TAK­ING A HIT

Scar­lets suf­fer last-gasp woe:

Llanelli Star - - Mid Week Sport - ROB LLOYD Rugby cor­re­spon­dent [email protected]­line.co.uk

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.

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