By Helen ‘Helzbach’ Davies
As the only Welsh representation in this season’s Champions Cup, the Scarlets play their 130th European game against Sale Sharks. Unfortunately, last season Europe proved to be a difficult tournament for the Region as they finished bottom of the group, without even a losing bonus point. A win this evening would see the men in red answer Captain Ken Owens’ call for an improved European adventure this season. After losing their last 8 European games on the bounce, surely their performance can’t get much worse!
Fielding 11 internationals in the starting XV, on paper the Scarlets begin the stronger of the two teams, however, on recent form it seems that the team is yet to gel to reach anywhere near their full potential.
The visitors were offered an early opportunity to take the lead as the Scarlets were penalised at the breakdown. Outside Half Dan Mugford’s kick from a relatively easy position gave his team a 3 point to 0 lead with less than 5 minutes played. However, the Scarlets, via Rhys Patchell were offered the chance to draw level, but his trickier kick sailed wide. He made no mistake with a simpler attempt minutes later though to bring the score line to 3 points all.
Quick thinking from Scrum Half Gareth Davies who charged down Sale’s clearing kick before gathering and crossing the whitewash unopposed gave the home team the lead for the first time. Patchell added the conversion to open up a 10 point to 3 lead.
An immediate penalty attempt for Patchell offered the Scarlets the opportunity to further increase their lead, with the Outside Half’s impressive kicking display continuing to give his team a 13 point to 3 advantage.
As the confidence of the Scarlets team grew, errors began creeping in to the Sharks’ game with the home team taking full advantage. Another penalty for Patchell saw him successful with a superb long-distance attempt to put the men in red ahead by 16 points to 3 as they attempted to be complete the 100% win record of the Welsh Regions for this weekend.
The Sharks turned down an offer of an easy 3 points to kick for the corner. After securing the line-out they drove forward, before being given a second bite of the bullet. On this occasion Hooker Neil Briggs was able to break free from the maul to sneak over for the try. Mugford was unsuccessful in his conversion attempt, with the Scarlets still leading 16 points to 8.
Another superb break from Scrum Half Davies and quick thinking from Patchell saw the Scarlets score their second try as DTH Van De Merwe squeezed in in the corner. Patchell was just wide with his conversion attempt, but with just over half an hour played, the Scarlets’ lead had increased to 21 points to 8.
As half time approached, the Sharks struck back with an easy penalty attempt, right in front of the posts to narrow the Scarlets’ lead to 21 points to 11.
Despite a dominant half from the Scarlets, the half time score of 21-11 saw the Sharks still very much in the game.
The Scarlets tested the Sharks’ defence at the start of the second half, working through the phases and passing the gain-line on several occasions despite the visitors appearing to be off-side. However, with ball in hand the Scarlets, possibly for the first time this season, looked dangerous.
A dangerous high tackle from Sale’s Prop Ross Harrison resulted in his team being down to 14 men as he was shown the yellow card, giving the Scarlets the opportunity to take full advantage in their quest for the full 5 points from this game.
An up and under from Full Back Liam Williams saw Gareth Davies control the ball well over the line, but a panicked defence from the Sharks saw them touch down. A penalty for off-side saw the home team opt for the scrum, using their extra man. Spreading the ball wide, they found DTH out on the Wing, who gratefully received the pass from Rhys Patchell to cross the in the corner. A superb touchline conversion from Patchell gave the Scarlets a far more comfortable 28 points to 11 lead, with a fourth try giving the home team the bonus point.
Superb hands from the backs following a break from Foxy saw them run almost the length of the field, back into the Sale 22. Another yellow card for Replacement Andrey Ostrikov again saw Sale down to 14 men as the game entered the final quarter.
Despite being a man down and 17 points adrift, the Sharks continued in their quest to stay in the game, and deprive the Scarlets an all-important try bonus point as they tested the Scarlets defence with the game being played deep in the Scarlets’ 22, much to the disappointment of the majority of the 6,521 crowd.
As the game reached its climax, despite probably the best performance of the season thus far, and an all-important European Home win, the Scarlets will be disappointed to have finished the game without the full 5 points in the bag, but with a final score of 28 points to 11, they will be satisfied with their opening performance.
Next Saturday, the Scarlets face a Saracens at Allianz Park, kick-off is at 5.30pm.
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