Scarlets aim to take the Oscar this time around
Leinster in Dublin is the biggest home banker in the Champions Cup, the rugby equivalent to Bayern Munich at the Allianz or Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Over the best part of the last 30 months, Ireland’s richest province have knocked out every opponent bar one since losing to Toulon three seasons ago. In that time they have beaten some of the best in Europe with one exception.
The Scarlets will not worry unduly about going into the Lions’ den at the Aviva Stadium in next Saturday’s Champions’ Cup semi-final because they have been there before and lived to tell the tale. They, alone, know what it takes to beat Leinster in Dublin.
What’s more, they have done it in a semi-final – 25-17 at the RDS last May en route to winning the PRO12 title. Leinster were incapable then of coping with opponents forced to play more than half the match with 14 men. Now they will prepare on the basis that the same opposition will not be pushing their luck again by falling foul of the referee as Steff Evans fell foul of Marius Mitrea last year.
Europe, though, is something else as the Scarlets know to their cost. They have been to more semi-finals than any other contender without winning one and this will be their fourth, no big deal when compared to the fate endured by a flanker who grew up supporting Aberavon.
Hollywood nominated Richard Burton for an Oscar seven times without ever getting round to giving him one, just as he never got round to playing a first XV match for the Wizards. After more than 20 years in often forlorn pursuit of the ultimate prize, most Scarlets’ fans will have a rough idea of how he must have felt.
Under the pre-regionalisation banner of Llanelli, they lost the first semi in 2000 by three points, to a late Northampton penalty; the second to Leicester two years later by one point thanks to another late penalty and the third in 2007 by a wider margin, again to the Tigers at the home of Leicester City. One Test Lion, Dafydd James, recalls the first and the last, leaving the second to another Test Lion, Scott Quinnell. In the year between the first two, they achieved the rarest of doubles, each scoring tries at the Gabba in the Lions’ record opening Test rout of Australia, then World Cup holders.
“We’ve come so close so often that it’s fair to say a few hearts have been broken as a result,’’ says James. “If we hadn’t given that last-minute penalty to Northampton, I think we could have won the trophy that year.
“The sombre mood during the long journey home made it seem even longer. Everyone was very upset because we all knew we had missed a big opportunity. We missed another the last time we got that far, against the Tigers in Leicester, but there was no question they were the better side on the day.’’
Quinnell confesses that the first defeat by Leicester, at the City Ground in Nottingham, caused him more heartache than the one by the Saints two years earlier. “Losing to Leicester hurt more because I felt we were the better side,’’ he says. “We were ahead and then a penalty was given against us in a scrum.
“The ball seemed to take a couple of rolls forward (from where the offence had taken place). And then we watched Tim Stimpson’s kick go off the post, off the bar, off the post again and over.
“It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with on a rugby field. At least after the Northampton game, their centre Allan Bateman gave me a Welsh cwtch (hug) and it didn’t seem so bad after all. But nothing could console us after that Leicester match.’’
This time even more formidable opponents are standing between them and a first final, Leinster, No. 1 seeds, triple former European champions.
When it comes to motivation, nobody will generate greater energy than Tadhg Beirne, never considered good enough to start a match for Leinster and returning home as a giant of the European game.
Heartbreak: Scarlets scrum-half Dwayne Peel is consoled by Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy in 2007