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.

Falling out of love with rugby?

It really does come to something as a supposed rugby union fan when you sit down, realise that there’s a bunch of international rugby on the television, and you can’t even stomach to watch a second of it. That is what’s happened to me today.

I suppose there could be a whole bunch of reasons as to why. There’s a good argument these days for there being too much rugby being played and shown on television. Off the back of a very heavy season fixture wise I now have the Junior rugby world cup and all of the summer tours to watch, all of this just two weeks after the European Cup final and a week after the domestic league finals; there simply hasn’t been a break.

Another reason could be that more often than not these days, top flight rugby can be, well a bit boring. The Heineken Cup final between Saracens and Toulon was a case in point of that. I hate to admit it, but that has to have been one of the most boring 80 minutes of rugby I’ve ever had to sit through, although that thankfully was more than made up by the decent and wonderful rugby fans that I attended the game with.

But neither of the above reasons would normally ring true for me. I mean, I love rugby. Hell, I even went on the Lions tour last year. You can’t hold me back from any Scarlets match and it used to be the case that I would move hell and high water to be able to watch Wales play an international, whether that be in person or on television.

And it’s that last comment that gives me a moment of pause, and then I cast my mind back to the 6 Nations. Did I move hell and high water to watch all of Wales’ matches in this year’s 6 Nations? No I didn’t. Did I even bring myself to watch the ‘Probables vs Possibles’ match? Nope, didn’t do that either. What I’ve come to realise this season is that I simply don’t particularly care to watch the senior Wales international team.

Now, I’m keen to stress that this doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to win; I do. It’s just I simply can’t find it in me to care enough to either switch on the television and watch, or to get off my arse and go and watch them live. There’s just nothing there. It transpires that I even watched more England matches this season then I have Wales ones, and if that doesn’t start to get my alarm bells ringing then I don’t know what will.

Now for those of you who aren’t Welsh, you may not have known that there’s a bit of a ‘civil war’ going on in Welsh rugby. It’s actually been going on for the last three or so years but let’s just say that this season it’s gotten a bit messy and nasty. Grassroots rugby is failing, the semi-professional tier of rugby is stagnating, and our professional tier is in a bitter dispute with our governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union(WRU) over the fact it is not only being prevented from growing its own businesses, but that it is also being starved of funds in comparison to all other professional teams in the northern hemisphere game.

It is easy to look at Wales’ international record over the last few years and to say that surely the WRU has been doing a good job. They aren’t questioned, the 6 Nations championship wins are held up like a nice big shiny shield that says Welsh rugby simply must be in a good place. Trust me, as a Welsh person living and following rugby in Wales; it isn’t.

And then we have the WRU itself. Their conduct during this whole affair has been nothing short of distasteful. To all appearances they have seemed to use players as political pawns, supressed any notion of discussion or differing rugby media outlets (their dealings with Inside Welsh Rugby TV (@IWRTV) and forcing to remove an article are a case in point) and combine that with a lack of transparency and strategy….let’s just say they don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm or trust. That is me putting it mildly.

In the face of this surely we have the gritty, insightful and questioning media in Wales really putting them to the test with their investigative and professional journalism? I wish. Instead we have rumours of senior management in BBC Sport Wales preventing well respected journalists from airing their views on the WRU. Instead we have the “national newspaper of Wales” running nonsensical stories of the ‘greatest SA teams’ instead of doing what they really should be doing – holding the WRU to account.

It has fallen to fans and supporters on social media to do that. It has fallen to an individual flying half way around the world to galvanise the clubs so a much needed Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) could be called.

The WRU needs reform. The board, the setup, the structure – absolutely everything needs dragging into the professional era, where accountability, transparency and a clear structure are all in place. We currently don’t have that and we have a gravy train organisation doing its uttermost to hold on to their lofty seats so as to prevent this change.

Will the EGM be successful in forcing a vote of no confidence so changes can be made? I really don’t know. That is down to the clubs and I do have a general fear and huge reservations that enough can or will give the long term future of Welsh rugby the real consideration it needs, over their own immediate fears for their own club’s survival. Fears that seem to be fed by the WRU rather than appeased by them.

And so there I think we have it, just why I find it so hard to care about the senior international team in Wales anymore. For years the international side has been held up as the focal point for all of Welsh rugby, to the detriment of the rest of the game in Wales, and it is the WRU that has been doing that. So for me now when I see Wales play, I don’t see the 15 proud Welshmen giving their all for their country like I should. Instead I see the WRU board and everything that they stand for – which is everything that is wrong with the game in Wales.

Until that changes I really am going to struggle to get enthused about international Welsh rugby, and sure maybe that’s my own problem. Maybe I should be able to push the politics aside and focus just on the rugby on the pitch, but when I see the game I love around me being torn to pieces by a governing body that simply doesn’t seem to care, as long as those at the top can keep their status quo then I find that I simply can’t.

Perhaps it isn’t that I don’t care about rugby anymore, maybe it is that I care too much, and by caring too much, I simply can’t stomach to watch the tier of rugby that has been forced by the WRU to become the be all and end all, while the rest of the game here in Wales is left to rot. I can’t agree with that, and I think if most fans really thought about it, they wouldn’t agree with it either.

Give me my local club rugby and give me the Scarlets at least with them I know exactly what they stand for and what they believe in, and that they have the ethos and values that are true to rugby. I think my first two reasons; over exposure and quality of rugby are still valid ones, but I know that for me it has been the whole messy dispute in Welsh rugby that has killed off my passion for the game. If that’s happened to me, then I dread to think what it’s done to the more casual fan. Welsh rugby needs to fix itself soon, but even now it is going to take years for it to recover.

I think for today, I might just have to watch some tennis instead. 

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


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.