Scarlets – Cautious Optimism

With both pre-season matches under their belts, it’s a good time to analyse the Scarlets’ hopes for the upcoming season.

Their first hit out was away against Bath. A beautiful summer’s day led to an exciting and free flowing match. With both sides fielding different teams in either half and with rolling subs in use it is perhaps difficult to fully analyse how well the Scarlets managed to play but there were at least some clear indicators.

Their backline without question looked to run the ball a great deal more than they have in previous season’s, with kicking kept to a minimum. In the first half they were a bit lateral but the injection of newly returned Scarlet Regan King in the second half soon showed exactly what this Scarlets side could be capable of. A thrilling length of the field try with King involved twice saw some slick handling to send centre Scott Williams over.

If the backs shone in that game, it was a grizzlier day for the forwards. The scrum was under pressure throughout the entire game, and in the first half especially they were well schooled at the breakdown. Unsurprising perhaps when they were missing six of their first choice pack. There were some positive glimpses though in the introduction of new signing Rory Pitman who is looking to fight for a place in the number 8 shirt. Some thundering collisions and runs saw him make a real impact in terms of giving the Scarlets go forward.

A draw of 26-26 was a fair result and both sides in that encounter had plenty of positives to take as well as key areas to work on. It certainly gave new head coach Wayne Pivac a much better idea as to where this young Scarlets squad currently are in their development and potential.

Roll on two weeks later and the home friendly against Gloucester and the return of the Scarlets’ big name players.The breakdown improved markedly with McCusker, Pitman and Barclay providing a good balance. Barclay could again be a key player for the Scarlets and his fitness is something they are going to have to manage well over the course of the season.

Ken Owens, in his first start as captain, led from the front in a powerful display and despite the scrums being somewhat messy when they were successful it was inevitably the Scarlets that came out on top.

In a change to the friendly against Bath it was the forwards that shone first. A rolling maul thundered across the line from close quarters. The try highlight of the day perhaps came later on in the second half from Man of the Match Rory Pitman who smashed across from 5m out after picking up from the base of the scrum, and carrying a Gloucester player over with him.

In terms of the backline Priestland looked comfortable and confident, linking well with the centres Williams and King, and in a slick move from a neatly secured lineout, quick and precise passing was enough to send new winger Michael Tagicakibau over for his first Scarlets try. Scott Williams again managed to bag himself a try, this time from an intercept in the Gloucester 22 where the Scarlets had been piling on the pressure.

Another aspect that was particularly pleasing was how well at times the Scarlets defended, particularly in the last few minutes of the game where they kept Gloucester trapped, only able to move the ball laterally, making no inroads up the field at all. The scoreline of 29-24 flattered their visitors but as far as pre-season friendlies go, it was an almost perfect build up for the new season.

As ever the problem the Scarlets may face is that of a lack of consistency and squad depth throughout the season. Yet there was a different feel to these last two matches, a level of composure and quiet confidence that has been missing for the last few seasons.

Their first home game against Ulster, on Saturday 6th September, kick off 2.40pm, is a big test for this squad. The momentum is currently with them and they will be keen to keep it, especially with the chance to secure an early home victory.

Off the field issues in Wales might still be in a bit of a mess but at least on field this season the Scarlets look like they have the potential to get it right. The mood for most Scarlets fans can perhaps be summed up in two words: cautious optimism.

Will the European rugby “peace” deal make or break the Welsh regions?

With the news announced today that there is a possible outcome of peace for the game of rugby union in Europe, it’s worth taking a closer look at just how this affects the four Welsh regions that compete in the top competitions.

As the outbreak of fighting started amongst differing clubs and Unions months ago, the one thing that was perfectly clear for those who follow and have an interest in the game in Wales; if the status quo remained, the Welsh regions would struggle to survive.

That status quo would be remaining playing in the Pro12, whose faults are many and has never appealed massively to the Welsh public (although that’s another debate entirely), and to compete in the European cup, whilst being tied into a crippling Participation Agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). The current fall out in Welsh rugby between the Regions and the WRU has come mainly from the current agreement whose terms appears to see the WRU happy to strangle the four Welsh regions into submission so that they are able to take full control over the game in Wales. They key word there is control, and note not governance which is what any governing body is actually charged with. The WRU’s inflexibility and lack of empathy during this dispute has largely contributed to the feeling of discord currently seen in many corners of the game in Wales.

