Pumas See Red In Cardiff Draw

504 days ago I drove away from Cardiff, after France had beaten Wales in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, I assumed I would return a few weeks later to cover Wales v Scotland, but we all know what happened next.

17 months away from your homeland, and indeed The Principality Stadium, is far too long, but people have made far worse sacrifices during this horrific pandemic.

To see those glorious red shirts run out on to the green green grass of home once again was an emotional moment, and to hear the national anthem, even with a small chorus of 7,828 was truly heavenly.

Saturday was very definitely a big cat day with Wales facing the Pumas in the Welsh capital, and The Lions continuing their COVID ravaged tour in South Africa.

Wales started brightly, but against the run of play, Argentina got the first points of the game on the board thanks to the boot of Nicolas Sanchez who converted a penalty for a three-point lead.

Almost immediately Wales cancelled out Argentina’s advantage through the boot of Callum Sheedy.

Wales edged in front through another Sheedy penalty for a 6-3 lead.

In what what was a decisive moment in the game, Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia was shown a red card for making direct contact to the head of Wales scrum-half Kieran Hardy.

Four minutes from half time, Argentina levelled the scores as Sanchez struck over his second penalty of the match.

Then on the stroke of half time Argentina scored the first try of the game through Pablo Matera who went over from close range to give Argentina a 13-6 lead going into the break.

After the late first half blow, it was important for Wales to start the second half strongly but it was the Pumas who pounced first as they scored their second try of the match.

From a scrum in the Welsh 22, Jeronimo de la Fuente went over unopposed and Sanchez landed the conversion to give Argentina a 20-6 lead.

Wales reacted strongly and got back in the game through second row Will Rowlands who charged over from close range after taking a pass from replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans converted to put Wales within seven points.

Wales upped the tempo and after some sustained pressure deep inside the Argentina half, Tomos Williams broke from a scrum to to score, Evans conversion levelled the scores.

With eight minutes remaining Argentina missed their third penalty of the afternoon, and in the final seconds Evans missed a long kick at goal that would have sealed a victory for Wales, perhaps undeservedly.

Wales made far too many errors but will be all the better for the experience of facing a gnarly Pumas side twelve of whom ply their trade in France’s Top 14.

The two teams meet again next Saturday in a match that will decide the series.

Lions Safari Starts With A Big Game Win

As Lions tours go this one will be no doubt one of the most difficult in British & Irish Lions history.

Due to the frightening times we currently live in, events off the field have an impact that cannot be negated.

The South African province of Gauteng has been one of the hardest hit by the latest wave of the coronavirus, despite this the legendary Lions began their tour, which will take place to a eerie backdrop of empty stadiums.

Stewart Hogg captained the team from full back, with Owen Farrell’s selection at centre perhaps an early indication of Warren Gatland’s plans to play either Dan Biggar or Finn Russell at fly half, in the test series against the Springboks.

A team that has had more name changes than a witness protection candidate, were the opposition.

On Saturday they were called the Sigma Lions, only last week they were known as the Emirates Lions, they have also been previously named Golden Lions and perhaps more famously Transvaal.

The last time the Lions played these “other” Lions was on the 2009 tour, where the visitors romped home 74-10.

It took the class of 2021″ just 4 minutes to get on the scoreboard, with a try from the youngest player on tour, 21 year old Welsh wonder kid Louis Rees-Zammit.

Further first half tries from Scotsmen Hamish Watson and Ali Price gave the tourists a 21-7 half team lead.

4 second half tries for Cardiff Blues wing Josh Adams, plus one for replacement scrum half Gareth Davies, ensured a comfortable 56-14 win with Owen Farrell nailing all 8 conversions. It has to be said the local defence left more holes than a demented moth, but the men in red took their chances all the same.

The last Lion to score 4 tries in a match was Shane Williams against Manawatu in 2005, illustrious company indeed.

