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.

Gatland’s Law: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“Gatland’s Law”: 2 words that can elicit a range of opinions from fans. The basic premise is that players can only be picked for the Welsh national team if they play their club rugby in Wales. Players who have signed new contracts outside of Wales since the law was brought in are ineligible unless they are picked as one of up to 3 ‘wildcards’. This is the Welsh equivalent of the rule that many unions are bringing in regarding eligibility for the national team in an effort to keep the talent in the country and improve the national team’s access to its stars.

However, due to the rules relating to contracts (more on this soon) and due to the availability of wildcard selections, Gatland’s law has become one of the most controversial and ridiculed of its kind, also arguably one of the least successful as internationals continue to leave for other leagues – most recently starting fly half Dan Biggar who will be moving to Northampton next summer.

For this article, I’ve decided to have a look at the pros and the cons of Gatland’s Law to see if this is something that the WRU should look at changing or scrapping

 

The Good

As mentioned above, a number of unions have similar rules about international selection in place, as there are legitimate reasons for keeping your players in country.

First and foremost is the benefit to the club game. Fans and broadcasters pay good money to watch the Regions play in the Pro14 and the European Cups. If all the international stars left the Regions then I doubt the interest would be anywhere near as high. The WRU need the regions to be successful and draw in revenue so that they can try to compete against other, richer unions. By enticing (blackmailing?) players to stay in Wales in order to feature for the national team, it allows the fans to see their heroes play on a regular basis and also helps the Regions to be competitive in competitions. Jonathan Davies looked fantastic in Scarlets’ playoff run as they won the Pro12 last season, having returned to Wales following a couple of seasons at Clermont. Would he have made this move if he had been free to play in a different league and yet still play for the national team? Likewise would Leigh Halfpenny have been more open to a move to the Premiership (there was clearly interest from a couple of attractive teams) if it wasn’t putting his international career at risk?

As well as helping the club game, it also helps the WRU at international level. In recent years the WRU have enjoyed arranging Test matches or training camps outside of the international window governed by World Rugby. During the windows, clubs must allow their players to attend camps or matches, however this is not required at other times and is at the discretion of the club. Though the club may be willing to let its players fulfil international commitments outside the window, Premiership Rugby Limited do not generally approve of players leaving outside the windows and have been known to sanction clubs for allowing it. By having the vast majority of the internationals playing for the Regions, it guarantees their availability whenever the national team requires them. It also allows their playing time to be managed over the season to ensure that they are not burned out when they are due to be playing in Test matches. Due to the size of the population and number of Regions playing in the top flight, the Welsh national team will never have the same possible player base as some countries, the WRU must do what they can to make the national team an clubs competitive.

The Bad

While the WRU understandably wants to keep star players with the Regions, they may in some circumstances benefit from playing outside of Wales. Without sounding harsh, how does being the star of a poor Dragons team benefit Taulupe Faletua compared with competing for a space in Bath’s all-star back row. Getting away from the Welsh for a moment, it’s always worth having a look at Jonny Wilkinson’s move to France. Being at Toulon appeared to give him a new lease of life and got him back into the international setup whilst also going on to be named ERC European Player of the Year in 2013.

Having all the stars playing regularly for the Regions also limits the opportunities for the up-and-coming young talent to play at the top level. Sam Davies looks to have real potential but has been having to share his playing time for the Ospreys with Dan Biggar. Had Biggar been playing outside the Pro14 the last couple of years, it would not surprise me to see Davies (IRB Junior Player of the Year 2013) starting for Wales on a more regular basis.

Gatland’s Law also puts players in a difficult position come contract negotiation time. Even with the Welsh dual-contracts, the Regions cannot afford to pay the same salaries that Premiership/Top 14 clubs can. A rugby player’s career is finite and playing the game for a long period is highly likely to cause health problems later in life. For those reasons can a player really be blamed for wanting to leave Wales for a more lucrative contract? I used the word ‘blackmail’ earlier in the article and while that may be a bit of a strong word, I’m sure that some players must have felt that they are in a difficult position when trying to arrange their future.

