Pro14: Welsh rugby makes a welcome return – and takes a step towards normality


Cardiff Blues and Scarlets play in front of an empty stadium
Cardiff Blues and Scarlets play in front of an empty stadium

We can now say it, Welsh regional rugby is finally back. But did it live up to the expectations of a public starved of sporting action?

It was sometimes dramatic, not pretty at times and behind closed doors, but at last we have seen some action with two local derbies played after almost six months of inactivity.

Welsh rugby and the Pro14 had the chance to begin moving back to some sort of normality with two weekends of regular matches across the competition’s territories to complete the prolonged 2019-20 season.

In Wales, Scarlets overpowered Dragons 32-12 in Llanelli before 14-man Ospreys and Dragons shared the spoils in a 20-20 draw at the Liberty Stadium.

And there was no little incident in the two games, with spectacular length-of-the-field tries and Wales wing George North’s first career red card, for a dangerous challenge on Ashton Hewitt.

North’s exit would normally have come with a cacophony of noise, but was instead met with deafening silence as referee Adam Jones showed the red card.

George North is shown a red card by referee Adam Jones in the Ospreys 20-20 draw with Dragons
George North is shown a red card by referee Adam Jones in the Ospreys 20-20 draw with Dragons

Empty stadiums

The feeling at the two Welsh games was surreal and eerie, but that was always likely to be case as they were played in empty stadiums.

The handful of people who were in attendance – including those taking part – had temperatures checked before being allowed into the grounds.

Parc y Scarlets and the Liberty were the first two hosts, with contrasting atmospheres in the two arenas.

In Llanelli, there was no crowd noise pumped into the ground or stadium announcer, with Scarlets also marking the sad death of Andrew ‘Tommo’ Thomas in July.

Cardiff Blues and Wales prop Rhys Carre has his temperature taken before the Scarlets fixture
Cardiff Blues and Wales prop Rhys Carre has his temperature taken before the Scarlets fixture

In Swansea there was crowd noise reverberating around the stadium, which was only halted when kickers were attempting efforts at Cardiff. Jury remains out on that.

There were some special moments, like Scarlets number eight Uzair Cassiem saluting the Parc y Scarlets stands at the end of their victory as he would have done had there been supporters present.

Now Newport’s Rodney Parade will host a double-header next weekend with Dragons facing Scarlets on Saturday and Cardiff Blues playing Ospreys the following day in their temporary home venue.

Pre-season warm-ups or dynamic derby duels?

Cardiff Blues head coach John Mulvihill mentioned following his side’s convincing defeat that the occasion felt like a pre-season friendly.

Of course, he had just seen his team outclassed in Llanelli, and Blues and Ospreys have nothing to play for in these two matches, while Scarlets and Dragons have Challenge Cup quarter-finals next month.

Toulon awaits Scarlets with Dragons facing Bristol in the last eight in mid September.

Mulvihill’s point was valid in terms of the four regions returning from the longest break players would have experienced, meaning ring-rustiness was always going to be a factor.

Handling mistakes and glaring errors punctuated both games at times, especially in the second half at the Liberty Stadium.

Dragons will have to eradicate the flurry of mistakes that stopped them from defeating a defiant Ospreys side who played 66 minutes with 14 men.

Scarlets still have something to play for in this Pro14 competition, mathematically at least, so perhaps it was no surprise they looked sharper than their opponents.

The bonus-point victory and Munster’s defeat to Leinster has kept alive Scarlets’ slim Pro14 semi-final play-off hopes.

They will have to beat Dragons on Saturday, preferably with a bonus point, and hope Connacht defeat Munster. Even then Scarlets might still not qualify.

Star performers

There were a number of stand-out players across the matches with some fresh faces emerging alongside familiar figures.

Scarlets wing Steff Evans, sporting a fetching new mullet hair cut, took the man-of-the-match award with two opportunist tries in front of Wales coach Pivac, who was present at both games.

Scarlets wing Steff Evans scores his second try against Cardiff Blues
Scarlets wing Steff Evans scores his second try against Cardiff Blues

Wales-qualified centre Johnny Williams impressed on his Scarlets debut as the region aim to fill the void left by Hadleigh Parkes.

Young Ospreys centre Kieran Williams also demonstrated his strong running characteristics with a powerful ball-carrying display, earning him the man-of-the-match accolade as he overshadowed Dragons debutant Nick Tompkins.

Dragons wing Hewitt also showed why he has been so close to a first Wales cap with an impressive two-try display that salvaged a draw and could have inspired a victory.

Foraging flankers Josh Macleod, Olly Robinson and Justin Tipuric excelled under revised breakdown interpretations.

It was also reassuring to see scrum-half Rhys Webb dictating proceedings on his Ospreys return, especially given the fact his Wales squad rivals Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies were both forced off injured at Parc y Scarlets.

Johnny Williams helped set up a couple of tries on his Scarlets debut against Cardiff Blues
Johnny Williams helped set up a couple of tries on his Scarlets debut against Cardiff Blues

Rugby against racism

Pro14 bosses had said beforehand that a ‘unity moment’ would be observed before each game to demonstrate that rugby stands united against racism.

A statement read: “Players will stand in a circular formation and during this time they are free to express themselves in a manner they deem appropriate.

“This unity moment will underline the message of rugby against racism across the territories that encompass the Guinness Pro14.”

Ospreys and Cardiff Blues players mark rugby against racism before the 20-20 draw at the Liberty Stadium
Ospreys and Cardiff Blues players mark rugby against racism before the 20-20 draw at the Liberty Stadium

How that would be interpreted was left to the squads, with all Scarlets and Cardiff Blues players taking the knee before their match.

A day later Dragons front-rowers Richard Hibbard and South African prop Brok Harris remained standing.

Lions hooker Hibbard chose to stand over Wales prop and Dragons team-mate Leon Brown with his left hand on his shoulder. That provided a striking image in these strange times we now live in.



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