The touring party now have a short turnaround before facing yet another member of the animal kingdom, the Sharks, or the Cell C Sharks, to give them their full corporate title.

Coach Warren Gatland stated before the tour began that every player would get game time in the opening 3 matches, so there will be wholesale changes made.

On Saturday’s win he said, “The boys were pretty good today. I was a bit unhappy with some of the turnovers when we tried to force things, I have been incredibly impressed with the players and their attitude. We are probably still going to be a bit rusty with making so many changes but we will we see how they go on Wednesday”.

Encouraging news is also emerging from Wales. Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones shoulder injury is not quite as bad as it could have been. The big lock is hopeful of making a recovery in time to rejoin the squad, the next few weeks will be crucial, but how wonderful it would be to see the 35 year old back in a Lions shirt before the tour ends.

Victory For Wounded Lions In Edinburgh

Lions traditionally symbolise power, strength, and protection. The Japanese symbol of a lion is often associated with places of worship, where you may find a pair of lion statues guarding the entrances to shrines or temples. These are often referred to as ‘lion dogs’, and are believed to ward off evil spirits.

On Saturday at Murrayfield East met West in Lion parlance, as Japan faced the British and Irish breed, it may not have been a roaring success, but the boys from the land of the rising scrum once again gladdened our hearts with their wonderful brand of rugby.

As the British and Irish variety head to South Africa the contrast in opposition they face in the Republic could not be more stark, but the sheer joy of the seeing the Blue Brave Blossoms and the Scarlet British & Irish Lions running out in the Edinburgh dreich was worth every lateral flow test I had to gag my way through last week.

The Lions fans created a sea of red, or at least a river, but sadly it was for the last time on this tour, what a loss they will be to the game, the team and the South African economy.

One of the biggest fears with warm up games of this nature is potential injury, and our fears were realised as soon as the 7th minute, when Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones left the field with his arm hanging loosely by his side , in our heart of hearts we knew this big game hunter’s tour was over, and so it proved to be.

Minutes later Justin Tipuric became another tour missing shoulder dislocating casualty, and as the Edinburgh skies brightened, the celebration mood in the stands dampened.

Josh Adams scored the Lions opening try after 11 minutes followed by Van Der Merwe on 20 minutes before Robbie Henshaw’s 24th minute try. Biggar converted all three to give the Lions a 21-0 lead at half time.

The Lions only try in second half came in the 49th minute when Tadgh Beirne touchdown, the faultless Biggar once again added the conversion.

With the Lions leading 28-0 a 61st minute try from Himeno, converted by Tamura, who also added a penalty seven minutes later, put Japan on the scoreboard, and proved to be the final score of the game.

A 28-10 victory witnessed by 16,500 fans after we have all gone through during the last 15 months is something we should treasure, it is such a shame that it was marred by the injuries to Jones and Tipuric.

In the wild a Lions roar can be heard from 5 miles away, the groans that emanated from Edinburgh last night when the leader of the pack went down extended much much further.

La Rochelle The Atlantic Wall

I’m beginning to discover that living by the sea gives you an outlooking attitude.

The rhythm of the waves and the ebb and flow of the tides have a marvellously calming affect.

Staring out to the horizon the mirage effect of the sea reaching the sky brings out the poet in me, and my mind conjours up pictures of the French rugby folk going about their daily business, just as we do, but maybe with a touch more style.

Having just moved to East Sussex I am now actually nearer to France than London.

As I look out to sea after my morning coffee, the next landfall is La Touquet, or there abouts, and my French rugby connections feels just that little bit stronger.

Just 147 miles away from my Sussex home, in Lille, the Top 14 semi finals took place last Friday and Saturday evening.

The victors La Rochelle and Toulouse meet in Paris on Friday in the Top 14 Final. For Toulouse it will be their 28th final having won it 20 times. In stark contrast this will be Stade Rochelais first appearance in the showpiece event.

