Welsh rugby's winners and losers as 63-game winning run finally broken and Howley becomes internet sensation

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It has been a Welsh rugby weekend where the main concern has been with Cardiff and the Scarlets amid all their problems in South Africa.

While Scarlets have been able to head for home, their fellow Welsh region have been unable to depart after two positive Covid-19 cases, one of which is thought to be the new Omicron variant.

It goes without saying that on-pitch matters pale into insignificance alongside such issues.

But there has been plenty of rugby played by other Welsh teams and players, and with it winners and losers.

Rugby correspondent Mark Orders divides it all up.

Winners

Neath RFC

No-one is suggesting Neath’s glory days are on the way back any time soon.

But their Admiral National Championship win over Pontypool on Saturday was surely one to savour for all at The Gnoll.

The Gwent club, after all, had put together a run of 63 successive league wins stretching back to March 2017. Read that again: 63 successive league wins. There were some who had begun to regard them as virtually unbeatable at that level.

But Neath got the job done.

There were just four scores in a match the Welsh All Blacks won 9-3, with all the points coming via penalties, three from the home team’s Steff Willams against one from Kieran Meek. It was tight throughout, but the victory would have meant as much to the hosts as a 99-3 triumph.

It underlined that the pulse of Neath rugby still beats strongly.

Rewind to early September and Neath had just seen Maesteg Quins wrap up an early-season double over them with a 16-13 win at The Gnoll. The Welsh All Blacks didn’t moan about the Welsh Premiership Cup result or the competition or climate change or anything else. Instead, speaking to this writer, their secretary, the estimable Mike Price, praised Quins and acclaimed their progress in recent times while hoping Neath would improve as the campaign wore on.

The following week they lost a tight encounter to Swansea.

Since then, they have put together nine wins in a row in all matches, including the victory over Pontypool.

As suggested above, it is a sequence which will not cause anyone at Neath to lose a sense of perspective.

But they’ve had a tough old time of it in recent years. Few should begrudge them some time in the sun again.

Ben Jeffreys

It’s one thing to know how to win.

But knowing how to lose matters as well.

And so to Ben Jeffreys, chief executive of Pontypool RFC and a man who could have been forgiven for not being able to remember what defeat in the league tasted like after an unbeaten run with Pontypool which seemed to begin around the time of the Franco-Prussian war.

But a couple of hours after Neath had beaten Pooler 9-3 he took to social media to write: “I’d like to offer my sincerest congratulations to @neathrfc on a thoroughly deserved victory.

“I’m genuinely delighted for all the great people who have stood by Neath during some tough times.

“They’re building something special and I wish them all the best for this season.”

For those in any doubt, that’s what class in defeat looks like.

Jac Morgan

Amid the wind and rain of Galway on Friday evening, when both sets of posts bent and swayed in the face of Storm Arwen and a kick from home fly-half Jack Carty actually went backwards, the Ospreys experienced all kinds of rugby hell as they fell to a 46-18 defeat against Connacht.

The visitors were dire, lacking any kind of fluency and riddled with errors.

But of those who managed to maintain their standards, and there weren’t many, one stood head and shoulders above the rest.

The tide was flowing pretty much one way throughout as Connacht attacked with pace and verve while playing the elements superbly, but Jac Morgan kept tackling and kept trying to slow opposition ball down and win turnovers. When they finished counting, he had made 20 hits without missing a single one and his eight carries yielded 18 metres with four opponents beaten. He also did his best at the breakdown.

Toby Booth’s team lost 46-18, but without Morgan the damage would have been much more severe.

It was a notable individual performance on an otherwise grim night for the Welsh team.

Jasmine Joyce and Bristol’s Wales contingent

Welsh rugby's winners and losers as 63-game winning run finally broken and Howley becomes internet sensation
© Huw Evans Picture Agency Jasmine Joyce in typical action

Jasmine Joyce is a regular in this section and deservedly so, as she’s one of Welsh rugby’s star turns right now.

Arguably, she is the player of the moment in the Welsh game.

Her latest dance with the spectacular came for Great Britain Sevens in their 24-7 win over Canada in the World Sevens Series.

First, Joyce stopped a Canada attack with a thumping tackle which saw an opposition penalty coughed up for not releasing.

