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Lee returns for derby clash

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TIGHTHEAD prop Samson Lee returns to action for the Scarlets this Friday in the Welsh derby clash against Dragons Rugby at Parc y Scarlets.

Lee’s last appearance came in the European Rugby Champions Cup clash against Bath Rugby in October and is one of eleven personnel changes to the Scarlets side that secured victory over Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park on New Year’s Eve.

Head Coach Wayne Pivac has made thirteen changes to the side, two of which are positional, and Lee is one-third of a fresh front row for the derby clash with Rob Evans and Ken Owens also making a return to the starting XV.

Australian Steve Cummins and South African David Bulbring pair up in the second row with Aaron Shingler and John Barclay returning to the starting line-up alongside Sunday’s man of the match James Davies.

In the backline injuries have forced a reshuffle with Rhys Patchell moving to fullback with injuries to both Johnny Mcnicholl (shoulder) and Leigh Halfpenny (pec). Tom Prydie keeps his place on the wing with Ioan Nicholas coming in for Paul Asquith who’s unavailable due to illness.

Hadleigh Parkes moves to inside centre with Steff Hughes coming in at outside centre. Aled Davies is named at scrum half with Dan Jones taking up the fly half mantle.

The replacements bench two internationals in Ryan Elias and Wyn Jones with Simon Gardiner offering tighthead cover. Lewis Rawlins returns from a foot injury to partner Will Boyde as loose forward cover.

Scrum half Jonathan Evans makes a return to action after suffering a high ankle sprain in the victory over Southern Kings in South Africa back in November alongside Rhys Jones and Morgan Williams.

Speaking ahead of the Guinness PRO14 clash head coach Wayne Pivac said: “These derbies have been tight affairs. We’ll be focusing on ourselves. It’s another derby and we’ve seen over the last two matches how tight they can be. That game will no doubt be another exciting game.

“We’ve done the double over the Ospreys and the Blues and the Dragons are the last Welsh team for us to play, it’ll be the first time we play them this season. It’s important for us to keep winning at home.”

Scarlets team to take on Dragons tomorrow (Jan 5), kick-off 7.35pm, at Parc y Scarlets;

15 Rhys Patchell, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Steff Hughes, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Ioan Nicholas, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Aled Davies, 1 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens ©, 3 Samson Lee, 4 Steve Cummins, 5 David Bulbring, 6 Aaron Shingler, 7 James Davies, 8 John Barclay

Replacements; Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Simon Gardiner, Lewis Rawlins, Will Boyde, Jonathan Evans, Rhys Jones, Morgan Williams

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Elfyn Evans raises the stakes in Monte Carlo

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ELFYN EVANS’ bid to add further success to his history-making win on last year’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB blasts off with next week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo (25-28 January).

As tradition dictates, the FIA World Rally Championship commences with the notoriously challenging Alpine classic – a wintry event that always throws up an ultra-testing cocktail of ice, snow and slush making the already demanding mountain roads among the trickiest on the 13-round WRC calendar, which reaches Wales in early October.

Evans has contested Rallye Monte-Carlo four times previously and has never finished outside the top eight. His best result to date is sixth place on his debut in 2014 and again last year.

“It’s never an easy event,” admits the 29-year-old from Dolgellau. “There are so many factors that come into play that you don’t generally get on a more normal round of the championship but it’s an iconic way to start the year. The stages themselves – if you take away all the snow and ice – are absolutely fantastic.”

Since taking his maiden WRC win in Wales – the first for a Welsh driver, and the first for a British driver on home soil since the late Richard Burns in 2000 – Evans has been promoted by his title-winning M-Sport team. For 2018, he and co-driver Daniel Barritt line up alongside five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier in one of the Cumbrian outfit’s pair of front-line Red Bull-liveried Ford Fiesta WRCs.

“It’s a good place to be alongside Seb again this year,” he enthused. “We worked together well last year – albeit on different tyres – so to continue that on now with identical equipment is a fantastic opportunity.”

While clearly keen to make the most of his coveted seat alongside the French maestro, Evans is by no means overawed by his illustrious team-team. “He’s a fantastic benchmark to have in the team, has a lot of experience and is the best in the world at the moment, so you’d be a fool not to capitalise on that and learn from him. My aim, though, is always to try to beat him if we can.”

And the Welshman is certainly brimming with confidence after his break-through season in 2017 when he not only posted his first WRC victory but also two impressive second place finishes en route to fifth place in the final WRC championship standings.

