George North thrives as regions make themselves heard


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The Independent Online

This was billed as 'Judgement Day' and in many ways that is exactly what it was for the ailing Welsh regional rugby. Sports promoters often suffer delusions of grandeur when advertising their wares but inadvertently they, for once, hit the nail on the head.

Wales have enjoyed unprecedented success at Test level after claiming a fourth Six Nations title in nine years as well as a World Cup semi-final appearance. Yet national glory has come despite, or even at a cost, to the regional game that is in danger of simply becoming a feeder to the wealthier clubs in England and France.

However, even against a back-drop of a power-struggle between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four regions, this was the time the cash-strapped professional game to cash-in on that feel-good factor.

Welsh sport is on a high at the moment. There were gold medals galore at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London last year; Nathan Cleverley still rules the world among the light heavyweights in the boxing ring; Swansea City and Wrexham have just won trophies at Wembley and Cardiff City are top of the Championship table and heading to the Premier League.

And two weeks ago, Wales celebrated a second successive Six Nations success, and a record breaking win over Grand Slam hopefuls England. Almost everything in the garden looked rosy.

The idea of bringing the cream of Welsh rugby talent together under the one roof once again seemed sound. A post championship celebration of all that is good in the national game, and a chance for the Scarlets and the Ospreys to further their claims to places in the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs.

Judgement Day was a first for the PRO12, but followed in the well-trodden footsteps of the London double-header at Twickenham that traditionally launches the Aviva Premiership. An attendance of 36,174 for the day proved it was an event that has been waiting to happen.

The lack of joined-up thinking between the WRU and regions remains the one black spot in Welsh sport. Never the two, it seems, shall come together and work in harmony. But this experiment, which the WRU have been trying to get off the ground for a number of years, proved it was better late than never.

The comments of the regional Rugby Wales boss Stuart Gallacher earlier in the day, claiming his old club, the Scarlets, would be right to sell George North and pointing to a potential switch to play in England by the four teams, showed just how far apart they remain.

What the action on the pitch, and the reaction of the crowd, revealed is the huge appetite there is for domestic dust-ups in Wales. The quality of both games underlined the reason why Wales retained their title this season and why many of the players on view will be heading to Australia with the British & Irish Lions this summer.

Two tries from North were at the heart of a 28-20 win for the Scarlets over the Dragons in the first game, keeping alive their hopes of finishing in the play-off places in the RaboDirect PRO12. The lack of a fourth, bonus point try in the closing 15 minutes might cause them to miss out in the end though.

Then came the 'main' event between Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys. Just like a fortnight ago in the Six Nations, it was the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Adam Jones and Dan Biggar who made a difference.

Halfpenny drew first blood against the region that released him as a teenager with the opening try. The Ospreys lost Ian Evans to injury but still had the power up front to respond through Adam Jones at the scrum and Biggar kicked the points as well as converting James King's try.

Among the most fascinating duels was between Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. In their eagerness, both were warned by referee Nigel Owens and while Warburton worked tirelessly, Tipuric showed his dynamism again with a break that ended with Jonathan Spratt scoring.

Halfpenny and Biggar traded penalties as defending champions Ospreys held out to win 23‑16 and regain their place in the top four in their race with the Scarlets for the last place in the play-offs.