The script would dictate that La Rochelle after the heartbreak of losing the Heineken Champions Cup at Twickenham, against Toulouse, will exact revenge and return home to celebrations that will probably last all summer.

But when has rugby ever stuck to the script ? 16,000 lucky fans will find out at Stade de France in a few days time.

à bientôt

Will It Be Third Time Lucky For Harlequins Women ?

Sunday April 29 2018, with 81:16 on the clock Quins are on the attack, trailing 24-20, they have recovered from a poor first half with tries from Holly Myers, Jess Breach and a touchdown from Debs McCormack that has given them all the momentum.

As they mount a final attack, just one score and the Premiership title will be theirs, one bounce of the ball, one refereeing decision could change everything, but a knock on just outside Saracens twenty-two brings the game to an abrupt and gut wrenching end.

That blustery icy cold day at Ealing will never be forgotten by Quins and their fans, or indeed by this correspondent.

The team and management vowed, almost immediately, that they would return for the 2019 final, which they did, but an uncharacteristically flat performance resulted in defeat, which meant that for the second year in succession the title was won by Saracens.

No Premiership final took place in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, so here we are again in 2021 for yet another Harlequins v Saracens final.

There has been a huge change in the Quins personnel since that inaugural final, but there are a chosen few who will have seen active service in all three finals.

The 2019 Final At Franklins Gardens

Despite a much more competitive Premier 15s league this season, it is once again Harlequins and Saracens that battle it out for the trophy at Kinsholm on Sunday, will it be third time lucky for Quins ?, we shall find out very soon.

Grand Slam Super Saturday For The Red Roses

It was one of those days when the sun shone from dawn till dusk, a Super Saturday adorned with cloudless blue skies, a day when it felt good to be alive, and for brief moments a global pandemic seemed a world away.

Entering a rugby stadium wearing a mask, having your temperature checked and having to scan your attendance on a medical phone app reminds you that the past is a different country, and we are in, as the buzz phrase says “The new normal”.

Rugby without fans is like bacon without eggs, Laurel without Hardy or thunder without lightning, what a day it would have been had we been able to share it with the life blood of rugby, the spectators.

The final day of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations brought together England’s Red Roses and France in a winner takes all showdown at Twickenham Stoop.

For Jess Breach, Abbie Ward, Leanne Riley, Lagi Tuima, Vickii Cornborough, Amy Cokayne and Shaunagh Brown, this was familiar turf ,their home ground, the field of dreams where they have worn the Harlequins shirt with such pride and glory.

With a Grand Slam and the Six Nations title at stake, it would not have been a surprise if the match had been cagey and tight, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the warm Spring sunshine, that was more Montpellier than Middlesex, the two best teams in Europe produced a match that displayed the very best

With the match televised live on BBC 2 it was the most wonderful opportunity to showcase the women’s game to an audience that might not be aware of its glorious attributes.

It may not have been a try fest, but there was a brutality and a bite to this contest, you could hear the echo of the hits way up in the stands.

France matched England physically and it took 39 minutes to register the first score of the game ascPoppy Cleal went over from close range with only 30 seconds of the first half remaining. Emily Scarrett converted to give England a 7-0 lead at the interval.

France wing Cyrielle Banet’s favourite film is “Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix”, but on this occasion the 26 year old French women could not provide provide her usual wizardry as defences continued to dominate.

France started the second half brightly, and reduced England’s lead to 7-3 on the 45th minute, with a penalty from Drouin, the hits if anything got bigger with both teams refusing to yield.

With 8 minutes left Drouin landed another penalty for France to bring them within one point of England, and it was here that the Red Roses showed their experience and tactical nous, playing the remainder of the match inside England “22”. The pressure they exerted earned them a simple penalty in front of the posts which Scarett converted to make the score 10-6 to England with only seconds remaining.

Many of the French women were in tears at the final whistle, it was a tough defeat to take and the battered bodies of both teams were testament to a glorious match that made any mention of gender totally irrelevant.

