DEFEAT MEANS SCARLETS MISS OUT ON PLACE AMONG ELITE
THE Scarlets missed out on a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup after they were defeated by the Ospreys in a hard-fought Guinness PRO14 play-off at the Liberty Stadium.
It means the Scarlets will have to settle for playing, for the first time, in the second-tier competition, the Challenge Cup.
The home side’s victory came through tries by George North, Olly Cracknell and replacement wing Hanno Dirksen, who was also yellowcarded in the first half.
Sam Davies kicked two conversions and Luke Price one.
The Scarlets played their part in the one-off match, with Jonathan Davies grabbing their only try and Leigh Halfpenny kicking a penalty and a conversion.
The Ospreys included Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones in what could be his last game for the region. The 33-year-old has yet to decide on his future.
Hooker Scott Baldwin was playing his last game for the region before joining Harlequins.
Jake Ball was back at lock for the visitors after injury, while props Phil Price and Werner Kruger were included in the front row, with Wales props Rob Evans and Samson Lee both injured.
The play-off came about with the sides finishing fourth in Conference A and B respectively, with no Welsh team qualifying automatically for the 2019-20 Champions Cup.
The Ospreys had the better of the first half to lead 14-10 at the break but the Dirksen yellow card brought Scarlets right back into the contest.
It was the hosts who set the tone early on when man of the match Owen Watkin set Keelan Giles away down the left.
The pacy wing looked likely to score but was stopped in his tracks by Halfpenny.
But the home side’s attacking intent and an efficient line-out produced the opening try on nine minutes when Watkin put North over on the right. Davies converted.
Halfpenny did get the Scarlets on the scoreboard with a penalty five minutes later.
However, a loose kick by wing Ioan Nicholas from deep inside his 22 allowed Ospreys to double their score. Dan Evans counter-attacked and Cracknell was put in under the posts.
Davies converted as the Ospreys led 14-3 after 18 minutes.
But the yellow card for Dirksen for a dangerous challenge in the air against McNicholl suddenly changed the momentum of the contest.
A minute after the sin-bin Jonathan Davies went over after a dart down the right by McNicholl. Halfpenny converted to reduce the deficit to four points.
At the start of the second half Sam Davies missed a 45-metre penalty and then scuffed a drop-goal attempt.
The turning point in the second half came when replacement fly-half Rhys Patchell missed touch with a penalty attempt.
By contrast, Price found touch with his kick a minute later and from that position the Ospreys scored their third try when Price put Dirksen over. Price converted to seal the region’s place at Europe’s top table.
For Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac, it was a disappointing way to sign off after five years at the helm, with the New Zealander moving on to become Wales coach.
“We worked really hard for 80 minutes but were not clinical enough at key moments and they were and scored three good tries,” he said.
“Sometimes you are not good enough on the day and come up against a side who deserved to win.
“We should have not been in this position and we had chances in four or five games.
“It is frustrating and you have to enjoy the highs and it’s a bit of a roller-coaster.
“As a club, we have to bounce back next season and hopefully not go through the same pain in terms of personnel and clinch that European place.
“It is disappointing, but looking across the five years we have had success.
“Unfortunately, this year not a lot has gone our way.
“I think we have the nucleus of a good squad and if they get a good run
next year in terms of availability of players they will be knocking on the door for honours.
“In five years you get to know a group pretty well.
“It has been an enjoyable time and the group have worked very hard.”
For the Ospreys, the victory completed a remarkable turnaround in fortunes in a matter of weeks.
Back in late February and early March there were serious doubts over the future of the region, with the players being told it might cease to exist amid talk of them having to merge or even shut down completely.
At one point, a merger with the Scarlets looked to be going ahead, only for that idea to be scrapped following a huge outcry from supporters .
Meanwhile, there were struggles on the field, too, with the team having lost six successive games.
It was a turbulent and traumatic time for everyone involved with the region.
But, somehow, they have managed to put that behind them and string together five wins on the bounce to secure a place in the Champions Cup.
Coach Allen Clarke said: “I have respect for every player in our group.
“They have been incredibly resilient throughout the season.
“You could see a freshness and resilience once you realised we were going to exist as the Ospreys.
“I take my hat off to everybody, management, supporters, players and the board who have made that stance.
“And to the WRU because you have to give credit where it is due.
“They saw the wealth of support behind the Ospreys and there has been recognition we are a strong region and we are playing Champions Cup rugby next season.
“It has been draining, and probably what you see on the exterior you don’t understand what is underneath.
“There have been a lot of sleepless nights for a lot of people involved.”
Hadleigh Parkes is tackled by Alun Wyn Jones.
Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies powers through an attempted tackle by Sam Davies to score a try against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.