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Friday, 4 January 2019

Scarlets: what's gone wrong this season?

Scarlets: what's gone wrong this season?

By @rhigarthjones

Scarlets are out of Europe, 19 points adrift of the top in Conference A, have been beaten twice in the Christmas regional derbies, won only six victories in 16 matches, and have lost their two-year unbeaten record at home. Some of their fans booed them off the field following the 34-5 home defeat by Cardiff Blues. It would be quite an understatement to call it a disappointing start to the season. So what’s gone wrong?

A lot of the analysis has focused on Wayne Pivac being made Head Coach of Wales after the Rugby World Cup. He’s also taking Stephen Jones and Byron Hayward with him from Scarlets, which might be a destabilising factor. But Blues’ players knew that Head Coach Danny Wilson was leaving them last season and it didn’t stop them from reaching a European Champions Cup spot in the league or winning the Challenge Cup.

And why would Scarlets’ players down tools for men who will be in charge of their international career soon anyway? It’s possible there are some man-management issues but the problems seem much greater than the players’ suddenly being unwilling to play for the coaches who made them one of the best teams in Europe and will be responsible for their international futures.

Squad goals

Scarlets’ thrilling brand of attacking rugby has made them the darlings of neutrals for a few years now, particularly after that memorable run to the Pro12 title in 2017 where they overcame both Leinster and Munster away to win the league. It’s been clear for a long time, though, that the lack of ball-carrying options was a problem, especially in Europe, and that their success would mean more and more players being absent during the international season.

Over the summer, they looked to resolve both these issues by recruiting non-Wales qualified players with more ball-carrying ability. Blade Thomson, Uzair Cassiem, Ed Kennedy, and Kieron Fonotia were all intended to bring a greater physical edge to the game-plan, while retaining the skill-set necessary to fit Scarlets all-court style.

Meanwhile, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Clayton Blommetjies, Kieran Hardy, and Angus O’Brien were all supposed to be there to shore up the squad during the international window and provide competition for places. John Barclay, Tadhg Beirne, Aled Davies, and Scott Williams were always going to be very difficult acts to follow but the recruitment looked sound. The squad looked deeper.

In the second match of the season, with many internationals still in pre-season, Scarlets took on Leinster at home and beat them in a match that combined length-of-the-field counter-attacks with some very physical play. It looked like they’d learned the lessons of the two defeats by
Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-final and Pro14 final the season before and come up with a Plan B. Fonotia, Kennedy, and Thomson played their part and it looked like the summer recruitment was a success. But it’s been all downhill since there.

Hitting where it hurts

A number of players were injured in that match, adding to a sizeable list of injuries carried over from last season and the summer. Since then, more have been added than removed to the list. During the derby with Cardiff Blues, Sam Warburton pointed out that even Leinster would struggle with the injury list currently plaguing Scarlets. And we saw last season that even Saracens weren’t immune to this problem, even with their sizeable squad, as they stumbled to seven successive losses and were knocked out of the Champions Cup in the quarter-finals, having only scraped through by the skin of their teeth.

At the moment, the players missing for Scarlets include:
Forwards: Jake Ball, Will Boyde, Uzair Cassiem, Steve Cummins, James Davies, Josh Macleod, Lewis Rawlins, Aaron Shingler, Blade Thomson;
Backs: Clayton Blommetjies, Jonathan Evans, Kieron Fonotia, Leigh Halfpenny, Angus O'Brien, Rhys Patchell.
That’s basically the first choice back-five, the fly-half, and kicker, as well as a number of matchday squad members. Paul Asquith, Jonathan Davies, Rob Evans, Wyn Jones, Ed Kennedy, Samson Lee, Johnny McNichol, and Tom Prydie are other first team players who have missed action for a few weeks this season.

That’s a brutal injury list even by the standards of modern rugby and all the coming and going means the new players haven’t had time to gel with their new teammates – when they’re even fit to play.

On the other hand, Saracens still qualified from their Champions Cup group with their injury list last season. They remained in the play-off spots for the then-Aviva Premiership. Leinster’s B-team, meanwhile, has won a number of victories home and away this season, and have scored more than 50 points a few times. They might struggle with losing a similar number of key players but it’s hard to imagine them struggling as much as Scarlets are doing. A team with Scarlets’ ambitions and squad shouldn’t be struggling this much, even with all those injuries.