As England coach Simon Middleton mentioned in his post match interview “The physios are going to be very busy this week”.

England face France once again on Friday in Lille in a friendly, and after today’s bruising battle I use that term in its very loosest sense.

The Blues Sisters Women’s Six Nations 2021

Week three of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations proved to be a colourful affair with the emphasis on the colour blue. Italy, Scotland and France all normally wear differing shades of the primary colour.

The colour blue often symbolises serenity, stability, inspiration,wisdom or health. It can be a calming colour, and also symbolises reliability.

The was a large dose of blue reliability administered in Dublin, as France marched on to a final showdown with England at Twickenham Stoop next Saturday.

Under the bright blue cloudless skies of Glasgow, Scotland swapped their slightly darker shade of blue shirts for white ones, due to the colour clash with the Azure of Italy.

The blue symmetry did not just exist in shirt colour, both France and Italy touched down for 7 tries, and both teams conceded 2 tries to their opponents.

At Donnybrook, Five tries in the first 40 minutes saw France virtually secure a bonus point win by half-time,

Further scores from Caroline Boujard, Romane Menager and Cyrielle Banet took France beyond the half century of points.

Caroline Boujard took her try tally for the Championship to five from two games as France recorded a big win to set up a mouth-watering clash against England for the 2021 Women’s Six Nations title next Saturday at Twickenham Stoop.

Both teams had beaten Wales, meaning the match in Dublin was straight shootout to top Pool B and Les Bleues, impressed with a 56-15 win.

At Scotstoun Italy scored 2 tries in opening 9 minutes, Scotland suffered at line out and scrum which did not allow them to get any rhythm and cohesion into their play, Italy were well worth their convincing win.

Italy captain Manuela Furlan grabbed a hat-trick as the Azzurre saw off Scotland 41-20 at Scotstoun to secure second place in the Women’s Six Nations Pool A.

Italy will now play Ireland, in Parma on Super Saturday in the third-place play-off.

Italy made a dream start with two tries in the first nine minutes to race into a 12-0 lead thanks to scores from Beatrice Rigoni and Furlan. Their experienced backline was clicking and finding holes in the Scottish defence at every opportunity.

So both Scotland and Italy suffered a case of the Blues on a spring Saturday that gladdened the soul as winter finally shed its coat to give us a taste of spring.

The final weekend of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations looks like being the most competitive and most exciting of the whole tournament.

Lewis Jones 90 Not Out

Those of us fortunate enough to be have born in Carmarthenshire are aware of the mystical powers bestowed on a certain few of our rugby players.

Merlin the wizard of Arthurian legend was alleged to have been born in Carmarthen, and those of us in the know are acutely aware of how his sorcery has been handed down throughout the ages.

One recipient of these supernatural gifts was a certain Lewis Jones who celebrates his 90th birthday today.

Rugby league historian Robert Gate has described Lewis Jones as “arguably the most devastating attacking back Wales has ever produced.” His acceleration over the first few yards allowed him to penetrate almost any defence”.

On the face of it Lewis Jones’ career stats do not reflect a great talent – ten caps for Wales, three Lions appearances – but that hides the fact that for a brief period before he switched to rugby league he was the wonder boy of Welsh rugby.

His debut at Twickenham in 1950, aged 18 he was the youngest ever Welsh ended with him being carried shoulder-high from the pitch. To his bemusement he had been selected at fullback even though he had never played there. Wales won a Grand Slam weeks that season.

Later that year he became the first ever British Lion to arrive on tour by aeroplane when flown out as a replacement. His performances in Australia and New Zealand won him a string of plaudits. His versatility was shown by the fact his ten Wales caps came in three positions, fullback, centre and wing.

In November 1952 he switched codes for a then-record fee of £6000, revealing Leeds had been pursuing him for two years. The money plus the promise of a job proved too tempting. At 21 his rugby union career was over.