Finally, the national team as a whole does lose out if players choose to move abroad, as they are limited to just 3 wild card selections from outside Wales. By my count, Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland will currently all be fighting for wildcard spots next season. There have been rumours swirling in recent weeks that Rhys Webb will moving to England or France when his contract expires this summer. Even if we ignore Roberts and Priestland, that’s already 4 starters fighting for 3 places. Who benefits from that? Certainly not the player or the national team.

The Ugly

There may actually be more regular internationals at risk from Gatland’s Law than I have mentioned above, however I am not certain due to one very worrying reason: nobody seems to know all of the conditions! Luke Charteris has moved to Bath since this was brought in yet he appears to be eligible for the national team without being a wildcard. My previous understanding was that if an exiled player chose to re-sign with the same club then he was still eligible for Wales, it was only if he moved to another club outside Wales that he became a wildcard, yet some of the articles I read to research this suggested that any new contract outside of Wales made you a wildcard. As a Gloucester fan hoping that Ross Moriarty signs an extension sooner rather than later, I would love to have some clarity relating to this! I also saw one article that suggested whether signing a new contract outside Wales made you a wildcard depended on there being a competitive offer from Wales at the same time. If that is the case, then what represents a competitive offer? If a player is offered a contract that makes him the best-paid player in the regions, but he can still get double the wage in England/France, then does that get considered a competitive offer?

Being an Englishman, I assumed that I was simply missing something that was common knowledge to Welsh fans so asked my go-to Welsh rugby expert what the situation was… He didn’t know either!

How is a fan meant to get on board with something if nobody knows the ins and outs. I remember when there was confusion over the RFU’s wording of ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a player outside of England to play for the national team, but that has since been cleared up. Now players, coaches and fans all know that you must be playing in England in order to be selected, so everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet.

 

I can see that there are some obvious benefits to keeping players within the country, but feel that something needs to be changed with Gatland’s Law. One way would be to go down the RFUs route of excluding anyone playing outside the country, however due to there only being 4 Regions compared to 12 Premiership teams I think the WRU would benefit from a selection policy similar to that of the ARU. Under the ARU’s selection policy, a player is eligible to play for Australia if they:

  • Play within Australia
  • Play outside Australia, but have held a professional contract with Australian rugby for at least 7 years and have played 60 or more Tests
  • Returns to Australia from exile on a contract that is at least 2 years long

This rewards those players who have been regulars for the national team by allowing them the chance to search for a more lucrative contract elsewhere while still being eligible for the national team, opening up a space for a talented youngster within the country’s top flight setup. Considering the WRU has for years allowed its players to go abroad, I would suggest leaving out the necessity for players to have held a professional contract within Wales for 7 years. I would also suggest perhaps a slightly lower number of caps, perhaps making the mark 50 caps as this is already a big milestone for a player to reach so would be a good way for the WRU to celebrate a player and thank them for their service.

I’m sure Gatland’s Law will continue to divide opinion amongst fans, so I would love to hear your opinions. What selection criteria (if any) would you apply if you were in charge of the WRU?

Welcome to the Pro14

The worst kept secret in rugby was confirmed yesterday as it was announced that the Pro12 will be expanding to the Pro14 with the inclusion of dropped South African Super Rugby franchises, the Kings and the Cheetahs. It was also announced (weeks after the story originally broke) that the league will be split into 2 conferences.

 

For those who haven’t yet seen the new league structure I recommend watching the video on the Pro14 YouTube page, but I will try to explain it here.

The league has been split into 2 conferences, each containing 2 teams from Wales & Ireland and 1 from Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Each season the conferences will be reorganised according to last season’s results. For the 2017/18 season, the conferences will be:

Conference A: Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre, Cheetahs

Conference B: Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Treviso, Kings

Each team will play home and away fixtures against everybody in their conference (12 games), and then either home or away against each team from the other conference (7 games). Derby games are being protected, so there will be a further 2 games per team to ensure that they play home and away against every team from their country. In the case of the Scottish, South African and Italian clubs, they will play their derby match 3 times in total to make the same total of 21 games due to there being less derbies than for the Welsh/Irish.

