Saturday, 31 December 2011

One to Watch: Viliame Iongi

I was down at Rodney Parade this evening to watch the less than entertaining game between the Dragons and Scarlets. But one player caught my eye with what little ball he had. Recently signed Scarlet wing Viliame Iongi.

Iongi was signed towards the end of October this year. Nigel Davies (Scarlets coach) showed tremendous faith in the 22-year-old by naming him in the squad to face the Dragons on November 25th, just 2 days after Iongi had arrived in Wales. When talking about Iongi, Davies said: "He's impressed us with his pace and will provide us with some new options. He's been full of energy in training."

The highlight of his 9 tests for Tonga has got to be his 4 well finished tries against USA. During 3 of those tries he showed electrifying pace to finish well with very little room to work in. His International stats are pretty impressive scoring 7 tries in 9 tests including a tough group in the RWC.

On joining the Scarlets Iongi says: "It's a great opportunity for me and as my first professional rugby contract.

"I'm looking forward to being part of such a professional set-up and will give it everything I can. The Scarlets play great rugby and I'm looking forward to being part of the team."

The speedsters only previous club was the Brumbies Academy in Australia but as he states this is his first professional contract, and I think this may prove to be a great signing for the region.

As for his form since arriving in Wales, he's played 3 games for the Scarlets and scored one try against Ulster in his first start for the Scarlets at the beginning of December, and if Davies says that Iongi is working hard in training and enjoying his rugby then i'm very excited about what is to come from the youngster in 2012.

The timing of this signing is very convenient when you consider that Sean Lamont is going back to Scotland to join the Glasgow Warriors at the end of the season. This could be a big opportunity for the Tongan to cement his place in the team and become a prominent name in professional rugby. And I for one will be watching him closely and I expect a big 2012 from the winger, providing he gets the chance.

Iongi's first 5-pointer for the Scarlets

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Life After Shane...

With the 6 Nations upon us in the New Year I thought i'd accept the fact that there has to be life after Shane Williams. 87 caps, 58 tries and the ability to create something out of nothing, irreplaceable in many peoples views; but here are the options.

Williams - Crossing for number 58.

First of all let's assume that George North is going to occupy one wing. The Scarlet is often heavily involved in midfield strike moves and compliments the creativity of Priestland and Hook well, acting at times as another Jamie Roberts. The 6'3" powerhouse has proved himself on the international stage with 9 tries in 16 caps for Wales. Also some positive news coming from Nigel Davies (Scarlets coach) saying that North will almost certainly be fit for the start of the 6 Nations campaign.

North - Welsh rugby looking to the future.

Liam Williams from the Scarlets was in the squad for the Australian test in November, but I think this was more for experience rather than a genuine shot at the jersey. He's been solid for the Scarlets but hasn't exactly set any game alight scoring 4 tries in 12 appearances. It's important to think that his primary position would be Fullback and at the age of 20 he may be one for the future.

Liam Williams - Maybe in a few years.

Tom Prydie seems to have fallen off the face of the earth since his shock selection in 2010. Having only played for the Ospreys once this season I think we can safely remove him from the list.

Prydie - Needs game time at the Ospreys.

On to the Blues and Chris Czekaj. His international career has come to a halt since his horrific injury in Australia in 2007. However he has showed some good form for the Blues but can't seem to cross the whitewash only scoring twice in 11 appearances. The 25-year-old was openly frustrated in the media after being overlooked for the test match in November, but in my opinion he needs to score more tries, but with our next contender playing well, I doubt he'll get the chance.

Czekaj - Attempting to resurrect his international career

Alex Cuthbert was a name unfamiliar with even the most avid of Welsh rugby supporters, as it turns out he really has come from nowhere. After his name was mentioned to Wales 7's coach Paul John he never looked back and made his international debut last month. The 21-year-old has scored 3 tries in 6 games in the Rabodirect Pro12 and looks to be quite the finisher. I think he needs more games at the Blues to prove that he is a genuine talent but he is one not to be overlooked.

Cuthbert - Snuck in under the radar.

Tom James is another winger who seems to have disappeared off the international scene in recent seasons , which may be testament to the form of George North. He's scored 3 tries in 10 games which is a decent ratio; he's a pretty strong runner but he needs to up his game in order to be considered in my opinion.

James - Gone missing.

Richard Mustoe is a name that has been thrown around but he hasn't scored in 7 appearances for the Blues, there are better wingers in Wales.

Mustoe - Not a likely contender.

On to Will Harries of the Dragons. After showing some good form he made his Wales debut against the All Blacks in 2010. During this time he displayed electrifying pace and the ability to finish off the majority of chances thrown his way. But fate hasn't been kind to Harries, he ruptured ligaments in his knee back in April and only made his comeback against Exeter earlier on this month. The signing of South African winger Tonderai Chavanga at the Dragons will probably severely damage his chances of getting regular game time, so I can't see Harries featuring for wales any time soon.

