved back to being the star on top of the Pro 12 tree.
At the other end of the Pro 12, the Dragons are fighting not to finish at the base and a win against Treviso had helped their cause. The Blues were coming into the Boxing Day derby with the wind in their sails having seen off the Scarlets 7 days before, but Mark Hammett made six changes to that side.
Josh Navidi twice crossed the whitewash against Scarlets, in an impressive display of strength and guile. However, it wasn’t just his try scoring exploits that caught the eye; Navidi dominated the game, the Blues’ dreadlocked superhero alongside Sam Warburton and Josh Turnbull. Navidi’s only error was a tip tackle with the game seemingly already in the bag. However, it was the complete back row performance. Ability and power coupled with pace and desire topped off with tremendous breakdown nous.
Against the Dragons, even Superman himself would have struggled to help the Blues’ cause. In the driving rain, the Dragons employed the driving maul and reaped the reward twice. Elliot Dee was only on the field due to a late injury to Rhys Thomas, but twice the hooker “drove the bus” at the back of the maul to cross the Blues line.
The Blues looked like they had eaten too many mince pies, too much cheese and port. The Dragons meanwhile were feasting on the Blues. An incredible 20 tackles from prop Phil Price and 25 from Nic Cudd were surpassed by a valiant 26 tackles from young blindside James Thomas.
With ball in hand Jason Tovey has looked rejuvenated and that didn’t change against the Blues. Outside him Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos showed the talent that has earned them dual contracts, whilst Jack Dixon bounced back from injury to prove that he is still one to be considered for Wales.
It was a Springbok in Dragon clothing that stole the show however, with giant lock Rynard Landman leading by example as skipper.

The Blues utilised their bench to get back into the game, but it proved to be too little too late as the Dragons held on for only their first win at the Cardiff Arms Park since the regions debut season.
So, the first blood has been drawn by the Ospreys and the Dragons and the there is some work to be done if their rivals are to avenge those defeats this week.

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