The playoffs will span 3 weeks, with the quarter-finals and semi-finals staying within the conference and the final being the only time the conferences play against each other in the playoffs. The quarter finals will see the 3rd placed team play at the 2nd placed team, with the winner playing at the 1st placed team in the semi-final.

Still following what I’m saying?

The Kings and Cheetahs will not be able to qualify for Europe. Champions Cup qualification will go to the top 3 non-South African clubs from each conference, with the final qualification spot going to the team that has not already qualified with the highest points tally. The remaining non-South African teams will qualify for the Challenge Cup.

Phew, there we go! That was not easy to describe, but still easier than Super Rugby has been since its last expansion!

 

People who have read some of my previous articles or spoken to me will know that I’ve not been a fan of the expansion into South Africa, but I do understand that the money it will bring to the league will be important when trying to compete against the Premiership and the Top 14. Some of my biggest worries have been about the logistics and the effect on European qualification, but it looks like some of these things are being dealt with.

As South Africa are only a couple of hours ahead, the plan is for teams to fly overnight and have a full week between matches in order to reduce the chance of jet lag. I have also heard that when possible the fixtures will be arranged so that European clubs can do both South African away matches in one trip, similar to the way Toronto Wolfpack’s home and away fixtures were arranged in blocks. It may not be ideal, but it’s good to see that officials have thought about this before going ahead.

I’m a bit surprised that for European qualification the 2 conferences have not been combined into an overall table, as under the planned qualification process it is possible that if one conference is stronger, teams from the weaker conference could qualify for the Champions Cup instead of more successful teams from the stronger conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is something that is looked at in future years once the structure is settled and clearly working.

I do also worry about how the South African clubs will perform. While they may benefit from other clubs losing players during the 6 Nations, they will instead be missing their internationals near the start of the season during the Rugby Championship. Both franchises also supply squads to the Currie Cup, which is played from June to October. To be playing Southern Hemisphere rugby competitions during the Northern Hemisphere preseason and the start of the season will put a large strain on the Kings and Cheetahs players, which could seriously limit their effectiveness. If there was a global season then I don’t think this would be such an issue, however with the different seasons for the 2 Hemispheres this could cause some issues!

 

Right now my biggest worry is the way the Pro14 already seems to be looking to grow. There have already been mentions of this as laying the foundations for years to come and being the first phase of expansion. The league has only just been announced, they have no guarantee it will be a success and yet they already seem to be looking for extra teams. Even the YouTube explanation mentions how a conference makes it easier to add new teams! Super Rugby have proved that expansion done wrong can be an awful idea, Pro14 need to take a couple of years of this format to ensure that it is working before looking to expand any further. If things don’t work out financially for Zebre this year (it’s been a difficult summer for them) then I can see them being replaced – hopefully by a European franchise – but the league needs a settled set of clubs to get the fans on board with the new structure.

Most importantly… When they do expand again, they need to make sure it’s sorted much earlier than a month before the season starts!

 

I may not be fully on board with the Pro14 yet, but I will give it every chance to succeed. For the sake of the clubs and the fans, I really hope it does.

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro12 semi-finals

What a weekend of rugby UK fans have been treated to! In the Premiership, the semi-finals were decided by a combined 3 points, with both games being won by tries in the dying minutes. Meanwhile in the Pro12, the Scarlets became the first team in tournament history to win a semi-final away from home, despite playing over half the game a man down! Munster also kept their remarkable story going by beating Ospreys to make the final in a season where they have had to deal with the passing of Head Coach Anthony Foley.

I was lucky enough to have this weekend off work so was able to watch the first 3 games live on TV and record the Munster game in order to watch later, even if this did mean I had to make do with an S4C broadcast with no English commentary. With the finals on Saturday and the Lions tour beginning soon after, here are my thoughts on the weekend’s semi-finals.

