Boxing Day Derbies

Bout 1 – Dragons v Cardiff Blues

This will be a very interesting match for neutral supporters, with neither the Dragons nor the Blues really making headway in their respective conferences (positioned 6th and 5th respectively).

Personally, I believe that the Dragons have the edge out in the backs, with Henson at stand-off and Dixon at 12, defensively the hosts should be well marshalled and organised. In attack, if Hewitt, Warren and Amos are given an inch of space, it’ll be exploited and it could be a long day out wide for the Blues who themselves are missing some big-name players in their own backline. Without Cuthbert, Halaholo and Scully, the Blues have lost some real potency in attack (though Matthew Morgan and Rey Lee-Lo are hardly limp wristed with ball in hand).

It’s the pack that the Blues may find themselves with the upper hand, with Seb Davies and Macauley Cook in the second row, it’s a very athletic pairing that plays like back row forwards around the park. Navidi has been at the top of his game for quite some time, with the autumn internationals underlining what Blues fans have known for a long time already. The dynamic loose forward is playing on the blindside today, with Olly Robinson on loan from Bristol wearing the number 7 shirt. With Nick Williams providing the go forward at number 8, playing two opensides on either flank means the Blues back row will be highly competitive at the breakdown.

Key battles

Dan Babos v Tomos Williams – Babos is just 17 years old but showed an unrelenting energy for his region, especially during the 32-all draw against Ulster. But Williams has been a playmaker for the Blues and still just aged 22 himself, has plenty of experience, having been called into the Wales squad over the summer. It’ll be a gritty battle up front between the two packs to ensure clean ball for their respective halfbacks; and whichever scrumhalf will get the comfiest ride will no doubt dictate the flow of the game. Will Williams teach Babos a harsh lesson or will the young Babos emerge from the flames unscathed and on top?

Hallam Amos v Matthew Morgan – The two fullbacks have very contrasting styles of play, with Amos a direct runner with explosive power and substantial upper body strength; while Morgan has mesmerizing footwork, underrated vision and outright pace. Both capped internationally, the two outside backs love a good counter-attack and excel at it too; so expect many loose kicks to be scooped up and run straight back at the opposition. Amos’ confidence will be high following a solid autumn and Morgan will be eager to remind Wales of his talents; but which will get their side onto the front foot at Rodney Parade?

Gavin Henson v Gareth Anscombe – Anscombe has been slowly returning to his playmaking best and Henson hasn’t seemed to have lost any of his silky skills. I believe Henson possesses the better kicking game of the two, and a superior vision once behind the gain line. Anscombe, who is 9 years Henson’s junior, is quicker, more physical and is more prone to busting through the line than him. I think confidence will play a huge factor in this encounter, whoever has the greater belief to play on the gain line and try the risky manoeuvres to dupe the opposition will reap the better reward.

Rugby Online prediction: Dragons win. With a nearly full house at Rodney Parade and Jackman actively stating that the region is targeting home games, I believe the easternmost region will rise to the occasion. If the Dragons can nullify the Blues’ back row threat (no easy feat) then I believe the Dragons have enough talent and pace in the backs to cause some damage. However, the Cardiff Blues pack a real punch up front and it’ll take all the Dragons’ commitment to stopping the pack from dominating proceeding. The deciding factor for me will be the home crowd, if the fans get behind their team, it might just be enough to secure victory in an otherwise close affair.

 

Bout 2 – Scarlets v Ospreys

Prior to the Champions Cup fixtures, I would have called this fixture a foregone conclusion, with the Scarlets at the top of their conference and the Ospreys wallowing at the bottom of theirs. However, the Swansea based region put in two convincing performances against Northampton and looked particularly strong up front.

The Scarlets managed to clinch victory over Benetton Rugby in the final moments of the game at Parc y Scarlets before going to Treviso and dominating the Italians in every aspect of the game. With Shingler and James Davies back in the mix, Beirne can return to the second row which changes the structure of the pack completely for the hosts.

The Scarlets backs are a force to be reckoned with, and the Ospreys know this, therefore I imagine it is up front and in the set piece that the visitors will try to gain the upper hand. If the Scarlets can keep the ball where they want it and play at a pace that’s too quick for the Blues, it should be a comfortable victory for the hosts. If the Ospreys can drag the hosts into a gritty arm wrestle and keep up the pressure on the Scarlets, it could descend into a meat-grinding affair which the Ospreys have a knack for winning.

Key battles

Rob Evans v Dmitri Arhip: Cunningham has tuned the Scarlets pack into a well-oiled machine, just as capable of some nifty handling out the back as they are of countering a driving maul. Their scrum, when at full strength, has rarely been under pressure; but the Ospreys front row looks powerful, with Nicky Smith and Scott Baldwin both Welsh international while the Moldovan international Arhip is built like a barrel. Evans, who is as agile as an additional flanker around the park, has developed his scrummaging tenfold since his first international appearance; if the Welsh loosehead can hold Arhip in the scrum, the Scarlets backs will get a platform to play from.

James Davies v Justin Tipuric: The fact that Cubby has yet to be handed a Wales cap is one of Welsh rugby’s greatest mysteries. Davies for the past two seasons has arguably been the top openside in the whole Pro12/Pro14 and this writer believes he is by far the most effective flanker at Wales’ disposal. No doubt Gatland will be keeping a close eye on this fixture and Davies will be eager to get one over his opposition, Tipuric, this afternoon. Tipuric, who has just recovered from a thigh injury, will be looking to stake his claim for a starting spot in the upcoming Six Nations championship. Whichever seven gets their jackal game going first is likely to help earn their team the first points of the game… and in s derby, early points are crucial!

Scott Williams v Keiron Fonotia: The two centres will be trading places next season, and both will want to show their future employer that they’ve made a wise acquisition. Williams, who some claim has been performing a little under par since his injury, is a strong, balanced runner with plenty of strength to cause real disruption in defence too. Fonotia, a Samoan international with deceptive running lines and soft hands; the centre also is notorious for putting in some rib crunching hits while on defensive duties too. What may play a deciding factor in each of these centres’ performances is their centre partners. Hadleigh Parkes, AKA Mr Consistent, will give Williams plenty of time to align himself with an attack run and will allow him to run onto the ball at pace. Watkin, who will be on Fonotia’s inside, is still young but has enough power and pace to cause chaos in the midfield; which Fonotia may capitalise on if there’s just a single lapse in defence.

 

Rugby Online prediction: Scarlets win. Despite the Ospreys’ progress of late, Scarlets have oodles of quality throughout the team and there seems to a cohesion in the squad that is rarely seen on professional sides these days. I have no doubt that the Ospreys will come to Parc y Scarlets with the bit between their teeth and a belief that they can come away with the victory. The Scarlets, however, with the voice of the Parc behind them, should find themselves able to break out of the Ospreys’ hold and play the type of rugby that’s brought them so much success thus far.

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