While the vast majority of rugby supporters in Wales will be focused on the final two rounds of the Guinness Six Nations over the next fortnight, for those of us committed all year round to Cardiff and Scarlets it will be all eyes on South Africa as the two sides make a second attempt at playing United Rugby Championship fixtures in the rainbow nation.
Of course the last time we made the trip to the southern hemisphere it descended into chaos as the omicron variant of covid-19 emerged, the UK and Welsh Governments acted fast to close borders to countries including South Africa and then point blank refused to help the two rugby teams stuck out there leading to almost three weeks of quarantine in hotel rooms.
As a result it’s full credit to the players and staff of Cardiff and Scarlets who will once again make the journey, this time with assurances from the URC that there are contingency plans in place should borders once again be closed at short notice.
On the field there’s no doubt that it’s a different challenge now than it would have been in late November/early December. Back then, on the back of the autumn international window, it’s highly likely that none of the Springboks squad who had gone straight from the British and Irish Lions series into the Rugby Championship and then up to the northern hemisphere on tour would have featured.
Now though, as long as they aren’t injured, those Springboks will be freely available for their clubs, which makes the Scarlets challenge particularly tough playing the Sharks and Bulls where the majority of the home-based players in their national squad are drawn from.
Adding to that is the fact that the games being in the Six Nations window means both the Welsh sides will be without their stars forming part of the Wayne Pivac’s squad, and it is this I want to focus on. Specifically, can we for once somewhat prioritise the professional club game in Wales over the national team?
Losing to Ireland and England has meant that Wales are now realistically in a three-way battle with Scotland and England for third, fourth and fifth place in the table. Fixture-wise it’s France next up on Friday night before Italy are the opponents on Super Saturday, both games taking place at the Principality Stadium.
A lot of the talk in the run-up to the French game will be around whether the likes of Josh Navidi and Scott Williams should be called into the national team squad, and truthfully on quality alone the answer is a resounding yes. Navidi is the most complete back rower Wales have and brings an added level of physicality to the pack, while Williams is the in-form centre in the country.
However, the point I would make is that Pivac’s current squad have been together for six weeks now since meeting up at the end of January. Bringing two players in, getting them up to speed fitness-wise and learning the calls on a short week before a Friday night game is asking a lot of the players, the coaches and their team-mates.
From Navidi’s perspective he has been sidelined with a shoulder problem for five months and did not look at the peak of his powers at Ulster for the Blue and Blacks, while in terms of Williams there have been public comments from Pivac that he wants Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin to form a settled centre partnership for Wales after a year of disruption in the midfield largely due to injuries.
Therefore leaving them with their clubs ahead of two huge games in South Africa would be the most logical option on paper for all concerned, and I’d even go as far to wonder whether there is scope for some existing members of the national team to be released back to Cardiff and Scarlets for their mini-tours.
Ellis Jenkins, James Ratti, Willis Halaholo, Gareth Davies and Johnny McNicholl would be prime candidates to leave the Wales squad and join their club sides down in the southern hemisphere should they not be needed against France on Friday night which, judging by recent selection and the form of others, seems likely.
The rebuttal from Pivac & co would be around training numbers, injury cover ahead of the final game of the competition, and also possibly around the financial ramifications of finishing third versus finishing fifth, with a difference of around £1m of prize money at stake.
What I would say though is that Ospreys and Dragons players will all be available to train against and for injury cover with neither in action until the weekend of 25/26 March now. With the greatest of respect to Italy, if injury replacements are required then it doesn’t necessarily need to be the very best option in Wales. Both of those teams have players capable of helping the national team beating the Italians.
Then in terms of the finances, after years of drastically under-investing in the professional game it would be a welcome change to see the Welsh Rugby Union effectively putting money into the professional clubs by passing up the opportunity to properly push for third place in the Six Nations in place of supporting Cardiff and Scarlets in their push for Heineken Champions Cup spots.
As was ever the case, investing in the professional clubs then has a pay-off for the national team over time, on this occasion it would hopefully result in getting three Welsh clubs to that top table of European competition in the season before the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Unfortunately thinking on even a relatively short-term level has never been on the agenda of the WRU who struggle to see past the end of their gravy train, and so the likelihood of Cardiff and Scarlets receiving those personnel boosts before they fly out to South Africa this week are slim to none.
Instead they will be left to make the best of a tough situation down in the southern hemisphere, and when the defeats do come the same old social media numbskulls will wheel out their “regional rugby isn’t working” hot takes, the Union will escape criticism and sit back happily in hospitality watching Wales hammer Italy thinking all is right with the world.
I dream of the day Welsh rugby finally gets something right.