What today’s meeting has revealed is that there is now a chance that an agreement on a new European competition is close to being agreed, so it would see the regions still playing in the Pro12 and again in a European cup, but this time run by the Six Nations committee instead of the hapless ERC. What is worth mentioning is that the Pro12 currently does not even have a sponsor for next season and there are rumours that the Italian teams may be withdrawing. Both are likely to see a decrease in funding to the regions which would see them markedly worse off under the “status quo”.

With regards to the European Cup, it is hard to make a judgement on whether it will provide any hope for the future for the regions or not, until more details are released. Most important to the regions’ futures will be the TV contracts. The English clubs (PRL) had negotiated a deal with BT for a new European competition which would have seen an increase of £1m each for the regions. Understandably given the financial situation in Wales, the regions were wholly supportive of this new competition, but the WRU refused to give their agreement. The other TV deal on offer was that of one with Sky, which ERC signed up to despite the English and French clubs having already served notice. That TV deal would not see the Welsh regions any better off.

What fans of the regional game in Wales will be hoping is that not only has a better TV deal been negotiated and agreed upon, but also that the other major sticking point of who has commercial control, the Unions or the clubs, has also been decided to fall in the clubs’ favour. Without an increase in TV revenue and the freedom to negotiate their own commercial contracts, the Regions would remain in the same helpless state and truly be struggling to survive.

To throw an extra spanner in the works, the Welsh regions are still to negotiate a new Participation or newly dubbed “Service” Agreement with the WRU. With the bitter dispute between them, it is hard to see how the WRU will be able to present an agreement that will be appealing to the regions, and with the possible reconciliation in the European game it is equally as difficult to see how the regions will be able to refuse to sign it. What is worrying for the fans of the game in Wales is that this will be another opportunity taken by the WRU to further smother the regional game in Wales which in recent months has been exactly what they have been fighting against. This is why the agreement as to who has commercial control and how revenue is split in this new European competition is so important to the regions. If they do not have any control over it, it is close to game over not only for the regions but possibly the professional game in Wales.

So we potentially have peace across the game in Europe, but unless certain key aspects have fallen the regions’ way, we may also have seen the possible death knell of the regional game in Wales. Fans of the four regions will be waiting with bated breath for more details to be released and also praying for the impossible; that the WRU will finally take conciliatory action for the good of the game in Wales as a whole, instead of being focused solely on controlling the game ultimately to its own detriment. 

Ferocious Dragons rock the Scarlets

It was with an intensity rarely seen in the RaboDirect Pro12 that the Newport Gwent Dragons took to the field  at the start of the Friday night Welsh derby against the Scarlets. In a battle of East versus West it was very much the Newport based region that stole a march on their opponents.

The return of British and Irish Lion Toby Faletau to their back row gave them a boost, yet it was the jackeling work of captain Andrew Coombs and flanker Lewis Evans that were giving them the upper hand. Absolutely ferocious at the breakdown they both made a couple of excellent steals to keep their visitors on the back foot.

New signing John Barclay for the Scarlets was keen to make a nuisance of himself and this was the perfect high tempo and physical game for him to make his return from injury. Scarlets captain Rob McCusker and lock George Earle were instrumental in driving the Dragons back as they worked tirelessly to shore up the Scarlets’ defence.

The new half back pairing for the Dragons in the return of fly half Jason Tovey and new signing of scrum half Richie Rees appeared to be decisive for the home side. Rees’ sniping runs and Tovey’s clever tactical kicking kept seeing the Dragons camped in Scarlets territory and the pressure soon told, first through three points from the boot and swiftly followed by a try thanks to the quick offloading hands of prop Chaparro that sent fellow front rower Phil Price over to score. Tovey converted.

The Scarlets were determined to work their way back into the game and a hugely impressive driving maul saw them march their way 30m into the Dragons’ half. Their curse of the season so far continued though in their handling, and some loose control at the breakdown yet again saw them turned over. Their efforts were eventually rewarded by Rhys Priestland kicking for three points.

The Dragons hit back immediately  and their pace and precision both on and off the ball was proving to be a problem for the Scarlets. Only a superb cover tackle from Rhys Priestland on wing Tom Prydie denied the Dragons another try. Still camped in the Scarlets’ 22, Toby Faletau almost blew the overlap as Scarlets Lion Jon Davies put in a crunching hit, yet quick recycling and a beautiful delayed pass from Richie Rees saw full back Dan Evans cross unopposed. Tovey again added the extras.