In Rugby League he unsurprisingly shone as well, winning 15 Great Britain caps and one for Wales (it was Wales last international match until 1968). He became the first player to kick 1000 goals for Leeds, spent six years as a player-coach in Australia and after retirement became a schoolmaster in Leeds.

During his eleven years at Headingley, Jones accumulated 3,445 points, third on the League’s all-time list.

In 1956-57, Jones broke the world record for the most points in a League season: 496 with 36 tries and 194 goals from 48 matches. He broke fellow Welshman Jim Sullivan’s season points record playing for Great Britain against France on his 25th birthday.

In 2013 Lewis was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

I’m sure tonight, somewhere, Merlin will be raising a glass with admiration to a true magician, Penblydd Hapus Lewis.

Trying Time For Wales In Brittany

Vannes is one of those places that contours up the idyllic French holiday, sitting outside a cafe with a crepe and a cold glass of muscadet whilst watching the world go by.

But on Saturday night there was rugby on the menu at Stade de la Rabine on Place Théodore Decker.

Standing on the right bank of the town’s marina, the stadium takes its name from the Promenade de la Rabine, which true to the meaning of the Breton word ‘rabine’ is a tree-lined path between the esplanade and the port.

The ground holds 5,440 spectators and is jointly used by top of the table Pro D2 rugby side Club Vannetais and Vannes OC, who now operate in the fifth tier, after spending the 2008/09 and 2010/11 seasons in Ligue 2.

Wales arrived in the land of their Celtic cousins full of optimism for this opening game of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations.

That optimism was shattered, as gaps as wide as the Gulf of Morbihan appeared in the Welsh defence, to allow Caroline Boujard a hat trick of tries in the opening 15 minutes.

It took 2 mins 22 seconds for the Montpellier wing to open her account, her favourite film is “The Hunger Games” and her hunger for the try line bordered on gluttony in a first half where France ran in 4 converted tries, to lead 31-0 at the break.

In the second half Wales defended heroically, holding up Sansus, Boujard and Tremouliere over the line saving three certain tries.

France did however score 4 tries in the second period, and the gulf between semi professional and amateur rugby, which is a huge factor in the Women’s Six Nations, was there for all to see.

For a new look Welsh side this was a harsh lesson, but they will face an Ireland side that hasn’t played for quite some time next weekend, all the better for their run out in the cool Breton night air.

For France once again it looks like a match against England on April 24 will decide the title, but there are a few hurdles to overcome before we come to Le Crunch.

Red Roses Race Away At Doncaster

The Red Roses started their 2021 Women’s Six Nations campaign with a bonus-point 52-10 win over Scotland in Doncaster.

Simon Middleton’s charges ran in eight tries at Castle Park, home of Championship side Doncaster Knights, to get their Women’s Six Nations title defence off to the perfect start.

It was blistering from the outset as the Red Roses put Scotland under immediate pressure, forcing them into early defence. The visitors were able to absorb the attempts at their try line however.  

Neat offloading from Bryony to Poppy Cleall was the catalyst behind England’s opening try on the 10-minute mark. Their fantastic interlinking saw Zoe Aldcroft brought down just shy of the whitewash, but Marlie Packer was on hand to break through the middle of the resulting ruck and power over. Emily Scarratt added the extras.

Potent attack continued and seven minutes later scrum half Leanne Riley sniped at the base of a five-metre ruck to claim England’s second score, though Scarratt was unsuccessful with the conversion.

Fly half Helen Nelson put Scotland on the scoreboard courtesy of an easy three-pointer, but England’s response was emphatic. Hooker Lark Davies surged over from a trademark rolling maul, before Bryony Cleall – making a second appearance since her debut two years ago – marked her return to international duty with a score, and in doing so secured England’s bonus-point.

As half time approached, Jess Breach collected a Helena Rowland cross-field kick, and showed sublime pace to canter over. Scarratt converted all three tries, making it 33-3 at the break.

