Welsh regions have reasons to believe
September 28, 2010
Cardiff's Amlin Challenge Cup success and the Ospreys' Magners win have improved the Welsh regions' European chances © Getty Images
Not even under the preferential terms extended to the former Waikato hookers does Tom Willis yet count as a local in Wales, but the Dragons skipper has clearly learnt something in a couple of years at Rodney Parade.
In a week where rugby has it slightly tougher than usual colonising sports pages in Wales - something to do with a golf match somewhere just off the M4 - Willis found the perfect way to get noticed, by naming Cardiff Blues among the teams he believes are capable of winning this year's Heineken Cup.
Since saying nice things about them from up the road has never been the easy route to popularity in Newport, we must assume that he means it. And that the captain of one Welsh region can say this of another without provoking prolonged sarcastic laughter is of itself a sign of progress.
As the regions prepare themselves for an eighth season in the Heineken - the same number the clubs took part in before the reorganisation of 2003 - the fear and foreboding of a few years back has given way to anticipation. True, the regions have still lost more pool stage matches than they have won - a success rate of 47.6% which, compared to the 46.6% achieved by the clubs, inevitably prompts the question of whether all of that change was worth it for an extra 1%.
But the grim years in which nobody progressed appear to be firmly behind us. There have been five qualifiers in the last four seasons. The last two years, and three of the last four, have seen Welsh teams overall compile winning records with only the Dragons (three wins out of 18 in the past three seasons) clearly off the pace.
The challenge is moving beyond that to emulate the achievement of Ireland's provinces and becoming real contenders at the sharp end of the competition. And when better than a year when the final will be at the Millennium Stadium ?
Realistically, we are probably talking about Cardiff and the Ospreys here. The Scarlets have the best historic record among the Welsh teams, did well last year and have started promisingly - although we'll know more when they start meeting the Magners heavyweights. Certainly they won't feel that the challenge of Perpignan and Leicester is insuperable. But do they really look capable of the final four or better? Probably not.
Cardiff have done one important bit of heavy lifting, doing well enough over the last few seasons to get themselves into the top tier of seeds, so eliminating the possibility of Munster or Toulouse being dropped into their path, at this stage at least. What it doesn't do is insure you against the upwardly mobile. Northampton have looked disconcertingly good so far this year and did enough against Munster last time to suggest that they're capable of worrying the best. The home and away meetings in weeks three and four could be the hinge on which this group turns.
What can happen when you are not in that top band is demonstrated by the Ospreys, who have to play Munster, the unchallenged masters of the pool stage with 12 consecutive qualifications. The Ospreys could also have done a little better out of the other bands - London Irish are certainly one of the stronger members of tier three, although memories of Vicarage Road in 2008 encourage the thought that Saracens might have been worse. Facing the Exiles also represents a clash of the meritocrats, pitching Sean Holley against Toby Booth as the conspicuous examples of coaches who have reached top level without the assistance of a distinguished playing career.
Rounding it all off is the bottom tier rival. The Italian teams, Benetton Treviso at least, appear on early season Magners' form to be not quite the guarantee of five points and a group shot at best runner-up of recent years, but either would still have been preferable to Toulon, upwardly mobile far beyond their ranking and with the resources to contemplate Europe as well as a pitch at the French Top 14. Going there in the opening round, when they can still be guaranteed to be fully motivated for the Heineken, hardly helps either.
This is emphatically not the sort of group that generates best runners-up - no bad thing perhaps, given that answer no 1 to the question 'what have the Ospreys got to improve to stand a chance of winning the Heineken ?' is 'start winning their pool'. Only Munster (19 wins) and Biarritz (18) have a better pool stage record than Ospreys (17 wins, two draws) over the past four seasons. You can't fault them for consistency, but the outcomes have added up to four second places, three best runners-up spots and a trio of quarter-final exits - the last two, as it happens, away to Munster and Biarritz - on opposition territory.
So the Blues look the better bet, if only because their draw is less brutal. But there are also reasons to be guardedly optimistic - not so much in early season Magners League form, but indications that both they and the Ospreys are beginning to win the matches that really matter. Neither the Ospreys' victory last season in the Magners final nor Cardiff's in the Amlin had the weight or significance of a Heineken final or semi-final, but both involved taking a trophy the hardest way possible, beating a top-class opponent with home advantage. Both Leinster, in the Magners, and Toulon, in the Amlin, wanted those trophies and beating them was a significant achievement.
The best bet for a Welsh participant in the Heineken final remains referee Nigel Owens, but there's also a better chance than for years that he won't be up for the job because one of his country's teams will be playing instead.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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