With the maximum five points in the bag last week, and Wayne Pivac’s target for the South African tour met, the pressure was lifted for the young Scarlets’ visit to Bloemfontein to face the in-form Cheetahs.
Due to the injury to Johnathan Evans, Mike Phillips found himself starting the game, with local boy Hershcal Jantijies brought in as Scrum Half cover on the bench, however the main talking point pre-match, was the return of James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies following a 12-week absence after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Having spent over a week in South Africa, the squad have enjoyed some free time exploring the country, enjoying time spent on safari and diving with sharks, fortunately without incident!
In preparation for the match the Scarlets have been undergoing conditioning training in the altitude chamber at Parc y Scarlets due to the high temperatures they would be facing in these games.
It was the Scarlets that opened the scoring with a well-struck penalty from Outside Half, Dan Jones to give his team an early 3 point to 0 advantage.
The lead was short-lived though as Ryan Elias was penalised for not rolling away which offered the Cheetahs’ Fred Zeilinga the opportunity to showcase his kicking, making no mistake with his long-range effort to draw the scores level at 3 points all.
Another penalty from Zeilinga rewarded the efforts of his forwards that destroyed the Scarlets’ scrum and put the Cheetahs ahead for the first time – 6 points to 3, before the visitors were offered the chance to draw the game level once more, but opted to kick for the corner.
A second penalty award straight in front of the posts was accepted shortly after with Jones successful once more with the boot…..6 points all.
An immense tackle from Johnny McNicholl following a counter-attack from inside their own 22 saw the Full Back win the leg race against Cheetahs’ Scrum Half Shaun Venter who looked certain to cross for the opening try of the evening.
Unfortunately, it was former Scarlet Rynier Bernardo that was influential in the scoring of the first try of the evening, intercepting Dan Jones’ pass before kicking downfield, allowing William Small-Smith the opportunity to demonstrate his pace and control the ball and dive over under the posts. This made the conversion an easy attempt for Zeilinga as he put the home side further ahead – 13 points to 6.
As the first half drew to a close, a penalty at the scrum offered the Cheetahs a chance to extend their lead with Zeilinga adding a third penalty… 16 points to 6.
However, James ‘Cubby Boi’Davies marked his return with the Scarlets’ first try of the evening. Superb hands from Ryan Elias following a break from Tadhg Beirne allowed Cubby to run the angles to power over in the corner. Dan Jones was wide with the conversion, but the Scarlets were back to within 5 points – 16 points to 11.
With half time looming, the Scarlets certainly ended the half the stronger and were close to adding a second try, however a handling error denied them, but in the main Wayne Pivac would have been pleased with the 16 points to 11 half time score and that his team were still very much in the game.
The Scarlets were offered an early opportunity to narrow the Cheetahs’ lead early in the second half but opted to kick for the corner. Unfortunately, Dan Jones’ cross-kick had a bit too much power on it for Tom Prydie to gather and the scoring opportunity was lost.
Another powerful scrum from the home side offered Zeilinga the opportunity to put the Cheetahs’ two scores in front, however, for once he was off target with the boot.
The Cheetahs crossed for what they thought was their second try of the evening, however the try was disallowed due to a forward pass during the build up, but the threatened second try demonstrated not only the pace of flying Wing Craig Barry, but also the fatigue that had set into the Scarlets as he sliced his way through the defence almost without a finger being laid on him. Zeilinga added the extras to push the home side further ahead by 23 points to 11.
Demonstrating their character and determination, the young Scarlets (and Mike Phillips!!) continued to attack before the Scarlets’ own flying Wing, Ioan Nicholas cut inside to dive over for his second try of the tour. Dan Jones added the conversion to put the Scarlets back within losing bonus point territory – 23 points to 18.
Unfortunately, the Scarlets’ grasp on the losing point didn’t last long as Barry crossed for his second try of the evening. Zeilinga’s conversion attempt was wide of the posts, but the home side’s lead was once again back to 10 points – 28 points to 18 and their quest for a bonus point try was obvious.
With less than five minutes remaining, a penalty from Tom Prydie brought the Scarlets back to within 7 points once more – 28 points to 21 to give an interesting end to the match with the Scarlets aiming for a try to draw the game and the Cheetahs looking for the fourth try.
As the game entered the final seconds, the home team were offered a final opportunity, however kicking the ball off the park seemed to be chosen option.
Despite this being only the second defeat for the defending Champions this season, six points from the two matches in South Africa with 21 players unavailable is an outstanding achievement for the heroic, young Scarlets.
Next weekend, the Pro14 takes a break and it’s back to European Champions’ Cup action with the Scarlets welcoming Benetton Rugby to Parc y Scarlets next Saturday at 1pm. With both teams losing their two opening games, this fixture is a must win for both teams if they are to have any hope of progressing in this season’s campaign.
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