 

Leinster 15 – 27 Scarlets

What a fantastic (and thoroughly deserved) result for the Scarlets! Their performance could very easily be described as a game of two halves: In the first half the Scarlets took full advantage of every time they were able to rip through the Leinster defence with a combination of great support lines and exquisite handling. Steff Evans’ red card just before halftime meant that the Scarlets had to change their approach in the second half and their dogged defence was as impressive as their attack had been in the first 40! James Davies was rightly named Man of the Match after being a nuisance at the breakdown and using his sevens experience to help cover the wing in Evans’ absence. Leinster’s tactics may have played into the Welsh region’s hands, but to outscore them in the second half despite being a man down is no mean feat! Next week’s final may be a step too far, but if the Scarlets can pull out another performance like on Friday night, anything is possible.

One man who probably didn’t enjoy this game was Warren Gatland. With the first Lions game mere weeks away, Johnny Sexton had a thoroughly forgettable performance against the Scarlets and seemed to suffer a couple of knocks. If he can barely make it through a Pro12 match, how he can be expected to survive a Lions Tour to New Zealand is a mystery to me! As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also witnessed two of his selected props, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, leave the field earlier than planned with injuries. Furlong is a likely Test starter for the Lions and McGrath has every chance of making the 23, so Gatland will surely be hoping that neither of these injuries is serious.

Munster 23 – 3 Ospreys

The score probably flatters Munster, but they were the better team on the day. Ospreys clearly came with the intention to play positive rugby but often couldn’t even do the basics right! So many attacks were over before they even began courtesy of handling errors or a lack of support. Possibly the worst moment from this perspective was a line-out that floated past an oblivious Alun Wyn Jones and hit Bradley Davies on his behind, somehow I doubt that was the move they called. Brendon Leonard, deputising for the injured Rhys Webb, had an evening to forget, failing to catch a relatively simple pass off the top of a line out early on and sailing a number of kicks too long, allowing the Munster players to call a Mark. Dan Biggar was largely ineffective too, so I was surprised to see the coaches replace him with Sam Davies so late in the game, by which point Munster’s victory was as good as confirmed.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Francis Saili was named Man of the Match as he had a fantastic game. Despite being penalised early for a tackle off the ball (a penalty that I felt should have gone the other way as Biggar was in front of the ball carrier so technically obstructing Saili), the Kiwi continued to interrupt the Ospreys midfield with a number of big hits, whilst often looking dangerous going forward. His try in the first half was very well taken, to pick up a bobbling ball without knocking on and then have the strength to power over the line. With performances like this, it is crazy to think that Munster have chosen to let him go! I’m sure that, much like Ulster with Ruan Pienaar, if there was less strictness from the IRFU surrounding foreign imports then he would have still been with the province next year.

 

Exeter 18 – 16 Saracens

This was probably the day where Saracens’ success proved to be their undoing. With so many internationals in the squad and having gone all the way in this season’s European Champions Cup, it appears that this was a match too far for the defending Champions. Already missing defensive linchpin Brad Barritt, losing both Michael Rhodes and departing winger Chris Ashton in the opening 10 minutes was always going to make things difficult. Despite this, they still came within a minute of victory and if it wasn’t for such a ballsy kick from Henry Slade they likely would have held on. The introduction of Schalk Brits really improved Sarries’ attack, I just feel that if they had also replaced Richard Wigglesworth with the more attacking Ben Spencer midway through the second half then they could have caused the Exeter defence more issues.

Last May, it is fair to say that Exeter were somewhat overawed in the final and it took them far too long to get into the game. While it took them a while to get going again, they grew into the game much quicker and by the end of the first quarter were as competitive as Saracens. Possibly the most impressive thing about the Exeter performance was the way they kept their heads up after Mike Ellery’s late try. To win the big games, it is important to have clutch players, and Henry Slade proved how clutch he was with that penalty kick from his own 10m line to give the Chiefs a line-out just short of the Saracens 5m line. Even then, the forwards did a fantastic job not to get too excited and give away a stupid penalty on their way to crossing the try line. Wasps may be the favourites in the final, but write off Exeter at your peril!

