And so, we reach the penultimate round of this season’s Pro12 campaign as the Scarlets travel to Galway to face reigning Champions, Connacht.
Despite strong hopes for a play-off spot last season, a disappointing ending to the campaign saw the West Walians finish in fifth. However, this season sees the Scarlets firm favourties to reach the semis finals.
With Ospreys’ win over Ulster meaning that a win would see the Scarlets cement their play-off’s spot regardless of the result next week against their arch enemies as they require just 2 points from their final 2 games. However, the home team will certainly endeavor to spoil the party as they aim to give their departing coach, Pat Lam, a fitting farewell in his final home game before he leaves to take up a coaching role with Bristol.
Admittedly, the fixture doesn’t have the same importance for the home team with Lam’s sights set firmly on making the Champions’ Cup play-offs that have been introduced this season which offers the seventh and eight placed teams the opportunity to play the seventh placed team in England and France for a final Champions’ Cup spot.
Despite the sunshine in Llanelli, the players, in their blue away kits ran out to the wind and rain at The Sportsground.
The Scarlets couldn’t have asked for a better start as a Johnny McNicholl took full advantage of the turn-over ball to cross for the first try with less than 5 minutes on the clock. Grounding the ball under the posts made the conversion easy for Rhys Patchell as they opened up a 7 point to 0 lead.
Two penalties in the tackle area saw the Scarlets’ lack of discipline allow Connacht to open their account with a simple penalty to cut the lead to 3 points to 7, however superb handling from the whole Scarlets team saw Steff Evans cross for try number two during the next play. Patchell was wide with his penalty attempt but the visitors’ lead increased to 3 points to 12.
The home team were offered the chance to cut the Scarlets’ lead once more with another penalty, however the ball sailed wide.
Despite the conditions, the handling skills and offloading of the ball was just sublime with McNicholl timing his pass to perfection for Steff Evans to cross for the visitor’s third try. Playing into the wind for the first half resulted in a tricky time for the kickers as not only was Patchell unsuccessful with another conversion attempt, so the score remained at 3 points to 17, but his clearing kick from the re-start ended up behind him!
With just 30 minutes on the clock, the Scarlets secured one of the two points required to guarantee a semi-final, with departing Lion Liam ‘Sanjay’ Williams crossing for try number four. Again, the wind paid a major part in Patchell’s missed conversion, however with a 3 point to 22 lead, the extras can be excused!
The confidence oozing from the Scarlets was evident as they continued to totally dominate the game, playing some superb rugby along the way, despite the conditions.
Connacht were offered a life-line as the end of the first half drew near, but the visitors’ defence remained firm as the teams ran in for the end of the half with Connacht trailing the Scarlets 3 points to 22.
With the winds behind them, the second half saw a shift in play, with the Scarlets very much in defensive mode as the next target was obviously to secure the win. In lots of ways this mindset affected the Scarlets’ play as it is not their style, preferring normally to play a far more attacking style of rugby. Connacht, on the other hand were unable to use the wind to gain field advantage and were forced to keep the ball in hand and play rugby in order to attempt to make an impact on the game.
As the game neared to the hour mark, Connacht finally scored their first try of the evening with replacement Robinson crossing in the corner before grounding the ball behind the posts. Despite this, the missed conversion saw the home team require 2 converted tries to draw the game level as the gap narrowed to 14 points – 8 points to 22.
Patchell was offered a penalty attempt to further increase the Scarlet’s lead, however again accurate kicking proved a problem. Fortunately, he was successful with his next attempt to put three scores between the teams once more – 8 points to 25.
When the Scarlets did attack, they were able to reap the benefits as replacement Winger DTH Van de Merwe crossed for the Scarlets’ fifth try as the game neared its climax. Again, the elements made accurate kicking almost impossible even for man of the match Rhys Patchell, but a superb first half performance saw the Scarlets victors by 8 points to 30 as they secure their spot in the top 4, reaching this season’s play-off finals.
Next Saturday the Scarlets face their arch rivals, the Ospreys in the final round of the normal season. This is always the biggest fixture and with the Ospreys needing a win to cement their own place in the play offs without relying on results elsewhere, it will be a huge event. Over 10,000 tickets have already been sold, but by kick-off, it is expected that this will be the fourth official sell-out in the history of Parc y Scarlets. The 5.00pm kick-off time has been set the same for all fixtures next weekend in order that the final standings can be decide at the same time.
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