By Paul Williams
A month is a long time in Welsh rugby, so let’s take a deep breath and look at the highs and lows of the opening weeks in the Principality
Samson Lee – the new Adam Jones
Welsh rugby lunges from one positional wobble to another. No sooner had Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric filled Martyn Williams’ estimable boots, when thoughts turned to Adam Jones’ long-term successor. Step-forward, Samson Lee. If you typed his vital statistics into a career advisors’ laptop, it would spew out two words – Tight and Head. At 5ft 10in and 18st 2lbs and with a custom-made short back, the 19 year-old’s physique is the prototype for a No 3. His performances in last year’s Junior World Championship were exemplary and his destruction of New Zealand’s loose head in their 9-6 victory over the Baby Blacks was as biblical as his name. Lee’s scrummaging for the Scarlets has been equally impressive in the opening month of the season – and, maybe more surprisingly, so too have his ball skills. Lee’s deft wrap around pass in the opening game against Leinster will have caught Gatland’s eye. A fast-track into the Welsh set-up could be in the offing.
‘Rucking’ is back
There has been no change to the ruck law – Law 10.4 (b) states that a player must not stamp or trample on an opponent. In recent years use of the boot in rugby has attracted the same level of taboo afforded to fox hunting. But something seems to have changed. There have been numerous occasions in the opening four weeks of the Pro12 season where the Welsh regions have cleared out rucks with their feet, yet have gone unpunished. This seemingly relaxed attitude to rucking presents an interesting quandary. Use of the boot may seem barbaric to people outside of the game, but sensible deployment of studs is a very effective way of speeding up the breakdown, and encouraging a faster, more attractive game. Whistles, yellow cards and lectures from referees don’t stop players from lying on the wrong side of the ruck, boots do.
Don’t blame the English clubs for the European fallout
Many in Wales will be quick to the blame the English clubs for their role in undermining the Heineken Cup. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Welsh fans like to point the finger at English rugby – sometimes two. For this reason the BT deal will be viewed as another example of English self-interest ruining the game. But this isn’t true. Quite the opposite in fact. The English and French clubs are well within their rights to demand a change to the European format. The current qualification for the Heineken Cup is grossly stacked in favour of the Pro 12 teams. It means that some teams in the Rabo Direct can saunter their way through the season without a care in the world – yet if this situation occurred in business, the Monopolies and Mergers commission would have been summoned long ago. This inequality not only dilutes the quality of the Pro 12, but it also weakens the Heineken Cup as a premium tournament. Whatever agreement is reached, Europe’s showpiece tournament needs to evolve.
France isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Welsh and French rugby are inextricably linked at the moment with Jamie Roberts the latest stellar name lined up with a move to the Top 14. But the fortunes of some Welsh players during the opening weeks of the Top 14 may make future emigrants think twice. Perpignan’s financial problems mean that they are reportedly keen to offload James Hook and his £300,000 contract. Gethin Jenkins has only made one start for Toulon and is currently the second choice loose-head at Toulon to Andrew Sheridan. And whilst we constantly see Mike Phillips being interviewed relaxing en soleil, his situation is anything but relaxed. Poor performances and unacceptable off field behaviour have given Phillips a popularity rating akin of Louis XVI with the Bayonne hierarchy and resulted in an internal ban. Add this to difficulties with international release, particularly in a Lions year, and France may not seem as alluring as it was. That is of course unless you’re in form, like Lee Byrne or Aled Brew, with the former rapidly becoming a marquee player in the Top 14.
Tom James is frustrating
Tom James has had a turbo-charged start to the Rabo Direct Pro 12. Arguably, no player in Europe is making as many 15 – 25 yard breaks as the Cardiff Blues winger – the problem is no player is making as many mistakes either. James is infuriating to watch. His powerful line breaks make you question why he hasn’t had 30 caps for Wales, yet his decision making and handling make you wonder why he was ever given a professional contract in the first place. We can but hope that one day his bottom half clicks with the top. Sadly, until that happens James will always remain a regional player.