Pick a Squad: 2019/20 Scarlets

Pick a Squad: 2019/20 Scarlets

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, my need for rugby is still struggling to be met, despite recent stories surrounding player movements and Bill Beaumont’s re-election. As if I needed any further proof about how much my life revolves around rugby, I’ve noticed how my WhatsApp chats with one of my close friends Gez have gone from pretty much daily and going on for hours, to a couple of hours per week.

So in search of a reason to keep conversation going, it was time to look at another “Pick a Squad” (not the catchiest of names but I’ve been doing so many of these I needed to think of something!) and take a look at the team he supports: the Scarlets, who have also become my PRO14 team of choice over the last 10 years.

For this, we have looked at this season’s squads and each put together what we think would be our ideal 23-man matchday squads, assuming everyone was fully fit at the same time. I’ll be comparing mine and Gez’s picks (Spoiler: there is a lot of agreement, which is actually rare for us when it comes to Welsh rugby!) so Gez’s selections will be shown in brackets and red.

1: Rob Evans (Rob Evans):- There were 2 clear ways to go at loosehead, with Rob Evans and Wyn Jones both in or around the national team in recent years. Surprisingly, we both went for Evans as the starter and I imagine that a key reason for this is his carrying in the loose, which fits very well in an open attacking team like the Scarlets.

2: Ken Owens (Ken Owens):- Of course “The Sheriff” takes this spot! Owens is one of those players who leads by example and will do what is required of him by the team – I always remember when he had a stint at number 8 during an injury crisis a few seasons ago.

3: Samson Lee (Samson Lee):- He may have fallen out of favour with the national team, but Samson Lee is a unanimous vote here. The tighthead has impressive hands for a prop and car carry well into the defensive line to help the team get on the front foot.

4 & 5: Jake Ball & Sam Lousi (Jake Ball & Sam Lousi):- I get the feeling that Jake Ball was the nailed on pick for both of us here. Though he wouldn’t personally make my Welsh 23 (which may be something I look at if this lockdown continues much longer), he brings physicality to the pack and will carry and tackle hard. Though he needs to watch his discipline, Sam Lousi got the vote from both of us as he is a player who has played at a high level recently for the Hurricanes, while looking very good for Tonga in the Rugby World Cup. At 28, he is just entering his prime and once fully settled could become a key member of the pack.

6: Aaron Shingler (Aaron Shingler):- At times, there were thoughts that he wouldn’t be able to come back from a knee injury suffered in 2018’s PRO14 final, but he is back now and has fully earned his place in the 6 shirt. A dynamic blindside who is also a key operator at the lineout, he provides something different than most Home Nations 6s.

7: James Davies (James Davies):- A favourite of both of us, the fact that “Cubby” has just a handful of caps to his name shows just how deep Wales are at openside. Davies is a highly talented jackal but his key point is his ability to get around the park from his time playing on the World Sevens Series for Wales and in the Olympics for Team GB – I remember one match where he was moved from the pack to wing following a red card in the first half and covered the position better than many specialised wingers would have.

8: Blade Thomson (Blade Thomson):- I did wonder if Thomson’s versatility (he can cover lock, blindside and number 8) would count against him here, but the Scottish international gets the number 8 shirt by unanimous vote. Injuries may have hampered recent seasons, but the former New Zealand U20s and Maori All Blacks back row provides a physical challenge while also being able to open his stride in space to harm a defence. If he can get a period of clean health, fans will get a chance to see his true potential.

9: Gareth Davies (Gareth Davies):- The fact that Davies’ spot in the Wales 23 is now at risk just shows the quality of scrum halves Wayne Pivac has to pick from. Though I am not a fan of Davies in his more combative moments and think that his kicking game needs some work, he is a great attacking threat But his true value comes in defence, where his tackle numbers are what you’d expect from a back row, while he positions himself and times his runs so well, he gets in his opposite number’s mind and is always good value to pick off a pass from the back of a ruck and take it back to the house.

10: Rhys Patchell (Rhys Patchell):- Another to have had his injury issues in recent years, Patchell is such a talented playmaker who will take the ball to the line to create a gap to put his runners through. A regular in recent Welsh squads when fit, it will be interesting to see where he fits in the national team’s pecking order once Gareth Anscombe returns from injury.

11: Steff Evans (Steff Evans):- He fell down the pecking order a few years ago but has done well to pull himself back up and ends up getting a starting spot in a very deep back 3. Evans is a great attacking talent with the footwork to beat some of the best defenders. At just 25, he still has time to work on the defensive side of his game to get back into international contention.

