Wales‘ national team has had a torrid year and the regional teams haven’t fared much better, but the festive Welsh rugby derbies are here regardless. Can they add a little sparkle to an otherwise ugly year as they battle to be the best Welsh region? History has a little something to say about that.
History Is Written by the Victors
16 festive Welsh rugby derbies have been played to date since the 02-03 season. Scarlets’ impressive form over the past five years has seen them become Wales’ most consistent region but it’s Ospreys who’ve won the most. Out of 37 games, Ospreys have won 21 times with no small thanks to their golden era. Scarlets, Blues and Dragons come second, third and fourth with twenty, eighteen, and eleven wins having played thirty-five, thirty-six and thirty-five games each.
The past five years have seen a restructuring of the record. The Scarlets are on top with seven wins, the Blues six, the Ospreys five and the Dragons three out of eleven games each. There’s still never been a draw between the sides over the festive period but there could be a chance this year, with each team having won three times in the Guinness Pro14 so far.
Wales’ capital region beat Dragons and Ospreys by a collective seven points but lost to Scarlets by two during the last festive derby period. They’re undergoing the same mid-table type of season they’re used to, unusually winning the first two games and claiming the scalp of Connacht as they did so. They’ve dipped in form since, looking lost without six of their forwards during the international period. Their game against Stade Francais in the Challenge Cup was cancelled last weekend, whilst they beat a weakened Newcastle Falcons the week before in a rickety performance.
Cardiff Blues Statement: Cardiff Blues v Stade Francais Paris
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) December 19, 2020
Blues have a lot of firepower in the backline but usually struggle to gain consistent forward momentum in the pack. It changed at the start of the season with the addition of players like Cory Hill and Rhys Carré to get them some front-foot ball but without it, the backline often creates too little. Instead, they rely on the opportunistic breakaway and often self-implode as they force the game. Big game players like Josh Navidi, James Botham, Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-lo may return, whilst Ellis Jenkins’ two-year return is delayed until January as he self-isolates. If the forwards can gain traction and backs remain consistent, they stand a good chance against all three regions.
Dragons beat Scarlets and Ospreys by a collective nine points last year but lost to the Blues by two. They’ve beaten Zebre and Benetton this season by a single score, whilst losing to three Irish regions. They beat Glasgow by a point away from home and put up a brave fight against the Wasps as they were outfired in the last 15 minutes to lose 8-24 in the Champions Cup. Bordeaux-Begles put them to the sword last weekend, winning 47-8, although Dragons were missing 17 players due to a mixture of covid-related illness and injuries.
🗣️"We’ve got lots of players coming back at the end of their isolation so integrating them will be the main focus…"
Boss looks to returning players as focus turns to @PRO14Official derby games
— Dragons (@dragonsrugby) December 21, 2020
Dragons have played better than some of the results look. They have a settled team, with several key players like Aaron Wainwright, Nick Tompkins, Rhodri Williams, Elliot Dee, and Jamie Roberts providing much-needed consistency to get them through games. Other exciting players like Taine Basham, Ollie Griffiths, Ashton Hewitt and Harrison Keddie can spark when they need them to. Much of their game relies upon the form of their fly-half, Sam Davies, who can be inconsistent. If Dragons can recover a semblance of their starting team in time, they can seriously challenge for every game.
Ospreys lost all of their festive Welsh derbies last season, including a 44-0 thumping by Scarlets. That was during their worst campaign in recent times, but this season has been better, although it couldn’t have been worse. They’ve beaten Edinburgh, Glasgow and Benetton but handed Zebre their only win of the season so far. They were well-beaten by Castres in the Challenge Cup but produced an excellent show of character to come back and beat Worcester 38-29 away from home last weekend.
New manager, Toby Booth, has steadied the ship somewhat. Whilst star-signing Gareth Anscombe hasn’t returned, 36-year-old fly-half Stephen Myler has provided a base for the Ospreys to attack and challenge for games with his consistent point and territory kicking. Even though Alun Wyn-Jones is out for 10 weeks, Sam Parry, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric continue to perform well in the forwards, whilst Kieran Williams, Dan Evans and Matt Protheroe cause trouble out the backs.
Although too early to claim a return of form, George North scored the winning try and was deemed man of the match last weekend. Ospreys won’t be playing at the Liberty Stadium on Boxing Day as planned due to it urgently needing to be resurfaced, but without the fans, it shouldn’t matter too much. Show the same determination as they did against Worcester and they can be dangerous.
Scarlets won by a margin of 46 points last festive period, although 44 of them came from Ospreys. They lost to Dragons by two and will aim to reassert their position as the best team in Wales by getting the whole crop this year. They’ve come closest than the other regions to notching up more than three wins in tight losses against the perfect starters Munster and Ulster, as well as Edinburgh. They showed grit and quality against Bath to win and thanks to the automatic 28-0 win given to them by Toulon’s forfeit, they stand a great chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.
Scarlets own a list of around 12 injuries but even without them, they look the sturdiest of all the regions, especially when it comes to game plans. They’ve got a set of dependable forwards in the likes of Josh Macleod, Jac Morgan, Wyn Jones, and super signing Sione Kalamafoni, who secure consistent ball for their well-drilled, attacking backs. A penalty around the halfway mark usually means Leigh Halfpenny steps up and steals three points. Their competitiveness in the Champions Cup ought to boost the confidence they already have over the other regions. On paper, they’re the team to beat.
Festive Welsh Rugby Derbies and the New Year
Wales’ national team has had a bad year. A good regional showing in Europe, or in the next Six nations could soften that blow. The festive Welsh derbies offer the possibility of losing a player to injury and the equal opportunity of discovering one too. The festive Welsh derbies are dubbed the “proving grounds” for many players to get in or cement positions in the national squad too. Pivac and co. will be watching from a distance. The fans will be watching from home, but with the regions equal in the league and the games anyones for the taking, they’ll be intense and entertaining. We’ll be watching on Boxing day, will you?
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images