February 26, 2024

Welsh rugby: six things we learned from the United Rugby Championship weekend

Osprey’s fly-half Dan Edwards is congratulated by Jac Morgan after scoring a try on his competitive debut

It was a weekend that started with a shock win, saw a record defeat and ended with a one-sided derby in West Wales.

After so many near misses, Cardiff finally broke the habit of throwing away wins on a glittering night in front of their biggest home crowd this season.

Dragons were mauled by the Sharks World Cup winners, while Ospreys overpowered a sorry Scarlets side in Swansea.

Scarlets and Dragons bolster the United Rugby Championship (URC) rankings, while Ospreys and Cardiff moved closer to the competition’s top eight. So what have we learned?

Adams is ready to return

Josh Adams scores
Josh Adams scored his 21st test try against Fiji in the World Cup

As injury lists in the regions grow and already smaller squads look even more threadbare, any news of a player returning to fitness is welcome.

But if that player is a British and Irish Lion, you could forgive the coaches jumping for joy.

Wing Josh Adams has not played since Wales’ quarter-final against Argentina in Marseille.

Even if Wales had progressed, Adams would have missed the semi-final with a shoulder injury suffered against the Pumas.

However, Cardiff confirmed that the 28-year-old is expected to be available against Scarlets next Saturday, although he may be limited to a place on the bench as he regains match fitness.

Cardiff’s ‘chip’

Cardiff players celebrate
Cardiff celebrated only their second win of the season

Head coach Matt Sherratt revealed the secret to them dramatic 31-24 win over Stormers at Cardiff Armspark.

“Tomos [Williams] spoke very well in the week that we have to play with a chip on our shoulder every week. Man-for-man the Stormers are more powerful than most teams, but mentally we were right,” said Sherratt.

One man who could match the South Africans physically was man-of-the-match Mason Grady, who scored one try (his fourth in five matches) and set up another.

“Yes, that’s exactly what we do. A lot of us grew up playing together, so we’re a very close group,” Grady said.

“That result shows our potential. We have been underestimated this season, but it is good to be the underdog. We won two and drew one, but we could have won six out of six.”

He added: “I feel like I’ve got my mojo back after being frustrated by my lack of playing time at the World Cup and I’m enjoying my rugby.

“I hated it when I was younger and they pushed me on the wing, but [Sherratt] has given me a license to roam around and get my hands on the ball as much as possible.”

Battered dragons

Dragons players walk out against Sharks in Durban
Dragons conceded 10 tries against Sharks in Durban

Dai Flanagan faces a battle in South Africa this week, not just to throw his players off balance record 69-14 loss to Sharks but to form someone into an outer half.

In a nail-biting first half against Sharks in Durban, Flanagan saw both his first choice Will Reed and his natural replacement Cai Evans leave the match injured within three minutes.

It meant Steff Hughes was called up as a makeshift number 10, while scrum-half Rhodri Williams filled in on the wing after Jarred Rosser switched to wing-back.

JJ Hanrahan and Sam Davies left in the summer and all with Angus O’Brien until at least the new year After breaking an arm against Munster, Flanagan is desperately assessing his options. That could be centers Hughes or Aneurin Owen, or fullback Jordan Williams.

“Physically we have some catching up to do with the South African sides,” Flanagan said.

“Next week [against Lions] is still a big challenge. We are a bit battered, we already had a small squad and now we no longer have an outside half, but we will have to find a way.”

Kicking will also be an issue, but to his credit Williams impressively converted Rio Dyer’s effort from close to the touchline.

Can Nagy play for Wales?

Osprey fullback Max Nagy takes possession against Scarlets
Max Nagy has established himself as the Ospreys’ first-choice full-back

There were many impressive performances for Ospreys in their 31-9 win above Scarlet. Behind a dominant front five, captain Morgan Morris and Wales skipper Jac Morgan excelled, while replacement fly-half Dan Edwards gave a glimpse of his potential with an excellent opportunistic try on debut.

One player who continues to improve is England-born full-back Max Nagy, who Ospreys want to clarify if he is eligible for Wales.

Nagy, who made his Ospreys debut in 2021, is from Buckinghamshire and has lived in Wales since September 2018, when he started studying at Swansea University. There is confusion about whether Nagy’s student years count toward his residency status.

Warren Gatland is looking for candidates to replace the retired Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams, who have left for club rugby in Japan and are unavailable for the 2024 Six Nations.

Nagy showed his class again by setting up the Edwards try.

“Max has lived in Wales for a long time. Being from Swansea Uni, we asked the question because in theory he should be Welsh qualified quite quickly if that is the case,” said Booth.

“It’s just a question of when the housing element will kick in. We’ve asked the question to the people who have the answers, we’re waiting for an answer.”

One player eligible is Wales center Keiran Williams, who made his debut in the World Cup warm-ups in August but missed out on selection for the global tournament.

Williams reminded Gatland of his talents with two tries against Scarlets.

“It was hard for him. You get a taste of it and you don’t get it. None of us like being rejected,” Booth said.

“It’s having an effect, we know we have to create an environment where we’re supportive, but also, ‘Okay, what are we going to do about it?’

“When you see the reaction of Keiran, Morgan Morris who wasn’t involved, and Rhys Davies, those guys are big players for us and all they can do is put their hand up and keep performing well.”

All time low

Scarlets players Johnny Williams and Gareth Davies trudged off in defeat to Ospreys in Swansea
Scarlets players trudged off in defeat to Ospreys in Swansea

Scarlets are bottom of the URC and have lost five of their first six games, with some supporters even taking to social media after the match to call for heads to roll in the coaching staff and boardroom.

Dwayne Peel’s men have now conceded 200 points in four away games against Ospreys, Leinster, Bulls and Stormers this season.

Peel are determined to turn the tide, starting with another trip to Cardiff next Saturday.

“We’ve been here before, we just have to work hard to get out,” Peel said.

“We’ve had four tough away games and that’s the nature of the competition.

“It’s important that we go to Cardiff next week for a third away game. We have to make sure we consolidate and fly in next week.”

“Cardiff is a place where we have played well in recent years, but they will come after us.

“We have to turn it around, there is still a lot of rugby to be played and we have been to some of the toughest places.

“We have to go back to basics and guide this group through this period. We do have a number of boys that we are going to bring back to strengthen things. It is difficult at the moment.”

South Africa’s domestic dominance

On Saturday afternoon, three South African teams scored more than 50 points at home, including two record wins in the United Rugby Championship.

Lions achieved their highest score when they defeated Zebre 61-19 in Johannesburg. Bulls defeated Connacht 53-27 in Pretoria before Sharks recorded their biggest win, 69-14 against Dragons in Durban.

The only reverse was the Stormers’ late loss in Cardiff, completing a miserable European tour for the Western Cape team that also included defeats at Glasgow, Benetton and Munster.

South African teams have lost thirteen of the sixteen away games in the URC so far this season, but have won five at home. Only Connacht – at Sharks – has won there so far.

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