The brutal first quarter seemed to send the Scarlets into a panic as they again kept trying to force passes, and their inclination to try and run the ball out of their own 5m line was only causing them more problems. Full back Gareth Owen departed due to injury on the 20 minute mark, and with Liam Williams restored to the 15 position he soon began to make his telling runs.

Scarlets scrum half Gareth Davies made excellent work of the inside pop pass for Williams to scythe through the Dragons’ defence. The Scarlets support was there to aid him but an excellent Dragons scramble defence did enough to force the error and they were able to clear their lines. The Scarlets continued to batter their way into the Dragons half though and they did enough to return with another three points.

Time and again the Scarlets were breaking through yet the last pass kept going astray allowing the Dragons to relieve the pressure. It was not until Scarlets international centre pairing finally linked up that a lovely timed pass from Jon Davies saw Scott Williams able to cut back inside and dance his way over for a score. Priestland converted.

It was now the Dragons that were finding it hard to match the Scarlets’ tempo and the visitors were relentless in their search for points so that despite the home side’s fantastic start they only entered the break with a four point cushion, leading 17-13.

The frantic pace of the match continued in the second half. The Scarlets were still going strong and they were soon rewarded yet again with fly half Priestland kicking a penalty to take them to within one point of the Dragons.

It looked as though the pressure was going to tell as the Scarlets camped themselves in the Dragons’ 22 yet another miracle pass that wasn’t on saw the ball spill loose and the Dragons able to race down the field and clear their lines. From the quick turnover ball it looked all but certain that the Dragons would score down the wing, only for an exceptional Rob McCusker tackle to prevent it.

With the pressure relieved the Dragons began to work their way back into the game and were able to extend their lead through the boot of Tovey on the 55 minute mark. Again though it was the Scarlets that applied the pressure. A wonderful half break from Rhys Priestland saw the Scarlets break through the Dragons’ defence. Some great handling from their backs saw the ball finally make its way to centre Scott Williams yet agonizingly the last offload that could have set replacement scrum half Aled Davies free couldn’t go to hand.

Each squandered Scarlets chance seemed to give the Dragons more hope and belief that they could see the match out, and they were soon rewarded for their hard work by a long range penalty that was kicked superbly by wing Tom Prydie. It took their lead to seven points and now the pressure was entirely on the Scarlets knowing they needed at least a converted try to draw the game with just ten minutes remaining.

Finally the Scarlets’ main strength, the scrum, came in to play. For the remaining minutes of the match, including the six played after the clock had gone red, saw them camped in the Dragons’ 22 with scrum after scrum, and it seemed that they inevitably had to score. The last scrum of the match however saw the Dragons reverse at such an incredible speed that the Scarlets were unable to keep the ball in the scrum. Aled Davies failed to secure possession and it was star Toby Faletau that managed to snaffle the ball and clear it in to touch.

It was the first time the Dragons had beaten the Scarlets in the since 2008 and the relief and happiness was palpable around Rodney Parade. The injection of new names both on and off the field have clearly made a huge, positive difference to this Dragons side. Their defence and commitment is now such that they are once again a hugely difficult side to beat at home.

For the Scarlets it was another night of frustrating errors. The territory, possession and set piece was all there for them to win the game yet poor handling, easy turnovers and the wrong options saw them squander their chances. When they have composure on the ball they score, they just need to do that with more consistency.

It was a thrilling derby match, full of passion, drama and intensity that truly showcased the talent in Welsh rugby. With the Dragons now having secured their third win in a row at home, they will be hoping to move on to bigger and better things. For the Scarlets the performance of Rhys Priestland and the return of Barclay to action will be big boosts, and a losing bonus point at Rodney Parade was a reward at least for such a committed effort.

Full Time Score:  Dragons 23 – 16 Scarlets

Ref:        Nigel Owens

Teams

Dragons: Dan Evans, Tom Prydie, Ross Wardle, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos, Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Phil Price, Rhys Thomas, Francisco Chaparro, Andrew Coombs (capt), Matthew Screech, Jevon Groves, Lewis Evans, Toby Faletau.

Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Owen Evans, Dan Way, Rob Sidoli, Netani Talei, Jonathan Evans, Kris Burton, Adam Hughes.

Scarlets: Gareth Owen; Liam Williams, Jon Davies, Scott Williams, Jordan Williams; Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies; Phil John, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, George Earle, Aaron Shingler, Rob McCusker (capt), John Barclay.

Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rob Evans, Jacobie Adriaanse, Richard Kelly, Josh Turnbull, Aled Davies, Nic Reynolds, Aled Thomas.