12: Hadleigh Parkes (Hadleigh Parkes):- Let’s be honest, there were never going to be any surprises in the midfield as things stand, though things could get interesting soon with rumours of a move to Japan. Parkes has not had the best of seasons and the enforced break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is probably what he needed, as he has been one of Wales and the Scarlets’ best players in recent years. Parkes is a strong and willing carrier but the key point here is his defence, where he makes a solid midfield pairing with…

13: Jonathan Davies (Jonathan Davies):- One of the best 13s in World Rugby when fully fit, “Fox” brings solid defence and skilful attack to the midfield, while he also has a cultured left boot to help in the territory game. One of the easiest picks to make.

14: Johnny McNicholl (Johnny McNicholl):- One of the key players for the Scarlets in recent years, McNicholl is a fantastic attacking talent either at wing of fullback. He hasn’t had the best of starts for Wales since becoming eligible, but I think it’s just a matter of time before he begins to shine there too.

15: Liam Williams (Liam Williams):- The lockdown may mean that he hasn’t played for the Scarlets since re-signing as the first stage of Saracens attempts to stop cheating their way to victory, but he is contracted to the region and therefore eligible for selection, taking the 15 shirt ahead of Leigh Halfpenny. Like with Gareth Davies, I’m not the biggest fan of the way he comes across on the pitch, but he is an undeniable talent and a great player for the Scarlets to get back on their books despite already having options in the back 3.

 

16: Ryan Elias (Ryan Elias):- If Elias is getting selected by the national team despite being the understudy at regional level, it shows just how much talent he has. Owens and Elias very much pick themselves in this squad, and it will be interesting to see how long he is willing to remain second fiddle to his captain.

17 & 18: Wyn Jones & Werner Kruger (Dylan Evans & Wyn Jones):- Having just missed out on a stating spot, Jones clearly secures a spot on the bench, bringing international quality to the pitch as the opposition front row begins to tire. One extra benefit of Jones is his ability to play both sides of the scrum, which has led to our first difference in selection as Gez and I pick our other replacement prop. I have chosen to keep Jones on his preferred side of the scrum and partner him with South African tighthead Werner Kruger, who has been a regular for the Scarlets and the Bulls before that, while Gez has preferred to go with experienced loosehead Dylan Evans.

19: Tevita Ratuva (Lewis Rawlings):- Gez and I have gone different routes for the replacement lock position. I have favoured the youthful promise and natural talent of Fijian Ratuva, who has just turned 25, while Gez has gone for the more experienced Rawlings, who also provides some cover at blindside.

20: Uzair Cassiem (Josh Macleod):- I’m not to surprise to see us differ with this pick due to the quality of options available – even I was struggling between 3 picks until the moment I had to finalise my picks. Dan Davis is a talent I really rate, but at 21 he is the future and just misses out. Josh Macleod is a great young pick and I expect to see him fighting for a starting spot over the next couple of years, so I can understand why Gez picked him. I have instead gone for Cassiem, as he is a more experienced option while I also feel that he provides a bit more versatility than the other options (including number 8), increasing the tactical flexibility of the squad.

21: Kieran Hardy (Kieran Hardy):- Hardy has looked a phenomenal talent in the matches that I have seen and showed his quality by making experienced scum half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne surplus to requirements. Having the benefit of being able to learn from Gareth Davies and then take the reins during international windows is giving Hardy the perfect chance to succeed and I look forward to seeing how he progresses over the coming seasons.

22: Angus O’Brien (Angus O’Brien):- Dan Jones on form is a quality player but you can’t always guarantee that he’ll be at that level. O’Brien gets the nod from both of us here due to a greater consistency, while he is also able to cover 15, giving extra tactical flexibility.

23: Kieron Fonotia (Leigh Halfpenny):- And finally we reach the position that actually caused the most debate between Gez and I. Gez has understandably gone for Halfpenny due to his years of top level experience and the amount of money going onto his contract. While Halfpenny is a great pick, I felt that he was somewhat redundant technically due to Liam Williams being able to move to the wing and Angus O’Brien covering 15 (while Halfpenny would not be able to take the 22 shirt due to not being a legitimate option at 10), so I have instead looked to provide cover for the midfield in Fonotia, who provides a great experienced option off the bench or if one of the starting centres is unavailable.

 

Who would make your 23?

