Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

In recent years, the Scarlets have become the team to watch in European rugby. Under the leadership of Wales-bound Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets have attacked from deep and spread the ball wide, leading to them winning the 2016/17 Pro12 and reaching the 2017/18 Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final.

However, things aren’t going as well this season as they are still without a win in the Champions Cup with just 2 bonus points from 4 games, while in the Pro14 they may be 2nd in their conference (on level points with Ulster) but their 6 wins and 4 losses with just 5 bonus points laves them 15 points behind leaders Leinster. It’s far from a disaster, but for a team that were so impressive last season it is a big drop. But what has caused it?

They’ve been found out

Scarlets have been playing the same style of rugby for a couple of seasons now and with that comes the chance for teams to pick up on their tactics and find ways to exploit them. It may not be easy to defend effectively against Scarlets’ expansive style but if it can be done, then it makes it very hard for them to score big points. In defence, they can be vulnerable as many of their back 3 are better attacking with ball in hand than competing for the aerial ball. Leinster’s kicking game gave them victory over the Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, which will have given other teams a blueprint to follow in order to get victory.

Players leaving

Tadhg Beirne joined from Leinster ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of the stars of the team in his 2 seasons at Parc y Scarlets. Capable of playing in the back row but at his best when playing lock, the Irishman was always a threat at the breakdown and had the range of skills to prove dangerous in the loose too – just ask Anthony Watson, who fell foul of his sidestep when they faced bath in last season’s Champions Cup. Beirne returned to Ireland this summer with a move to Munster, making him eligible for selection to the national team.

While Beirne is in my opinion the biggest loss, they also lost 2 great players with bags of experience in John Barclay (Edinburgh) and Scott Williams (Ospreys). To lose 3 such important players is always going to hit a team hard.

International call-ups

With the team’s success, there has big a large increase in the number of Scarlets being selected for the national team over recent years. Rhys Webb’s injuries and subsequent move to France have seen Gareth Davies become the first choice 9 for Wales, while Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Rhys Patchell are just a few of the Scarlets to have spent significant time away with Wales recently.

While this is a deserved reward for the players’ performances, this does mean that the Scarlets will frequently be without top players. Losing them for a couple of matches while Wales are playing is bad enough, but they will also miss a number of training sessions, reducing their chemistry with the team – especially new arrivals – and they will also miss time while they recuperate from their international exertions.

Injuries

The Scarlets have had some horrible luck with injuries this season. Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, James Davies, Blade Thomson, Aaron Shingler and Rhys Patchell have all missed significant time this season with injuries, while an injury to Angus O’Brien has left the region short of depth at fly half. That is an entire international quality back row missing at the same time, bad enough at the best of times but worse when you remember they have just waved goodbye to Beirne and Barclay. Even when the players come back from injury, it will generally take a couple of matches at least for a player to get back up to the speed of the game.

Money

When injuries and internationals mount up, you need to have a deep squad to be able to cope. Unfortunately for Scarlets, the funding isn’t there to have the depth of squad that teams in England and France can boast, which then leads to the same players having to play regularly in the Pro14 and then take on much stronger squads in Europe the next week.

Does it all have to be doom and gloom? Not necessarily. Despite their struggles, they are still in currently in a playoff position and an early exit from the Champions Cup will give them extra rest weeks to recuperate, while some of their players are returning or close to returning form injury. There is still every chance that they could make the playoffs but if I’m honest, with the behemoth that is Leinster in their conference, I cannot see them getting further than the semi-finals.

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

The 2017/18 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup began this week and boy have we been treated to some fantastic games. Saracens piled on the tries at Franklin’s Gardens to beat Northampton 13-57, Castres were denied a late penalty and missed a last-gasp drop goal at home in a 17-17 draw with Munster. Meanwhile Russian side Krasny Yar pulled off the shock of the round in the Challenge Cup with a 34-29 over last season’s winners Stade Francais, while last season’s other finalists Gloucester left Pau with a losing bonus point after a 27-21 loss.

