GRIT AND GUILE AS BATTLING SCARLETS SHOW THEY ARE NO ONE-TRICK PONIES
IT was a match that lived up to the billing, a physical, unrelenting clash between two Guinness PRO14 heavyweights. In the end it came down to the final nail-biting seconds, with the Scarlets, through some gritty breakdown work from Leigh Halfpenny of all people, winning a crucial penalty in their own 22 to seal their first victory of the campaign.
Wayne Pivac’s side had burst out of the blocks, claiming an early try through skipper Ken Owens, but scores from wings Fergus McFadden and James Lowe put the defending champions 14-10 ahead at the break.
In a see-sawing second half, the Scarlets took control thanks to the boot of Halfpenny and a try from scrum-half Gareth Davies, but a 75th-minute try from Rhys Ruddock set up a thrilling finale.
Rugby writer Rob Lloyd assesses the major talking points to emerge from the 23-21 triumph.
GRIT AS WELL AS BEAUTY
The West Walians have been hailed as the competition’s great entertainers, but this was a game where they had to roll up their sleeves and stand toe to toe with the European champions.
The Irish side bullied the Scarlets into submission in a one-sided Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin last April, delivering a relentless forward display that was up there with Test-match intensity.
But apart from one thunderous first-half drive, which set up McFadden’s try, a Leinster eight containing five current Ireland international forwards were unable to dominate.
There was little to choose at scrum time, while the home side gave the visitors a taste of their own medicine with a powerful second-half line-out surge of their own.
For sure, there will be plenty of sore bodies around Parc y Scarlets this week because this was rugby in
the raw — and the Scarlets weren’t found wanting.
“We had time in the off-season to reflect and look at where we had to improve against Leinster, and getting them in round two was about showing how much work we have done, how much work we need to do and whether we had closed the gap,” said Pivac in his post-match press conference.
“The result, first and foremost, is very pleasing, especially after letting one slip in the closing stages last week (against Ulster).
“When you play against Leinster you can’t get away from the fact that it is going to be a physical encounter and you need to front up.
“You are going to end up with bodies the way they were tonight, but it is just the by-product of trying to be successful.”
MORE INJURY CONCERNS
Unfortunately for the Scarlets the physical battle produced yet more casualties.
In the early weeks of the season Pivac has spent long periods of his weekly press conferences updating the media on injuries, and he is likely to be doing the same tomorrow morning.
Wales prop Rob Evans (shoulder/ pectoral muscle) and No. 8 Josh Macleod (shoulder) appear to be the biggest concerns and both will undergo scans to determine the full extent of their injuries.
Wing Johnny McNicholl left the field early after taking a blow to the neck. “He was shortened up by a couple of inches, he is pretty sore, but hopefully it is not too serious,” said Pivac afterwards.
There was also the sight of Jake Ball coming off after complaining of a niggle in his Achilles.
The Wales second row, in his first competitive outing since dislocating his shoulder playing for his country last November, put in a huge shift and the Scarlets will hope the issue doesn’t keep him on the sidelines for any length of time.
“Jake was starting to feel his Achilles area so it was best to get him off,” revealed Pivac.
“He was walking around afterwards with ice on it so that was a precaution. Hopefully he won’t be too bad.
“We wanted some big ball carries in the middle of the park and he certainly gave us that.”
A REAL CAPTAIN’S EFFORT
There was a number of Scarlets contenders for the man-of-the-match accolade, but in the end, Ken Owens got the nod from his former Test captain Sam Warburton, who was part of the Premier Sports commentary team at Parc y Scarlets.
Pivac paid tribute to a “captain’s knock” from his hooker, who was at the heart of an abrasive forward effort from the West Walians.
He scored the game’s first try, carried with venom and contributed to a resilient defensive effort.
“He ran himself to a standstill in the end,” said the Scarlets coach.
You have to turn the clock back more than two years, to September 3, 2016, against Munster on the opening weekend of their title-winning campaign, for the last time the Scarlets lost at home in the Guinness PRO14.
It is now 22 games and counting since that 23-13 defeat.
Leinster came close last season – it needed a late Dan Jones penalty to snatch a draw – but significantly, the best side in Europe haven’t won in Llanelli since 2013.
If the Scarlets are going to be contenders again in 2018-19, and many expect Pivac’s side to be in the playoff mix, that home record is going to count for a lot.
STEFF EVANS MYSTERY SOLVED
Pivac cleared up the reason for Wales wing Steff Evans playing in the Celtic Cup competition for the A team instead of turning out against the European champions at Parc y Scarlets.
It was a big surprise to see the 24-year-old demoted to the second string, but the Scarlets coach insisted that was always meant to happen.
“The plan with Steff was not to play him in the first couple of rounds. He played last week against Ulster because of injuries to Johnny McNicholl and Leigh Halfpenny,” said Pivac.
“He has only had three weeks of training since his knee injury (on Wales’s summer tour) so he is nowhere near his full match fitness and as sharp as he needs to be.
“Unfortunately for Steff he had to play (against Ulster), but when those players were available he went back to the programme of getting himself where he needs to be and that includes a couple of games for the A’s.
“He hasn’t been dropped from the squad, he is just on track for round three, four, five, somewhere around there.”
Gareth Davies holds off Rhys Ruddock and Ross Byrne.
Hadleigh Parkes gets clear.