The Red Roses started the second half with the same intensity as they had ended the first, and it saw fly half Rowland dart over for her first Test try after three minutes. Breach was unleashed down the left flank, jinking around defenders, before turning to assist the onrushing Rowland. Scarratt’s extras brought up a personal milestone of 600 points.

A Poppy Cleall yellow card handed Scotland a one player advantage, and they were able to immediately capitalise through a Hannah Smith try, converted by Nelson. The Red Roses went down to 13 players on the 57-minute mark, Davies sin binned for a high tackle, and then Scotland replacement Molly Wright was shown a red card for making head contact with her shoulder.

Returning to the field, Poppy Cleall joined her sister on the scoreboard in the 70th minute, the benefactor off the back of a five metre rolling maul. It was Poppy Cleall’s fifteenth Test score. England were awarded a penalty try with two minutes remaining after Louise McMillan brought down a promising rolling maul, rounding out a comprehensive victory. The Red Roses have now won their last 23 meetings against Scotland.  

Reaction 

Head coach Simon Middleton said: “I was really pleased with the first half.

“Our intensity was what we wanted particularly defensively, and our ruck speed gave us the attacking tempo we talked about. I thought we were outstanding for the majority of the first half. We got ourselves into a position where we wanted to be in the game but then didn’t kick on. It got a bit fractious and became stop start in the end and I’m a little disappointed in the second half.

“Poppy Cleall was brilliant. Her all-round impact is sensational.

“I thought Zoe Aldcroft was exceptional, she’s such a consistent player. Bryony Cleall can bring something different and I’m really pleased for her. In the main everyone who came back went well. Cath O’Donnell gave us great go-forward which is what Cath does.

“We know we have plenty to work on. We’ll have a look at the penalty count, what they were for and there’ll definitely be some areas we need to smarten up in terms of our discipline. There are lots of lessons for us, one of them being how to refocus and regain momentum and control when the game starts to break up and drift. We have plenty to work on for sure.

“I was really pleased with our set piece, our lineout defence in particular was hugely effective and our lineout attack grew into the game. Our drive needs to become more ruthless close to the opposition line but that goes for all our attacking game.

“I thought our scrum went well given the amount of live and competitive scrummaging the forwards have been able to get through.

“Scotland were terrific in terms of tenancity and they asked a lot of us in defence and it wasn’t until the end of the first half where we got away from them.

“We’ll start our recovery tonight, and do more tomorrow. We’ll review the game and begin our preparations at Pennyhill Park next week before we head to Italy.”

RED ROSES:15. Sarah McKenna, 14. Lydia Thompson, 13. Emily Scarratt (c), 12. Lagi Tuima, 11. Jess Breach, 10. Helena Rowland, 9. Leanne Riley, 1. Vickii Cornborough, 2. Lark Davies, 3. Bryony Cleall, 4. Abbie Ward, 5. Cath O’Donnell, 6. Zoe Aldcroft, 7. Marlie Packer,

8. Poppy Cleall.

FINISHERS:16. Amy Cokayne, 17. Detysha Harper, 18. Shaunagh Brown, 19. Harriet Millar-Mills, 20. Vicky Fleetwood, 21. Claudia MacDonald, 22. Megan Jones, 23. Ellie Kildunne.

SCOTLAND:15. Chloe Rollie, 14. Rachel Shankland, 13. Hannah Smith (Watsonians), 12. Lisa Thomson, 11. Megan Gaffney, 10. Helen Nelson, 9. Mairi McDonald, 1. Leah Bartlett, 2. Lana Skeldon, 3. Christine Belisle, 4. Emma Wassell, 5. Louise McMillan, 6. Rachel Malcolm (C), 7. Rachel McLachlan, 8. Siobhan Cattigan.

REPLACEMENTS:16. Molly Wright, 17. Panashe Muzambe, 18. Lisa Cockburn, 19. Evie Gallagher, 20. Jodie Rettie, 21. Jenny Maxwell, 22. Sarah Law, 23.