The game that I will be focusing on, however, is the visit of the Scarlets to Toulon. Last season’s Pro12 champions had a poor start to the game at the Stade Mayol to find themselves 18-3 down at half time. However they recovered well to go ahead, only for a Francois Trinh-Duc penalty to give last season’s losing Top 14 finalists a 21-20 victory.

 

A killer start

When Scarlets watch this game back, they will know it was lost in the first quarter. In the first 20 minutes they tried to play a territorial game but found themselves 18-0 down after 2 tries (1 converted) and 2 penalties from Anthony Belleau, while Leigh Halfpenny had missed a kickable penalty. As the half wore on, Scarlets finally switched to the expansive attacking play that has won them so many fans and finally began to get on the front foot, with a succesful kick at goal and Johnny McNicholl knocking on as he stretched for the line in the corner. They continued to take control in the second half, adding a further 17 unanswered points before Trinh-Duc’s late penalty sealed victory. They did well to hold on at the end and keep the losing bonus point as Toulon came on a late charge.

InkedInkedScreenshot_2017-10-16-11-16-21_LI
I hate to imagine how this conversation would have gone if my mate had been able to see the first 20 minutes…

Looking at the game as a whole, I would say that Scarlets were good for the win, but the opening 20 minutes were so catastrophic it cost them the game. Much like Gloucester’s losses at Leicester and Pau so far this season, a poor start has been the difference between defeat and a possible victory. If they can put in the 80 minute performances in the remaining games then I think they have every chance of topping the group.

The right calls?

In this game, there were a number of interesting calls from both coaches.

Considering he is the national team captain and arguably one of the best hookers in the world, I was surprised to see Guilhem Guirado taken off just before the hour mark. Other than his try, he may not have been having the same visible impact he has on many matches, but he brings so much experience to whatever side he is playing in. It didn’t prove costly, but had they gone on to lose, could Fabien Galthié have been on the receiving end of some flak for that call?

Untitled2
Luckily the Scarlets did get going and we got a great game

Wayne Pivac also made a couple of surprising calls in his team selection. Considering stars John Barclay and James Davies were both missing through injury, I would have expected the Scarlets to start with their strongest possible lineup against a Toulon side overflowing with big names and talent. However, they started with captain Ken Owens and Wales scrum half Gareth Davies on the bench. Nothing against Aled Davies, but would the more experienced Gareth Davies have thrown the pass that was intercepted for the first try, or would he have held on to the ball under pressure and allowed the forwards to recycle? There is no way to know for certain, but playing the best available XV from the start may have been enough to avoid the poor start and win the game. That said, having such quality come on later in the game could have saved Scarlets as Toulon went in search of another try near the end. At the end of the day, the records will show that Toulon won this game by a point, but I’m sure some Scarlets fans will beleft wondering what might have been had Davies and Owens been in the starting XV.

A mixed return

Having been deemed surplus to requirements by Mourad Boudjellal, I’m sure Leigh Halfpenny would have had extra incentive to have a big game at Toulon. He had a mixed day at the Stade Mayol with a try but missed 2 penalty kicks that he should have scored.

Untitled
Could Scarlets’ losing bonus point prove crucial? From http://www.epcrugby.com

In defence, he was willing to put his body on the line as usual and at one point saved a try by forcing Josua Tuisova into a knock on. However his attempt to tackle Tuisova for Guirado’s try was terrible! Players much bigger than Halfpenny may also struggle to stop the Fijian winger, but Halfpenny’s technique was terrible and he got his head int he complete wrong place and required a HIA after being bumped off. This is not the first time he has tackled like this – I mentioned when he first moved to the Scarlets that his tackle technique was questionable – and he really needs to work on this soon or his career will be ended early and not on his terms.

Credit where it’s due

Referees don’t often get the recognition they deserve after a good game, so I’m saying it here: I was very impressed by Luke Pearce’s performance at the Stade Mayol.

