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.

Clinical and pacy Gloucester punish tenacious Scarlets

The Scarlets travelled to the vociferous as ever Kingsholm Stadium to take on Gloucester in their last pre-season friendy. Gloucester were fielding a near full strength side as were the Scarlets, with only the big name of Jon Davies missing from their team sheet.

It was the home side that started the stronger, showing more intensity and brute strength at the break down. Assured of quick ball, they soon made the most of their speedy backline to send winger Simpson-Daniel over for a try, which fly half Freddie Burns duly converted.

The Scarlets began to make inroads of their own, with half breaks from Scott Williams and Gareth Maul in the centre. The rest of the Scarlets backline were also showing their strengths, with wing for the day Liam Williams showing his usual aptitude under the high ball.

It was Gloucester however that made the most of the half chances created. With the Scarlets defensive line strong in the face of repeated Gloucester attacks, fly half Burns chanced a kick through the line and England international centre Twelvetrees showed no hesitation on racing through to touch down to help give the home team a 14-0 lead.

Going in to the second quarter, the Scarlets were given little chance to attack, and matters soon got worse as second row Jo Snyman was yellow carded. Going in to the dying minutes of the half, Gloucester applied serious pressure in both the scrums and in attacks on the Scarlets try line, yet the Welsh defence held for the teams to enter the break with the score still 14-0.

The second half saw a Scarlets side appear with a completely different attitude. Effort and intensity was increased and the substitutions started to make their presence felt. A stable scrum from the first half was turned into a strong weapon second half as young prop Rob Evans made his mark. The forwards pack as a whole started to function more cohesively and after a strong attacking lineout and driving maul, they were soon awarded a penalty try after Gloucester deliberately collapsed it.

The conversion was added by returning fly half Rhys Priestland, making his comeback in rugby after an injury ravaged season last year. Priestland put his stamp on the game when on spotting a half gap he made a great burst through the Gloucester defence to release the U20’s world cup star Jordan Williams on the wing. It was the spark that was needed and the second half turned into a fast, furious and enthralling match.

Gloucester dug deep after the Scarlets’ rampant second half start and settled themselves with a penalty. With the Welsh region attacking deep in their territory once more, an error in attack saw Gloucester able to capitalise on spilled ball with a breakaway try which saw them extend their score to 24-7.

The Scarlets were soon awarded a penalty of their own, but turning down a shot at goal they bravely opted to kick for the corner. The decision proved a wise one when off the back of a strong lineout, lock Snyman neatly passed to hooker Ken Owens to send him over for a score.

With the momentum seemingly in their favour, the Scarlets were camped for long periods in Gloucester’s 22 with strong scrum after strong scrum, yet agonizingly a knock on when the ball was passed wide allowed Gloucester to clear their lines and relieve the pressure of having to keep the visitors out despite being down at one stage to 13 men.

Another great break from the Scarlets’ backline followed not long after, this time by wing Jordan Williams, saw them dance their way back into a great attacking position. Yet the Gloucester defence continued to hold firm, and forcing another error in attack from the Scarlets, yet another opportunist and break away try was coughed up allowing Gloucester to extend their lead to 31 – 12.

The Scarlets had the last word in the match after another sold lineout saw replacement no.8 Craig Price and scrum half Rhodri Williams linking well to send Williams over for the final score.

It was a vastly improved second half from the Scarlets, and with so many players returning from injury getting a run out, it provides the Welsh region with many positives going in to next week’s opening fixture versus Irish opponents Leinster.

Gloucester had an excellent run out, with their forwards dominating in the first half and their backs showing their pace and precision. It was a passionate and enthralling pre-season friendly that will have given both sides a big boost going into the season.

Full time: Gloucester 31 – 17 Scarlets

Teams

 Gloucester: 15. Rob Cook, 14. Charlie Sharples, 13. Henry Trinder, 12. Billy Twelvetrees, 11. James Simpson-Daniel, 10. Freddie Burns, 9. Tavis Knoyle, 1. Nick Wood, 2. Darren Dawidiuk, 3. Ruper Harden, 4. Tom Savage (capt) 5. James Hudson, 6. Sione Kalamafoni, 7. Matt Kvesic, 8. Ben Morgan

Replacements: 16. Koree Britton, 17. Dan Murphy, 18. Yann Thomas, 19. Lua Lokotui, 20. Akapusi Qera, 21. Dan Robson, 22. Billy Burns, 23. Mike Tindall, 24. Steph Reynolds

Scarlets: 15. Gareth Owen, 14. Liam Williams, 13. Gareth Maule, 12. Scott Williams, 11. Kristian Phillips, 10. Steve Shingler, 9. Gareth Davies, 1. Phil John, 2. Ken Owens, 3. Samson Lee, 4. George Earle, 5. Jo Snyman, 6. Aaron Shingler, 7. Josh Turnbull, 8. Rob McCusker (capt)

Replacements: 16. Rob Evans, 17. Emyr Phillips, 18. Jacobie Adriaanse, 19. Jake Ball, 20. Richard Kelly, 21. Sione Timani, 22. Craig Price, 23. Rhodri Williams, 24. Rhys Priestland, 25. Adam Warren, 26. Jordan Williams