“We made some good steps forward and found a happy place with the car – hopefully we can continue improving from there,” he disclosed.

Evans, though, will need to be at his brilliant best not just to beat Ogier but also to fend off some world class opposition in what promises to be another thrilling world championship series. Last year’s introduction of new technical rules not only introduced faster, more exciting cars but also created renewed rivalry between the top teams.

M-Sport might have won both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ crowns in 2017 but the opposition from Citroën, Hyundai and Toyota will be even stronger in 2018. Evans, however, believes the M-Sport technicians – now benefiting from increased support from Ford – will keep the Fiesta in front.

“There are small improvements but ultimately, with the regulations as they are, it doesn’t give anyone the scope to make massive changes. More a case of tweaking here and there,” he explained.

“We already had a strong platform, we just need to keep nibbling away to find gains in performance. Hopefully, the guys have been doing that over the winter and we all will continue pushing hard with the support of Ford this year. There’s always been a Ford connection with some engineering support but that’s now stepped up a level – that should help us to improve and stay at the top.”

While next week’s famous Rallye Monte-Carlo will provide a stern opening test, the WRC calendar throws up numerous challenges before the intrepid teams encounter the legendary Welsh forests in early October. As ever, the calendar is an epic adventure ranging from the snow packed tracks of Sweden to the rock-strewn mountain passes of Mexico and Argentina.

“To be honest, there are no rounds that I’m not looking forward to,” continued Evans. “I now have fond memories of just about all of the events. My focus this year will be to enjoy them all and to get the most out of each one, rather just targeting a handful.

“It will, of course, be special to be back in Wales,” he grinned. “The DMACK tyres obviously helped to put us in good position last year, now we’re equal Michelins to everyone else. Let’s wait and see. It’s a few months away but, obviously, we will be looking for another great result.”

In the meantime, all those wanting to follow Evans’ fortunes on television are spoilt for choice with both live and highlights coverage of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship on Channel 5, BT Sport, S4C and Red Bull TV.

Tickets for the 2018 Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (4-7 October) will go on sale when the competitive route is revealed in April.

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Wales U20 name exciting Six Nations squad

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HEAD coach Jason Strange has named a Wales U20 squad full of the brightest young talent for this year’s U20 Six Nations.

There are places in the squad for two exciting 17-year-old scrum-halves: Dragons’ Dan Babos, who has regularly featured for the Gwent region this season, and Harri Morgan of Ospreys, a try-scorer in the Wales U18 victory against England last year.

“What’s good about this squad is that there are quite a lot of competitive areas,” says Strange. “We’ve got fierce competition in the half-backs, while the back row is also a position of strength.”

Another notable inclusion is wing Tomi Lewis – one of 16 of last season’s U18 players included in today’s squad – who gained plaudits for his exceptional debut for Wales Sevens in the World Series in Dubai last month.

RGC tighthead Sam Wainwright could also be in line to make his debut in front of his home crowd at Colwyn Bay against Scotland on Friday 2nd February. “Sam’s played for RGC for the last 12-18 months in the Premiership,” Strange says. “For a tighthead he will have taken a great deal of experience from that, and he’s playing really well at the moment.”

Wales will use the U20 Six Nations as an opportunity to increase their depth in preparation for this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship in France, whilst also benefiting from the return of several players who featured in last year’s tournaments.

“A number of these players will go back to play for their regions during the Six Nations, which is always the case,” says Strange. “That’s something which will allow other players a chance, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve named a large squad.”

Crucially, Strange and his assistant coaches, Chris Horsman and Geraint Lewis, maintain the attacking mindset which has been a hallmark of the Wales U20s in the past few seasons. Unsurprisingly, it is a mindset that is cultivated at U18 level by that very same coaching group.

“That attacking philosophy is really important,” he says. “It’s the way we want to develop our players in Wales – for them to play with flair, allowing them to express themselves as much as possible.”

The coaches were heartened by this week’s national squad announcement, with 80% of the players a graduate of the U20 programme. “That’s how we judge our success,” explains Strange. “It’s the number one area of focus: how many players go on to be named in the national squad.”