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

For the last couple of years, I have been previewing the new Premiership Rugby season with a look at some of the players new to their clubs who I think you should keep an eye on this season. While I will be doing that again this summer, I decided that it was time to branch out to the Pro14 as well. As with the Premiership articles, I will limit myself to just one player per team, which definitely leads to some difficult decisions – looking at you, Cardiff Blues! I will also add that Gareth Anscombe was a shoe-in for this list, but the injury suffered in Wales’ Rugby World Cup warm-up against England will see him miss the vast majority of the season, so I took him off the list.

Let me know which new transfers you’re looking forward to watching this season.

Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier – Cheetahs)

The South African scrum half was a fan-favourite at Ulster but fell afoul of the IRFU’s selection policies, which led to a move to France. Now he is making his way back to the league, but this time will be based in his home country with the Toyota Cheetahs. At 35 years old, this 2 year contract will likely take him to the end of his professional career, and that top-level experience will be vital for the Cheetahs if they want to push for the playoffs.

Josh Adams (Worcester – Cardiff Blues)

Between Will Boyde, Hallam Amos and Josh Adams, it was hard to narrow it down to just a single player from Cardiff, but Adams eventually got the nod. After a couple of strong seasons with Worcester – who are generally competing to avoid relegation from the Premiership – Adams has done well for Wales and knew that a move back to Wales was required to remain in the national team. A proven try scorer, Adams is a great attacking winger who is also able to play fullback, but is also a strong defender who has got used to dealing with some of the larger wingers of the Premiership. Provided he gets the help from his teammates, I think that he will be a star once he returns from World Cup duty.

Sam Davies (Ospreys – Dragons)

Go back a few seasons and Sam Davies was competing with Dan Biggar for the starting job with Wales. Now, injuries and a drop in form have seen him fall behind Biggar, Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans. With Anscombe coming to take control of the Ospreys, a move to perennial underachievers the Dragons could be a career-defining move for the 25-year-old. With Wayne Pivac taking over as Wales head coach after the World Cup, a fresh start at the Dragons could be just what Davies needs and if he can pull them up the standings then it could bring him back into contention for the national team, however if the Dragons continue to struggle (it wouldn’t be the first time) then he could find himself struggling to earn another cap anytime soon.

Charlie Walker (Harlequins – Zebre)

After years of good performances, it was a shock to see Charlie Walker leaving Harlequins. What was even more shocking was the moment his new team was announced as Zebre. This was a player I fully expected another Premiership team to pick up and I even discussed with friends how happy I would be with him moving to Gloucester! At 26, he has pace to worry defences and years of Premiership experience that will be a big help for a team that finished bottom of the combined table in 2018/19.

Demetri Catrakilis (Harlequins – Kings)

When Catrakilis moved to Quins from Montpellier, it looked like he would be the main man in London. However a throat injury early in the season kept him out for months, leading to the rise of Marcus Smith. Once he returned, he was never able to recapture his pre-injury form and a change of scenery back to the Southern Kings will hopefully do wonders for his career. The Kings have been the worst team in the Pro14 since its inception, but bringing in an experienced fly half who was in the Springboks training squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup could be just what they need to become more competitive and potentially pick up some wins in the opening weeks while teams are without their internationals.

Sam Lousi (Hurricanes – Scarlets)

After 5 backs, I needed to make sure that the forwards have some representation on the list. Last season’s signing from the Hurricanes, Blade Thompson, showed some real promise for the Scarlets before his season was ruined by concussion issues. This summer sees another signing from the ‘Canes in the form of former rugby league player Sam Lousi. The Scarlets have a quality back line but 2018/19 saw them struggle as their pack was ravaged by injury and the loss of Tadhg Beirne to Munster. Adding a physical presence like Lousi at lock will be a huge factor in them trying to get back into the Champions Cup.

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

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.

Finding a Fly Half

Finding a Fly Half

The Scarlets’ Champions Cup campaign has not started how they would have hoped. After a late penalty try gave Racing 92 the victory at Parc y Scarlets in Round 1, they were blown away at Welford Road by Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester Tigers and currently find themselves bottom of their pool with just 1 losing bonus point to their name. While they have undoubtedly been hurt by the loss of injured duo James Davies and Aaron Shingler from the back row (combined with Tadhg Beirne’s move to Munster), I would argue that their biggest struggle over the opening 2 rounds has been at fly half.