The turnover kings are turned over

A huge part of Scarlets’ success has been their broken field play off turnover ball. Tadhg Beirne and James Davies have been the two undisputed kings of the breakdown in the Pro14 for the past two seasons and they were ably assisted by John Barclay and Aaron Shingler, among others. Losing all of those players (to transfers and injuries) has had a huge impact. Moreover, their obvious replacements have also been injured.

That means that Scarlets have gone into a number of games without a recognised jackal and with four locks in the back five. For a team whose Plan A is so reliant on turnovers, that’s a big problem. It was most obvious against Cardiff Blues and their many jackalers but it’s an issue
that’s been apparent all season, with Scarlets struggling to defend and losing all initiative in attack.

Injuries to the supposed ball-carriers have only exacerbated this problem, preventing the Plan B that fans saw against Leinster. Poor work at the breakdown combined with an inability to get over the gainline means the attack has gone side-to-side before petering out, and opposing teams have been able to score too easily.

A desire to shore up the defence and ball-carrying seems to be the reason Hadleigh Parkes has been picked at 10 recently but the experiment hasn’t been a thrilling success. Injuries to Rhys Patchell and then Kieron Fonotia meant the experiment was curtailed in successive games but Parkes hasn’t looked a natural at fly-half and results haven’t improved.

Player problems?

The last issue raises another point: what’s happening with Steff Evans and Dan Jones? The diminutive winger and former U20s fly-half have been stalwarts of Pivac’s last two campaigns with Scarlets but Parkes, normally a centre, has been preferred to Jones at fly-half and Evans has only made two starts this season (although he has played every match of the ill-fated European campaign).

A lack of fitness was the original explanation for Evans but it seems deeper that that, with Pivac giving evasive answers, suggesting he has aspects of his game that need working, particularly without the ball. Evans is a fan favourite in West Wales but most would acknowledge his defence has problems. On the other hand, he has been one of the best try-scorers in the Pro14 for the past two seasons and you’d think his attack would put him ahead of Ioan Nicholas on the bench, at least.

Jones, however, has been a steady hand at the tiller in a number of big games for Scarlets and played in the victory over Leinster earlier in the season. He might not be as good a defender as Parkes but he’s more used to the 10 channel and, at 6ft2” and 14st 2lb, is hardly small. His place on the bench recently has raised a number of questions. Pivac has suggested that Jones will start at 10 in the next game and it is to be hoped his confidence hasn’t been dented by the recent preference for Parkes. Patchell is expected to be out for 3-5 weeks so it’s likely he will be needed.

Wrapping up

Scarlets seem in the middle of a perfect storm of player problems, with crucial personnel for their Plan A and Plan B out of action and fan favourites left in the cold. Rumours always surround teams in trouble and an injury list that has included most of the first team at some point this season would disrupt anyone’s season. But they need to sort it out fast because their play-off rivals in Conference B of the Pro14 aren’t messing around. Benetton, Edinburgh, and Ulster are all competing seriously this season and, at a certain point, Scarlets may find themselves with too much ground to catch up.

Pivac is an excellent coach who has earned his promotion to the Wales job with the work he’s done in West Wales over the years but his final five months with Scarlets look likely to keep him fully occupied if he wants to finish his current job on a high. He needs to sort out a team who can pull off either the broken field attacking style we’ve come to associate with Scarlets or a team who can play the more physical style we saw against Leinster and smash their way through the breakdown. At the moment, it feels like the team is stuck half-way between and going nowhere.

There’s still plenty of talent in the squad that’s fit to play: Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, and Jonathan Davies are all first choice internationals and Johnny McNichol is no slouch. The development side did well in the inaugural Celtic Cup and perhaps have more talent than we’ve seen so far. A few wins in the new year will generate some positivity from the fans, which is much-needed if the booing and rumour mills are anything to go by.

So it’s not time to throw in the towel yet, Scarlets fans, even if it’s been a grim couple of months. One last positive thought: under Pivac, Scarlets have started the season slow and peaked towards the business end of the season. In 2017, the lack of European competition helped them focus on the domestic side of things. Maybe 2019 will be the same.

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