Wasps 21 – 20 – Leicester

Before kickoff, I fully expected Wasps to run away with this game, a feeling that was strengthened when they took an early lead. However, Tigers proved me completely wrong and did so well to come within a few minutes of victory. It must be remembered as well the quality of player missing from the 23 through injury. When on form, Maxime Mermoz, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen could walk into most Premiership teams. Tom Youngs’ personal issues would have been a fair reason to finish the season early, and it was a testament to his character to see him not just play, but also perform so well. What must also be mentioned is the reception that Youngs got from both home and away fans. The BT Sport commentary noted that the cheer for Tom Youngs was almost as loud as the ones for the home players when the teams were announced, and the way he was cheered when leaving the field made me proud to be a rugby fan.

The 2016/17 Wasps back line is possibly one of the most exciting things that I have ever seen in professional rugby. However for much of the game they played into Tigers’ hands by playing a tight game rather than the expansive rugby we are used to. In the last 20 minutes they finally began to spread the ball and were rewarded with the winning try. They will certainly be hoping that Kurtley Beale’s injury was nothing serious as he is a quality player who brings so much to the Wasps attack. Perhaps their biggest worry ahead of the final will be the scrum. They have struggled with injuries in the front row this season and this is arguably the weakest area of the squad. Tigers had some fortune in the scrum and Exeter looked very impressive in this area against Sarries, so Wasps need to do everything they can to get the ball out as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoid the scrums in the first place!

 

What were your thoughts on the games? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

Pro12 Rugby Ramble

So I know most of my posts end up being long enough to be considered a novel. Trust me, I don’t plan on them being so long, it just happens! So this is the first in a new series of ‘Rambles’. These will be entries with a few short posts all with some common thread, ususally about something that I’ve noticed in the news and want to write about but won’t be able to make into a long enough article to merit their own post.

 

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to follow the Pro12 as much as I hoped to this past season, but there have been a few stories going round the last few days that I felt I had to talk about:

 

Pienaar’s farewell

With Ulster unable to secure a top-4 spot this season, Ruan Pienaar’s time in Ireland has come to an emotional end. After 7 years at Ulster, the 32-year-old will be leaving the province after the IRFU blocked a move to offer him a new contract. At his age and with a young family, this next contract will almost surely been his last, and it has been very clear that the former Springbok wanted to stay at Ulster.

I understand that the IRFU want to encourage home-grown talent, but there are already a number of young Irish scrum halves coming through to back up current internationals Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion, surely they could have had a bit more sentimentality in this situation.

Though they have had a number of quality players over the years, Pienaar could arguably considered Ulster’s franchise player. His experience and leadership, not to mention his reliable kicking from the tee, has helped propel Ulster into a period where they have been able to stand alongside the more well-known provinces of Munster and Leinster.

It’s only fitting that as he joins the mass of quality players moving to France, he has been named in the Pro12 Dream Team as well as being awarded the Try of the Season for his effort against Glasgow. Ireland, and the Pro12 as a whole, is losing a fantastic player.

Best of luck in the future Ruan!

 

Axing the Italians

Another day, another story about throwing Italian rugby teams out of a top-level league!

This time, rather than throwing Italy out of the 6 Nations, the discussion revolves around axing the Italian teams, Zebre and Treviso, from the Pro12. Possible replacements that have been mentioned in recent weeks have been South Africa’s axed Super Rugby sides, or possibly franchises in the USA or Canada.

While I do appreciate that the Italian teams have not improved as everyone would have hoped, to give up on Italian rugby when there are clearly players of quality coming through does not seem right, especially if they were to be replaced with a long-distance team rather than other local teams! Much like SANZAAR’s protection of the Sunwolves, this sounds more like a matter of money than rugby.

While I don’t like the idea of axing the Italians, I can understand that change is probably needed. My suggestion would be to create an Italian version of the Jaguares: a single franchise that has most of the Italian national team on its books, so they are used to playing regular rugby together. The other place in the league could then be taken by a similar franchise from another emerging rugby nation, such as Georgia, Romania or Russia. This would allow for a number of lower-tier countries to get their players building good chemistry to take from the club competition into international matches, whilst also allowing the players to get regular experience against international calibre players at club level.

 

What are your thoughts on these stories? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge