Wales and rugby go together like Dolce and Gabbana, Ant and Dec and even strawberries and cream. It’s a beautiful combination that goes hand-in-hand, a relationship that has been going strong since Victorian times.
Rugby in Wales is regarded as the national sport and the Welsh are simply rugby mad. Cardiff as a city is basically rugby central. The people and the land live and breathe the often-brutal sport. The old quote: “rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” flies around so frequently, but it’s the bravery, sacrifice and resilience that makes it the beautiful game adored by so many.
As a national team, Wales are amongst the world’s elite. For a nation with a population of three million, it is evident to see why some are so passionate. Wales have a number of players who opt to play their rugby abroad, including former Cardiff University student Jamie Roberts who plays his club rugby in France for Racing Metro.
For the majority of current Wales’s national players, home comforts suit and many play their club rugby for one of the top four Welsh clubs which include: Cardiff Blues, Llanelli Scarlets, Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons. Last weekend, the four locked horns for the Pro12 Judgement Day at the Millennium Stadium, where the Blues entertained the Ospreys, which was then followed immediately by Scarlets against the Dragons.
Ospreys, the highest ranked Welsh team playing in the Pro 12 came from behind to beat the Cardiff Blues 23-31 in the opener. The Blues led 9-7 at half time thanks to the boot of fly half Gareth Anscombe. However, a second half onslaught by the Ospreys, orchestrated by Wales’ starting fly half, Dan Biggar led to them scoring three second half tries. Some have tipped Biggar to be the best fly half in the northern hemisphere playing first class rugby at the moment, which going into the World Cup year, can’t be a bad thing for Wales. Biggar oozed class on the day, with intricate passing, ingenious kicks, shimmies and an accurate boot from the dead ball.
The win for the Ospreys means they seal Pro 12 play-off qualification following Leinster’s defeat at Ulster. The Welsh pairing of Alun Wyn Jones and Biggar again led to the try of the game after excellent work by lock Wyn Jones, whose offload to the fly-half was inch perfect. In the last play of the game, Blues scored a consolation try after Dan Fish ran the length of the field, making it an eight-point deficit. It wasn’t just the Wales rugby stars on show; leading referee Nigel Owens took the whistle for the game. Owens is praised for his on-the-field banter and ability to control tempers, making him an all-round refereeing favourite.
In the second game of the day, the Llanelli Scarlets came out on top against the Newport Gwent Dragons in convincing fashion. Liam Williams was the star of the show with a man-of-the-match performance, which included a try.
In a similar manner to the first game, the Dragons took the surprise lead after Tyler Morgan crossed over early on. The Dragons failed to build on their early fortune and never really got going. The Scarlets on the other hand ran in an impressive team try on the verge of half time to give them a seven-point lead. Liam Williams picked a gap in the Dragons’ defence and offloaded to a charging Scott Williams who touched down under the posts. The Dragons failed to score in the second half, as the Scarlets ran in another two tries courtesy of Liam Williams and Harry Robinson. Fly-half Rhys Priestland had a notable day with the boot, scoring nine points, keeping Biggar on his toes going into the World Cup this year.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland was in attendance, keeping a watchful eye on his players. It was the third Judgement Day hosted at the Millennium Stadium, which also saw a record attendance of 52,762. At £10 a ticket, fans were served a fantastic day of rugby, with excellent value for money. 52,762 is an impressive number for club rugby matches, with the record being 84,068, set by the Saracens versus Harlequins hosted at Wembley in March.
Welsh rugby has come under recent criticism for dwindling crowds. In the last few years poor attendance at regional rugby matches has been made apparent – what’s to blame? Expensive tickets, lack of talent or even poor results? For a nation that adores rugby it is shocking that fans are being left in the cold and are even boycotting matches.
There were more spectators at the recent Welsh Varsity match, an attendance of around 15,000, than the average attendance of regional rugby in Wales, which is around 8,000. The lack of talent on show argument is an interesting one, with, as mentioned earlier, a number of players opting to play abroad including the centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
Should the Welsh RFU aim to keep all its stars playing in Wales? Perhaps it wouldn’t make too much of a difference as it is a minority who elect to. Some blame the Pro12 league for the lack of fans attending games. For some the standard doesn’t quite make the cut of top quality rugby.
The Irish contingent of Leinster, Ulster and Munster surely makes it a worthwhile competition, but it’s the lowly Italian teams that really disrupts the standard. Tickets across all sports are under scrutiny, and in Wales many criticised the pricing of the autumn internationals, but £10 for a Judgement Day ticket is fantastic value and a model that should be made more frequent across not just rugby, but all sports.