TAKING A HIT
Scarlets suffer last-gasp woe:
FOR the second consecutive season the Scarlets saw victory snatched from their hands late on in Belfast. Leading 13-12 heading into the final minute, a needless penalty from South African lock David Bulbring, collaring John Cooney off the ball, gifted Ulster the points and denied the injury-hit West Walians a moraleboosting win to kick-start their 201819 Guinness PRO14 campaign.
It was a gutsy effort from Wayne Pivac’s side, who defended manfully for long periods.
But with five minutes remaining, they kicked away possession deep in Ulster’s half, much to Pivac’s annoyance, and then lost their discipline when it mattered.
Rob Lloyd looks at the talking points to emerge from a fluctuating round one encounter at the Kingspan Stadium.
Missing 14 players before they set foot on a plane to Belfast, the Scarlets were hobbling home to Llanelli with the casualty list having lengthened.
INJURY WOES CONTINUE
The biggest concern, of course, will surround centre Jonathan Davies.
There was plenty of anticipation about the Wales and Lions star’s long-awaited return to league action following the serious foot injury he picked up playing for Wales last November.
However, barely 20 minutes before kick-off Davies complained of a leg issue in the warm-up and, following a conversation with the physios and Pivac, he was withdrawn from the starting line-up, with Steffan Hughes drafted in.
During the match, the 2017 champions also lost Rhys Patchell, who was having an outstanding game at fly-half, and his replacement Dan Jones, who had to be helped from the field in the closing minutes.
If Pivac is in glass half-full mood, a number of players are expected back over the coming weeks, but considering the season is only a week old, a bulging casualty room is a problem he wouldn’t have expected.
DISCIPLINE OR LACK OF IT COST THE SCARLETS
It may be a statement of the bleeding obvious when you lose a game to a last-minute penalty without conceding a try, but the Scarlets’ ill-discipline was an underlying issue throughout the Kingspan contest.
The post-match stats showed the visitors conceded 11 penalties to Ulster’s 10, but it was the manner of the infringements that would have had Pivac tearing at his hair.
Dan Jones threw himself at Cooney from an offside position to gift the home match-winner three points in the second half; fellow replacement Ed Kennedy, on his debut, put in an over-exuberant high hit on wing Henry Speight which saw him yellow-carded — it could have been red — with 13 minutes remaining, while Bulbring’s decision to haul back Cooney off the ball in the final minute was a moment of madness, and that’s being kind.
Last season the Scarlets claimed the league’s Fairplay award for finishing top of the charts for discipline.
There’s only one weekend gone, but they have ground to make up if they want to earn that accolade again.
NEW BOYS SHOW UP WELL
Four of the Scarlets’ summer arrivals were named in the starting line-up at the Kingspan and all can be fairly satisfied with their first PRO14 outing for the West Walians.
Full-back Clayton Blommetjies looked lively out in the wide channels. Kieron Fonotia was a solid midfield presence, hitting hard, carrying strongly and winning turnovers, while Sam Hidalgo-Clyne did little wrong at 9.
But it was Blade Thomson who was the pick of the bunch.
The former Hurricane went rampaging down the touchline early on to almost set up a try for Fonotia and made more metres with ball in hand than any of his team-mates.
He looks like he possesses the handling and off-loading skills to fit seamlessly into the Scarlets’ gameplan and is also a line-out option.
It’s early days in his Scarlets career and coming in on the back of a near full-distance Super Rugby campaign is tough, as many southern hemisphere players will testify.
But Thomson already looks a fine acquisition.
PATCHELL LAYS DOWN A MARKER
We’re up and running in the annual race to the Wales No. 10 jersey and it’s advantage to the man from the Scarlets after round one.
Patchell had a classy game at flyhalf, cut short by a knock he picked up making a tackle in the second half.
For his early try he spotted space on the blindside before arcing around Cooney to score in the corner.
He also scythed through in the opening minutes in the second half for what looked like the Scarlets’ second try, only for skipper Ken Owens to fail to ground the ball at the posts.
His line kicking has been an impressive feature of his game of late and again he peppered Ulster’s 22. Unfortunately for the Scarlets, their attacking line-out malfunctioned in key positions.
Patchell finished the summer tour as Wales’s No. 10, albeit in the absence of the rested Dan Biggar.
Biggar endured a mixed afternoon as his new side Northampton fell to defeat to Gloucester at Kingsholm in the opening round of the Gallagher Premiership, while Rhys Priestland struggled in Bath colours at Bristol on Friday night.
The other main contender, Gareth Anscombe, is yet to appear for Cardiff Blues and may struggle to get the No. 10 shirt back from his young rival Jarrod Evans, who was one of his side’s leading performers in their late defeat to Leinster.
RENEWING RIVALRY WITH THE BOYS IN BLUE
Leinster were the Scarlets’ nemesis in 2017-18, the foe that ruined an otherwise sparkling campaign.
Pivac is adamant his side have learned the lessons from their Champions Cup semi-final hammering and the PRO14 grand final loss in Dublin, just as Leinster did from their shock PRO14 semi-final defeat to the Scarlets at the RDS a year earlier.
Of course, significant departures, combined with the Scarlets’ injury list and Ireland resting their international stars for the early weeks of the season, mean that next weekend’s line-ups at Parc y Scarlets will bear little resemblance to last season’s showpiece games.
But the Scarlets will be desperate to get the Leinster monkey off their backs. They are also defending an impressive home record in the competition — they are unbeaten since losing to Munster in the opening match of 2016-17.
Ulster’s Henry Speight tackles Scarlets full-back Clayton Blommetjies.