Wales U20 Six Nations squad:

Forwards: Taine Basham (Dragons), James Botham (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Carre (Cardiff Blues), Dan Davies (Scarlets), Rhys Davies (Bath), Lennon Greggains (Dragons), Will Griffiths (Dragons), Iestyn Harris (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Henry (Ospreys), Morgan Jones (Scarlets), Will Jones (Ospreys), Dewi Lake (Ospreys), Alun Lawrence (Cardiff Blues), Kemsley Mathias (Scarlets), Morgan Morris (Ospreys), Jack Pope (Bridgend), Tommy Reffell (Leicester), Josh Reynolds (Dragons), Sam Wainwright (RGC), Max Williams (Dragons).

Backs: Dan Babos (Dragons), Corey Baldwin (Scarlets), Callum Carson (Ospreys), Ryan Conbeer (Scarlets), Rio Dyer (Dragons), Cai Evans (Ospreys), Joe Goodchild (Dragons), Aaron Hemmings (Scarlets), Ben Jones (Cardiff Blues), Tomi Lewis (Scarlets), Harri Morgan (Ospreys), Reuben Morgan-Williams (Ospreys), Ioan Nicholas (Scarlets), Carwyn Penny (Gloucester), Tommy Rogers (Scarlets), Ben Thomas (Cardiff Blues).

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Scarlets set up Toulon showdown

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S​CARLETS head coach Wayne Pivac, as an ex-policeman, orchestrated a crime of immense proportions at the Recreation Ground in Bath on Friday (Jan 12), when his Scarlet side won their must win European encounter 35-17.

Greeted onto the pitch by Greenhill School’s year 10 students as flag bearers, the game got off to an electric opening when Wales international centre Scott Williams caught the kick off and immediately referee Jerome Garcos awarded a penalty.

Outside half Dan Jones line kicks missed touch in the initial stages and his nervousness in such a titanic game was obvious.

Second row, Irish international Tadgh Beirne, rescued the situation by taking the line out ball against the throw, with the tackling strong from the visitors who were unable to recycle the ball as the game settled.

A blooded nose for skipper Ken Owen as ‘Bread of Heaven’ rang loudly from the Thatcher’s terrace, alongside sympathy for former outside half Rhys Priestland, whose birthday celebration were ruined when he limped off with a pulled hamstring to be replaced by Freddie Burns.

The Scarlets, now set and stable and got a nudge on at the scrum to establish the mantra for the evening with scrum half Gareth Davies darting clear on the blindside; England international full back Anthony Watson showed a clean pair of heels himself in response when running 40 metres from deep in his danger zone with flanker Sam Underhill in support.

A score was inevitable with such a frantic opening and it was the Scarlets who got the scoreboard rolling in a scintillating manner after nine minutes, starting from Beirne’s clawed line out ball.

Williams made the initial break, finding the support of second row David Bullring; centre Hadleigh Parkes took up the mantle finding Australian winger Paul Asquith, to flanker Aaron Shingler as they moved the ball with silky hands hitting gaps before it fell once again to the marauding Beirne.

From 15 metres out, he produced a Phil Bennett sidestep to screech in for a try converted by outside half Dan Jones.

Hymns and Arias was resounding into the cold air but the try was sweet, Neil Diamond’s appreciation of Caroline perhaps a better analogy for possibly the try of the season from the Land of my Fathers.

Freddie Burns pinged the Bath opening score after No. 8 John Barclay stopped their forward impetus and left the field for ten minutes on the French referee’s direction.

It was the Scarlets however who then dug deep, making ground and managing the game time superbly.
Shingler, running straight and with purpose made the gain line.

Full back Rhys Patchell and Parkes endeavour had the 13,822 crowd on the edge of their seats, which put Asquith in corner for a score despite being down to 14 men.

There was no stopping the red tide as five minutes later scrum half Davies rumbled 25 metres and found Welsh international Parkes on his shoulder and the centre crossed for his ninth try in 71 appearances, under duress, for a converted score and a 19-3 lead.

Williams was on fire, making another break to set up a scrum when the Scarlets were living in the moment; if he timed the pass his side were clear again for a score and perhaps on reflection needed just to consolidate their exuberance and make half time with their tail feathers unruffled may have suited.

A war of attrition with short passes and yardage in the tight areas wore down the clock and with it the Bath players and supporter’s hearts. The dominant scrum was verbalised loudly from prop Rob Evans and Jones slipped over the penalty for a half time lead of 22-3.

Bath as a city welcomes an array of nationalities but the atmosphere that trounced around the English fortress in January was full of ‘Heart and Soul’.

