With 21 players missing due to International duties and injuries, the Scarlets were relying on their strength in depth as the team headed out to South Africa for the start of their mini tour, along with a cameo role from retired former Scarlet, Mike Phillips, who answered an SOS to provide cover in the Scrum Half position.
First up was the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, the home town of Scarlets Lock, David Bullbring.
As one of two South African teams brought in to the new Pro14 this season, the Kings have suffered a great deal of disruption pre-season, and in comparison to the Cheetahs, who have produced some good results thus far, the Kings are yet to notch up their first league victory.
It was the Scarlets that took control of the game from the kick-off, with a couple of handling errors costing the visitors an early try scoring opportunity before great angles from Paul Asquith and Jonathan Evans saw Tadhg Beirne strolled over under the posts for the first try of the afternoon. Dan Jones added the simple conversion to put the Scarlets ahead by 7 points to 0 after just 5 minutes play.
However, the Kings hit back immediately as Michael Makase gathered the cross kick to dive over in the corner. The conversion attempt from Rudi van Rooyen’s was wide as the home team opened their account – 5 points to 7.
Another attack from the Kings saw the home side take the lead as Full Back Yaw Penxe crossed for their second try. Again, the conversion was missed, but the Kings now had a 3-point advantage – 10 points to 7.
The Scarlets were soon back on the attack, with the forwards testing the Kings’ defence. Working through the phases, they inched closer to the line before Lewis Rawlins spilled the ball forward on the line.
Despite being one of the weakest team in the League, the Kings looked dangerous in attack and were certainly asking questions of the Scarlets’ defence and with 25 minutes of the match played, they extended their lead to 13 points to 7 from a well-struck penalty from Oliver Zono.
A penalty from Dan Jones brought the Scarlets back to within 3 points – 10 points to 13, as the first half entered the last 5 minutes, however, the Kings turned down the opportunity to regain their 6-point lead by kicking for the corner rather than taking 3 easy points.
Superb work from Bullbring at the breakdown saw the visitors rewarded with a scrum to relief the pressure, to the delight of his team mates and as the first half reached its climax the Scarlets were penalised for not rolling away to give Zono the last opportunity of the half to extend the Kings’ lead.
The start of the second half saw Mike Phillips take to the field in place of Jonathan Evans and Steffan Hughes take on the captaincy.
Unfortunately, the Kings couldn’t have asked for a better start to the second half as a defensive error saw Martin Du Toit stroll over for try number three. Zono added the extras to not only give the home side a 23 point to 10 advantage, but they were also on the verge of a try bonus point.
With time on their side, the Scarlets opted to kick for the corner rather than take the 3 points as they attempted to claw their way back into the game.
The risk paid off eventually, despite the scare of an interception from Penxe who failed to gather the pass, as young Ioan Nicholas crossed for his first try for the Scarlets. Dan Jones maintained his 100% kicking record to put the visitors back within 6 points – 23 points to 17.
For once credit must go to the referee, Stuart Berry, who took no further action against Will Boyde for what looked like a dangerous tackle, however the replay showed that Penxe had jumped into the tackle.
With the game nearing the hour mark, the Scarlets finally got themselves back into the lead with South African Prop, Werner Kruger powering over from short range. Dan Jones again added an important conversion to put the Scarlets ahead by a point – 23 points to 24.
A high tackle on Dan Jones, offered the Outside Half the opportunity to extend the lead to four points, with the Kings very fortunate not to have a player in the sin bin. Again, the flawless kicking record continued as Jones extended the Scarlets’ lead to 23 points to 27.
However, he turned from hero to villain as a hospital pass to Johnny McNicholl followed by a kick forward and an awful bounce saw replacement Harlon Klaasen cross for the Kings’ bonus point try. The added conversion again put the Kings in the lead by 30 points to 27.
The character and determination from the Scarlets was evident as they attacked the Kings to go back in the lead once more, despite obviously finding the almost chaotic playing style of the Kings a challenge. Dan Jones picked the ball up from the base of the ruck to dive over. Adding the extras gave the visitors a 4-point advantage – 30 points to 34 as the game entered the final 10 minutes.
As has been typical of this game, the Kings continued to attack the Scarlets securing themselves a penalty kick with just minutes of the game remaining, they opted to kick for the corner in their attempt to create history and record their first victory of the season.
Fortunately, an awful pass saved the day for the Scarlets allowing the visitors the opportunity to play the clock down. The speed in which the ball was kicked off the park following the final whistle demonstrated the relief in securing the victory from a Scarlets’ viewpoint, which was matched by the disappointment on the faces of the Kings players as the visitors clung on to secure the victory by 30 points to 34.
The Scarlets now have a week out in South Africa (and have promised to stay away from any lions!!) with a visit to Cape Town before they travel to Bloemfontein for a tricky encounter with the Cheetahs that will kick-off next Saturday at 5.35pm following the Wales versus South Africa game.
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