Rhys Patchell has missed both matches due to injury and his replacements Dan Jones and Angus O’Brien have not come close to effectively filling his boots. Against Racing, O’Brien looked nervous in poor conditions and was then unfortunate enough to suffer an ACL injury just before halftime which has likely ended his season. Jones was a big part of the team’s success last year but at the moment does not appear to be in a good run of form and does not appear to be able to get the back line going – something crucial to the region’s recent success. Between injuries and international duties, Patchell is likely to miss time this season and with O’Brien also out, there are no other recognised 10s in the Scarlets squad, centre Steffan Hughes coming on towards the end of the Tigers match.

Watching the Tigers game, I couldn’t help feel that the Scarlets need to get another 10 in for the rest of the season, either on a permanent basis or even just a loan. They could potentially go for a player from the Welsh Premier Division, but if they want continued success I think they would do better finding a player already used to top-tier rugby, so have pulled together a couple of potential options.

Matthew Morgan/Steven Shingler – Cardiff Blues

If you are looking for experience of the league, these woud be the best bets. With Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe the preferred options at 10, it leaved limited minutes for Morgan and Shingler. The sheer number of quality fly halves may even make the Blues willing to part with one of their talents as they have the depth to cover the position even when Anscombe is away with Wales. For Shingler, it would be an opportunity to play alongside older brother Aaron, while Morgan is a talented attacker who could shine in the Scarlets back line.

Jason Tovey – Cross Keys

I was honestly shocked when I found out Tovey was currently playing in the Welsh Premier Division! At 29 and with experience playing in the league for the Dragons (two stints), Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh, he clearly knows the league well and can still bring something to the Scarlets. While he may not be as attacking as Patchell, he is a reliable 10 and his tactical kicking could be just what they need in a harder match. The only problem here is that the Scarlets may have left it too late, as it is looking increasingly likely that Tovey will be starting a third stint with the Dragons as they look to cover their own injuries at the position.

Demetri Catrakilis – Harlequins

Brought in to the Stoop from Montpellier to replace Nick Evans, the South African was unfortunate to pick up an injury early in his Quins career that led to the emergence of Marcus Smith. Add to that the further development of James Lang and Catrakilis looks to be third choice this season having struggled somewhat when he got on the pitch. Now aged 29, could a change of scenery be just what he needs to revitalise his career? He is a highly experienced player and featured in a few South Africa training camps when younger and his experience of playing in South Africa could benefit the Scarlets when they are facing the Kings and the Cheetahs. However, considering Smith has featured in the England squad as an apprentice player and Lang was capped by Scotland in the Summer Tests, I doubt they would want to let Catrakilis go and risk leaving themselves short in the case of international call-ups.

Owen Williams/Lloyd Evans – Gloucester

Like with Cardiff, Gloucester have options at 10 with Danny Cipriani looking set to get the majority of the minutes and still not in line for an England spot, while Billy Twelvetrees looks back to form and can also cover the position. Gloucester were willing to let Billy Burns go to Ulster and could potentially afford to let either Williams or Evans to go. Williams would be the more attractive signing due to his experience and big boot from the tee (handy when Leigh Halfpenny is unavailable) while he has also spent a lot of time at 12, allowing the Scarlets some flexibility during the internationals. Not only that, but it would likely be an attractive move for the player too, as the increased minutes and playing in Wales may help to put him back on Warren Gatland’s radar. Evans may not have the experience of the other names on the list, but he is also training as part of a Gloucester team that it looking to play attractive rugby anywhere on the pitch – sound familiar Scarlets fans? The one issue right now would be the potential unavailability of Cipriani as he is likely to receive a ban following his red card against Munster and could still come into the England squad, so Gloucester may not be willing to spread themselves too thin in the midfield.

Max Malins – Saracens

Potentially the England 10 of the next generation, Malins will find his first team opportunities limited this season with Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Alex Goode all seeing time at the position. He has a good all-round game and has impressed when given a chance with the first team while excelling with England U20s. The issue here would be that I can’t see Sarries wanting to let go of such a talent on anything more than a season-long loan, while I doubt Malins would want to leave England long-term as this could push him back on his pathway to the senior England squad.

Jamie Shillcock – Worcester

At just 21 years old, Shillcock already has a decent amount of Premiership experience due to Worcester’s issues at 10 in recent seasons. Now with Jono Lance and Duncan Weir both at Sixways and depth in the centre allowing Ryan Mills to also cover 10, suddenly opportunities look more limited for the youngster. With so many players in front of him and none of them likely to disappear during the internationals a move away to a team like the Scarlets could be just what he needs to further his career, either in a short- or long-term capacity.

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

feat20180526_165511