The Welsh contingent were delirious with their melody for a team of ‘Samson Lees’ eloquently reverberating around a city’s proclaimed architecture. Having been missing from the front row for many weeks before Christmas the prop was quite superb alongside fellow international Evans and his skipper, Ken Owens anchored between them.

Pivac has been coaching for 22 years since his first footstep on the rung in Northland, New Zealand but the victory in the back yard of the Aviva Premiership rugby giants was surely up with his best moments. Pro 12 champions last season having beaten Munster in Dublin to return a week later and rumble Leinster in the same venue included.

The ‘Rec’ was a cultural phenomenon, when Scarlets rugby once more came of age as they sat on the brink of a place in the European quarter final for the first time in 11 years. Bath rugby had lifted this trophy 20 years ago under the leadership of Scottish scrum half Andy Nicol’s but through their parade at half time, would have been in awe of the first half performance.

Music and Wales go hand in hand. Greenhill School, on tour at Backwell with the year ten students playing football, rugby and netball had the experience of a lifetime arranged through PE teacher Phil ‘Taffy’ Williams.
A school whose equally renowned musical talent under Samantha Hughes would have taken the Irish love ballad ‘Fields of Athenry’ to new heights given the opportunity.

Innate to the Irish famine of 1845 this anthem of the ‘underdog’ often resonating at Landsdowne Road or even Anfield a mercurial throw back to the task that sat before the visitors.

Top of Conference B the Scarlets took control early in the second half as they went in search of their bonus point try. The home eight were not match at the scrum set piece as Owens didn’t hesitate in choosing a rumble instead of taking a pot at goal.

Three times they drained the time and the Bath spirit, perilously close to crossing the try line through forward drives. Six minutes into the second half Patchell received the ball to deftly put a grubber kick through, allowing Williams to dab down wide out and Jones add the extras for 29-3.

The red tide were feeding the baying supporters cries for evangelical bread, where the ‘manna’ and intensity was unyielding. The team of Samson Lee lost their talisman on 55 minutes as his replacement Werner Kruger was rock sold as the choristers ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ resonated loudly and proudly.

Bath coaching guru Todd Blackadder needed his side to develop a pattern of play as they refused a kick at goal in search of a try, which came when winger Matt Banahan caught Burns kick in the corner allowing the outside half to convert with an hour played.

‘Long John’ Welsh second row Luke Charteris, a man with a biochemist degree and a fluent French speaker to boot took the hand-me-down inspirational singing to his hear. Not one for ‘losing my religion’ the boiler house man’s efforts allowed him a well earned rest at the same time as opposite number Bullring.

Over 150 years of rugby history in North Somerset has placed foundations from which the home side ran with their head of steam. Pivac manipulated his cast list with the game and full points in the bag, with Aled Davies arriving at inside half. Tried and trusted combinations saw Owens and Beirne orchastrting the line forcing Watson to desperately run from deep as the ‘big shift’ put in from down West was recognised.

Owens, Hong Kong born Barclay, and Evans were done but still the tide wouldn’t subside, drawn to their supporters in the Dyson stand as Pivac’s decision to play a six to two forward split off the bench drew a scrum penalty.

Jones added the points for a 32-10 and a fourscore lead with 12 minutes to play. The defensive patterns were as impressive as any offensive effort, Patchell making a last ditch cover tackle on Zach Mercer with five minutes to play typifying the ‘hywl’.

Top of the ball line out and replacement Josh Macloed madeground and play was outside the danger zone with Jones clearance. Back came Bath and No. 8 Zach Mercer couldn’t be denied in the opposite corner for a converted try after a cutting run from winger Aled Brew, skipper Matt Garvey and second row Paul Grant.

Williams and Prydie responded to gain a penalty for offside with ‘Sospan Fach’ finishing proceedings fittingly, with Jones boot, edging the score to 35-17.

The Bath faithful, forlorn and remorseful took an early bath wondering what had happened.

LTC Mobility sponsored Furnace rugby club members summed it up amidst their exuberant acclaims.

Centre and club vice captain Scott Davies hoarsely crooned: “It’s the best away trip I’ve experienced. Our 1800 strong choir left nothing in the changing room and it was certainly a factor in lifting the squad.”

On Saturday (Jan 20) another blockbuster awaits, when Toulon visit Parc Y Scarlets and the home side need a minimum of a bonus point to progress into the knockout stages.

Davies smiling face finished the evening with: “Let this be the springboard to the next level. This could be the year we lift the Heineken trophy and the whole of Europe will stand up for the champions.”

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