Harries - On the mend.

But I think the most likely contender for Shane's old jersey is Dragons wing Aled Brew. Although he's only scored once in four appearances for the Dragons this season you can always expect a solid performance from him. He has pace to burn and is a great finisher. Dragons coach Darren Edwards sings the praises of Brew and shares the view that he is the man to replace Shane Williams.

Brew - Next in line.

So in my opinion i've run through anybody who is likely to be a straight swap for Shane however there is another option. Leigh Halfpenny has been performing well at fullback and was one of Wales' best players in RWC, however he can revert to the wing. If this has to happen Lee Byrne has been performing very well since his move to France. So I think this option is plausible. But Warren Gatland openly said that players would severely damage their chances of an international call up should they not be released by their clubs 13 days before the tournament begins. Problem is Clermont Auvergne are not obligated to release Byrne for the 6 Nations, nor do they look likely to do so.

So in my opinion our best option is to give Aled Brew an opportunity. But there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the empty shirt, one thing that is for sure is that there is going to be a lot of pressure on the shoulders of George North in the upcoming campaign because Wales needs a new finisher, and he is surely the one we will all be turning too.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Too Many Spare Seats

After another weekend of quality Heineken Cup rugby it was the crowds that disappointed me, or more appropriately the lack of crowds. After a bit of research into the attendance figures over the last two weekends of rugby in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales it stands out that rugby in Ireland is booming and attendances are far superior to it's Celtic counterparts and England.

Attendances in Wales are down and this concerns me. This could be the reason why the Welsh regions have played poorly in this years tournament, with the exception possibly of the Scarlets. So then, the facts are that when the Ospreys hosted Saracens on Friday night there were under 7,000 in attendance and when you consider that Saracens are quality opposition and one of the best teams in England it becomes such a disappointing figure. 

I suppose it's not really that there were only 6,897 in the stadium, it's the lack of atmosphere that they can create when sat in a 20,500 seater stadium. How can the Ospreys board justify these kind of figures, it's ridiculous and there is no way a player can be motivated when the stadium isn't even half full! What's even scarier for Welsh rugby is that at the reverse fixture last weekend there were 41,000 fans at Wembley which is nearly 6 times as many that turned up to the Liberty Stadium.

In the past 4/5 years 3 of the Welsh regions have moved away from smaller, more basic grounds to larger, more modern facilities and in the case of the Blues and Ospreys entering a partnership with football teams in order to afford the new stadium. A plan which has monumentally backfired. Only 6,100 fans made it to the Cardiff City Stadium last weekend to watch the Blues face Edinburgh, a team that the Blues should beat comfortably, this left the stadium only 1/4 full and the Blues played possibly the most boring rugby I have ever seen! It works both ways.

Parc y Scarlets was near capacity last weekend at 13,000 which is promising but you have to consider that the Scarlets were playing European giants Munster for what was arguably the tie of the round. In the reverse tie at Thomond Park on Sunday there was 25,000 fans which is capacity for the ground. The facts speak for themselves.

The Dragons are the only region to have kept themselves in a smaller ground rather than a stadium, where the fans are practically on the pitch and standing in the terraces with a burger. rather than sat in the top tier of a stand. I believe that the atmosphere at Rodney Parade is better than any of the other three regions simply because the ground is always full even if they don't always bring in 27,000 like the Blues were obviously planning on doing.

Leinster switched the Aviva Stadium for their clash with Bath on saturday when 46,365 fans came to support their team, this is the national stadium for Ireland and it's capacity is 50,000, imagine the atmosphere that created for the players and Leinster ran out 52 - 27 winners whilst playing some scintillating rugby and I can guarantee you that their ground (The RDS) will be packed out for their Boxing Day clash.

These poor attendance figures could also be the reason why Welsh rugby is losing it's big names to clubs in Europe. I learned today that following Mike Phillips, James Hook and Lee Byrne abroad is Luke Charteris another man who was massive for Wales in the RWC. Also Gethin Jenkins is pondering a new contract at the Blues as is Shane Williams with the Ospreys. Gareth Baber (Blues coach) says that regions need more financial backing to keep their top billed players. I say create an environment and an atmosphere in which a player wants to play and they will stay and in my opinion this would mean moving to smaller stadiums.

It's not all doom and gloom, rumours are circulating that the Blues are planning on moving back to the Arms Park, their old stadium, where I used to thoroughly enjoy going to see the games and there was always a good atmosphere. Welsh rugby needs to go back to it's roots, I think we all got carried away a few years ago when everyone was sprouting new stadiums everywhere and now we've been humbled by reality, the regions can't fill these stadiums.

No matter how bad things may seem in my first attempt at a blog, it's not as bad as Scotland. Edinburgh hosted the Blues in Murrayfield on Friday, a 67,000 seater stadium, just over 4,000 turned up. I won't even go into that one.