He may not have got every decision right, but what referee does? The important thing is that he got the big decisions right and considering the way that everybody will interpret the same incident differently that is no easy feat. Just take the penalty against Tadhg Beirne for his challenge on Belleau. Beirne attempted to charge down his clearance kick, only to catch the fly half’s left leg after the ball was gone. Pearce initially allowed play to continue, saying the Berine was already committed, however after watching the replay he gave a penalty to Toulon, which I can understand as the contact is nowhere near Belleau’s kicking leg and is entirely on the other side of his body. #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) ran a poll on twitter, which at the time of me writing this has had 57 responses. 47% felt that the clash was nothing, 40% felt it was a penalty, while a further 13% felt the incident warranted a yellow card! As fans, we can all check the Laws of the game and we have the benefit of multiple replays, so if we struggle to agree on an incident it must be even harder for a referee who has thousands of home fans baying for blood all around him.

Pearce kept his cool throughout despite the ‘assistance’ of the home fans on any possible incidents. My one criticism would be the lack of communication in French, but this is the case with most referees from outside of France. Pearce frequently impresses me and I would argue that he is one of the best referees in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tim’s Thoughts: Exeter v Ulster

On Sunday evening, Exeter welcomed Ulster to Sandy Park for their penultimate pool game in this season’s Champions Cup. After an extremely entertaining 80 minutes, the Chiefs ran out 31-19 winners, ending Ulster’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages.

In the latest installment of the Tim’s Thoughts series, here are the few thoughts I actually managed to jot down while watching the game; on the whole I got far too distracted by the quality of rugby on show.

Summer rugby… in January

January rugby is often more a game for the purists. Poor weather conditions leave pitches in a less-than-ideal state, so games at this time of year are often full of territorial kicking, short passing and frequent physical confrontations between the forward packs. This game however was an exciting affair, with both teams frequently willing to spread the ball and attack from deep. Right from the opening minutes, Ulster were cutting through the Exeter defence and even when the game evened out, it was still full of expansive play throughout. It is games like this that will draw new fans to the sport. I’m sure part of the reason for playing such an open game was to improve the chances of getting a 4 try bonus point, but with a loss ending any chance of progression it would have been understandable if the teams had played a tight game of ball control to ensure the win at all costs.

Making it look easy

My personal highlight of the game was watching the battle on the wing between Jack Nowell and Charles Piutau. A former member of Sir Gordan Tietjens’ All Blacks 7s dynasty and capped 16 times in the 15-a-side format, Piutau’s ability surely had many viewers agreeing with Ugo Monye’s musings as to whether he finds rugby easy. He certainly makes it look easy! From the step to beat Nowell for his 1st try to the collection of Paddy Jackson’s cross-field kicks for his 2nd try and scrum half David Shanahan’s almost-try, he was wowing us every time he got the ball and reminding Premiership fans what they’re missing this year. Nowell is a player who took some time to win me over, but I now consider him England’s best all-round winger and highly likely to make Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad. Though he did get stepped for Piutau’s 1st try and was perhaps caught too narrow for his 2nd, Nowell certainly gave as good as he got from the Kiwi, managing a couple of great covering tackles and also stepping him for Michele Campagnaro’s 2nd try. It felt like these two were playing their own game of rugby on the same pitch as the other 28 players. Though Exeter handily won the main game, I’ll call this matchup a draw.

The Italian Job

Italy boss Conor O’Shea must have been licking his lips watching Michele Campagnaro’s performance for the Chiefs. Injury may have limited his impact so far this season but he was making up for lost time with 2 tries and plenty of metres made against Ulster. A strong runner who consistently requires a couple of tacklers to bring him down, he brings a different dimension to an Exeter midfield that already boasts great depth in Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Sam Hill. Aged just 23 and with 25 caps to his name already, he is already one of the most impressive players in the Italian squad and will likely be one of the players the Azzuri hope to fill the void when iconic captain Sergio Parisse eventually retires. This is the last year of Campagnaro’s current contract and I’m sure that a few more performances like that for Exeter and Italy will have plenty of teams asking after him.

Do you think I missed anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge