Welsh slammers look in from outside when big show resumes

Welsh slammers look in from outside when big show resumes
Liam Williams celebrates the Grand Slam. Williams is the only English based Welsh player still involved in the Champions Cup. Picture: Inpho

The last eight has been a Welsh-free zone since its completion in mid-January and if that was no surprise then, it most certainly is now. That the Champions’ Cup goes ahead without a solitary team from the home of Europe’s newly crowned Grand Slammers makes the grandiose title sound a bit of a misnomer.

There will be quarter-finals in Edinburgh, Dublin, north London and Paris. The Welsh will be on the outside looking in, their Superdome closed for business as a result of their four regional teams having made the usual heavy weather of the pool competition.

This, regrettably for the country and the competition, is nothing new.

Wales have been failing miserably on that front for so long that none of their starting team in Cardiff last Saturday had reached the final of Europe’s blue riband club event, let alone won it. Ireland’s Leinster contingent had won it no fewer than 18 times between them, not that anyone would have been any the wiser.

For all his Test success as the best second row in these islands since Martin Johnson, Alun Wyn Jones has flopped consistently in Europe with the flapping Ospreys. Since their birth in 2003 from a shotgun marriage between Swansea and Neath, they have made the last eight once in 16 years.

The collective transformation, therefore, of Welsh players unable to make a splash in the PRO14 into serial Six Nations winners has been something to behold.

Nobody sums it up better than a player who has experienced the phenomenon for province and country, former Munster and Ireland star Donncha O’Callaghan.

“These aren’t the Clark Kents you know from Ospreys and Scarlets,” the former Munster and Ireland lock wrote in his perceptive newspaper column on the day of the mismatch. “They’ve got their capes on for this.”

Those capes enabled them to end the tournament where Ireland started it, at No. 1 in Europe and No. 2 in the universe.

The inability of their teams to compete at the highest level will allow the Welsh management to prepare for the World Cup without the risk of their players being knocked about in any big matches between now and Japan in September. Of their small English-based contingent, only Liam Williams retains an active interest in the Champions’ Cup, for Saracens at home to Glasgow.

Munster will be too preoccupied with plotting a way past Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday week to be bothered about running into the last Welshman standing in the semis.

None of the Welsh quartet is currently in position to qualify for the play-offs of the PRO14.

Scarlets, routed by Leinster last year in a complete volte face of the final 12 months earlier, are even further adrift of the holders in Conference B than Ireland were in Cardiff last Saturday.

With all four remaining matches on Welsh soil, they could secure a top-three finish.

If that proves beyond them and Cardiff Blues lose a potential decider against Connacht in Galway next month, the PRO14 play-offs will be another non-event in Wales.

Claims of espionage turning rugby into the spying game

Laurie Mains will go to his grave swearing that the All Blacks were poisoned less than 48 hours before the odds-on favourites lost the 1995 World Cup final to the Springboks in extra-time.

New Zealand’s head coach hired a private investigator, who unearthed the theory that they had been victims of a hotel waitress, called Suzy.

Some 20 years later, the team’s security chief, Rory Steyn, said the players had been got at. He described the mass vomiting on the Thursday night before the final as “looking like something out of Saving Private Ryan.”

The story has been lent a vague topicality by the publication of a book, claiming that the Irish Rugby Football Union employed a former British Army intelligence officer, amid suspicions that their Dublin offices had been bugged.

Lions captain Martin Johnson exchanges words with Australia captain John Eales after the third test on the 2001 tour, which Australia won 29-23. Australia appeared to anticipate the Lions’ lineout calls. Did the Aussie spies do a number on the Lions? Picture: Nick Wilson /Allsport
Lions captain Martin Johnson exchanges words with Australia captain John Eales after the third test on the 2001 tour, which Australia won 29-23. Australia appeared to anticipate the Lions’ lineout calls. Did the Aussie spies do a number on the Lions? Picture: Nick Wilson /Allsport

According to Sean Hartnett, author of the newly-published Client Confidential, it happened in the wake of Ireland’s calamitous World Cup in 2007, when they were eliminated at the pool stage, as were Wales.

Industrial espionage in Test rugby, as Mains will testify, is nothing new.

There can be little doubt Australia’s spies did a number on the Lions, in terms of cracking their lineout code before the deciding Test of a monumental series in 2001.

At that time, the Wallaby management included a young agent provocateur then making a name for himself, Eddie Jones.

Two throws stand out in the memory — one to the tail, where the sky-scraping John Eales towered above Neil Back; the other to the front, where Justin Harrison stole Keith Wood’s lob to Martin Johnson.

From that moment on, Clive Woodward had every team room in every England hotel swept for bugs.

Schmidt’s media paranoia disappointing

During his inquest into the Cardiff misadventure, Joe Schmidt dredged up a number of reasons, including a claim that Wales had been given advance notice of the Ireland team. It had, he said, been revealed in a newspaper, ahead of the official release.

That Schmidt chose to mention it provided another depressing example of how his regime expects reporters to toe the party line and write about team selection only when given the green light.

His annoyance also betrays a failure to appreciate that sports reporting is a highly competitive trade and that those with the sharpest ears are always liable to pick up the buzz, through perfectly legitimate means, via contacts.

Their duty, first and foremost, is to inform their readers, an old-fashioned concept now under constant threat in a fragmented media world, where cheerleaders are more welcome because their priority is to stay on-side, even if they do know the team in advance.

Welsh slammers look in from outside when big show resumes

How much attention Wales paid to the unofficial report that Tadhg Beinre and Sean O’Brien were starting in Cardiff nobody knows, but they knew for sure, with official confirmation, at 2.15 on the Thursday afternoon. And that still gave them 48 hours to plan accordingly.

Schmidt, far from alone among Test coaches in appearing paranoid about team leaks, would probably prefer to keep selection under wraps until ten minutes before kick-off.

The Brazilian football team of Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino, and Carlos Alberto were never slow to reveal their hand, the earlier the better, as if to say: ‘Beat that, if you can.'

Irish’ Shaun put Welsh to hell and back

The most unlikely of all Ireland’s one-cap wonders readily admits that he put Wales through ‘hell’ in raising fitness levels during the two non-playing weeks of the Six Nations.

The man in question wore the green in a Rugby League international against France at Tolka Park on November 22, 1998. It passed by largely unnoticed in front of a ‘crowd’ of 1,511 but the few have been able to say:

I was there when Shaun Edwards played for Ireland.

He did so thanks to his maternal grandmother, Kitty Collins who, according to the man himself, came from ‘the west.’

Maybe it’s just as well she wasn’t there to see what her grandson’s team did to Ireland last Saturday.

Will Welsh stars prove value for money?

Gareth Anscombe has challenged the Welsh Rugby Union to ensure their Grand Slammers are ‘looked after well’ or risk more players following Toulon scrum half Rhys Webb into international exile.

Cardiff Blues want to keep Anscombe but in a World Cup year the clubs are entitled to ask how much, or how little they will get for their money.

Unlike their Irish counterparts, the Welsh players are jointly employed by club and country, a dual contract system which is to be superseded by a new deal based on achievement at the highest level.

Next season any club, province or region will be lucky to get 10 games out of its big names once World Cup and Six Nations demands have been met.

Welsh success is at the expense of the threadbare regions because an alarmingly high number of fans watch the national team and nobody else.

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