Then, before the Canucks had time to regroup, the Pembrokeshire flyer was up running with the ball herself, buying space with a step before leaving the cover behind in her vapour stream as she ran home a try from 65 metres.

“She is a Rolls-Royce inside a Scalextric car,” enthused the match commentator.

Joyce scored four tries in five matches over the weekend as GB Sevens finished fifth in Dubai.

Meantime, Wales internationals were to the fore in Bristol Bears’ Allianz Premier 15s win over Wasps Women to hold top spot in the league, with Alisha Butchers, Courtney Keight and Kayleigh Powell all among the scorers as Dave Ward’s side extended their winning run to six games.

Women’s rugby

In London, the women’s game enjoyed exposure on a grand scale after the men’s Barbarians’ game against Samoa was called off 90 minutes before kick-off amid a Covid outbreak in the invitational team’s squad.

It meant the women’s game between the Barbarians and South Africa at Twickenham took centre stage, being brought forward into the primetime 2.30pm TV slot to be broadcast live on BBC One. In its original 5.15pm kick-off slot, the fixture wasn’t even meant to be on TV at all.

The match was watched by 29,581 fans inside the stadium, a world-record attendance for a women’s international.

Even given the rare circumstances and a disappointingly one-sided score of 60-5 to Barbarians, that has to be good news for the sport as a whole.

Edd Howley

You can reach for a thesaurus and run through many words to try to do justice to Edd Howley’s superlative match-winning Welsh Premiership Cup score for Bridgend against Swansea.

But one will suffice.

Wow.

Losers

Ospreys blown off course

Things had been going so well for the Ospreys.

They had headed into the autumn break on the back of a superb victory over Munster and a United Rugby Championship record of four wins from five.

But their performance against Connacht in Galway matched the dreadful conditions.

The need for any visiting side at The Sportsground is to show some authority at forward and cut Connacht’s supply line to their free-running backs.

The Ospreys didn’t do that.

Those doing the travelling also have to repeatedly knock back home attackers behind the gain-line.

Jac Morgan managed to do that; not enough others were able to follow suit.

There was saloon-door defence in midfield, with Connacht’s attackers doubtless surprised at how easily they made ground, while the Ospreys generated next to no attacking momentum themselves, had a shaky lineout and lost the advantage they had in the scrum once Tom Botha went off.

Some players looked way off the pace and Toby Booth will be glad when his injury list eases.

It said much there could be no complaints about a 46-18 scoreline.

Dragons forget their fire

“Bring your fire” is the hashtag the Dragons use to promote themselves and rouse supporters.

It presumably helps if the players bring a spark or two themselves, though.

The Welsh side struggled to manage even that against Edinburgh on Saturday evening.

The Dragons struggled to check the Scottish team’s ability to win quick ball and had to survive on scraps of possession at Rodney Parade. Ollie Griffiths, Harrison Keddie and Sam Davies were among those who fronted up in defence, but Edinburgh played the game at tempo and the hosts allowed them to score three tries playing into a strong wind.

Edinburgh half-backs Ben Vellacott and Blair Kinghorn were never less than dangerous in their side’s 30-14 win and back rowers Luke Crosbie and Magnus Bradbury put a huge imprint on matters up front.

Given their paucity of possession and territory, the Dragons were fortunate not to cop a bigger beating.

Truly, it was a mediocre show from the east Walians.

Byron McGuigan

Mixed martial arts might be enjoyed by some.

But not all.

All things considered, Nick Tompkins could be forgiven for having his doubts.

He was on the wrong end of a bodyslam-type throw by Sale wing Byron McGuigan on Sunday, with Sharks team boss Alex Sanderson saying: “Byron trains at UFC on his time off, so maybe he just had a flashback of some sort of ultimate fighting session he’s done.”

Sanderson’s tongue wasn’t far away from his cheek as he spoke, but McGuigan duly received a deserved red card for his challenge.

But Tompkins didn’t come out of the incident whiter than white, either, with the Saracens and Wales centre ruffling McGuigan’s hair after Sarries had held up Sale in-goal.

With emotions running high, there’s always a fair chance such goading will provoke a reaction, and it did.

That in no way excuses McGuigan. His response was spectacularly over-the-top.

But Tompkins can learn from the episode as well.

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