With a weekend dominated by talk of ‘that try’ and a pretty mixed bag of Pro14 results for the Welsh Regions, with the Cardiff Blues victorious, whilst the Ospreys lost against Connacht and a full-strength Dragons managed a draw against a heavily depleted Glasgow, the Scarlets headed to the Stadio Comunale di Monigo for their fourth clash against Benetton Rugby this season.
Whilst the Scarlets were without several players due to International duties and injury, the home team were also missing key players with 9 starting for the Italian team that suffered a heavy defeat against Ireland.
David Bullbring was given the honour of leading out the visitors into the Italian sunshine as he made his 50th appearance for the region. The Scarlets started strongly, finding themselves in a good attacking position deep in the Benetton 22 with the forwards taking over the drive towards the line as both Lewis Rawlins and Tadhg Beirne came within inches of the whitewash.
An interception try attempt from Paul Asquith, who crossed under the posts was disallowed as he was deemed as not retreating the required 10 metres from the kick of Benetton’s Outside Half Marty Banks who took the quick tap penalty.
Despite the initial pressure from the Scarlets, the home team tested the visitors’ defence following a break from Centre, Luca Morisi, securing a penalty at the scrum to clear their lines. A further attacking rolling maul off the line-out again put the visitors under pressure, but superb defence from the Scarlets forwards again kept the Italians out.
It was the home team that secured the first try of the afternoon following a rare error from Scarlets’ Full Back, Johnny McNicholl, who made a welcome return from injury.
A cross-kick from Marty Banks seemed to be in safe hands with McNicholl ready and waiting to gather, but he spilled the ball only for Wing, Monty Ioane to dab the loose ball for the opening score. Banks failed to add the conversion as the home team opened up 5 points to 0 lead.
The Scarlets’ defensive efforts continued as the Benetton forwards again drove towards the Scarlets’ try line, albeit a rather scrappy effort, with Ioan Nicholas coming in off his Wing to put in a crucial, perfectly-timed tackle as Benetton were pushed backwards.
With the half drawing to a close, Benetton added a second try as another kick from Banks set up Ioane who crossed for his brace. Again, Banks was wide with his conversion attempt as the home side extended it’s lead to 10 points to 0.
The second half started in a similar way with Ioane close to claiming his hat trick as he squeezed over, but a combined effort from McNicholl and Prydie prevented him from grounding the ball.
Superb handling from the men in red finally saw some typical Scarlets play as the team continued to keep the ball in hand in their quest to find space in the Benetton defence.
A missed tackle saw Ioane finally cross for his hat trick as the Italians ran the ball from their own 10 metre line. Demonstrating his pace, the Wing beat Jonathan Evans in the footrace to the line. Tebaldi added the tricky conversion from the touchline to give the home team a commanding 17 point to 0 lead.
With the confidence oozing from the home team, they went on the quest for their bonus point try as they continued to dominate the second period, before a glimmer of hope for the Scarlets, as a great chip inside from McNicholl saw Corey Baldwin power over for his debut try in his first Pro14 appearance for the Scarlets. Dan Jones added the conversion as the visitors finally got on the scoreboard – 17 points to 7, though the home team had managed to keep the Scarlets out for over an hour.
It was a matter of minutes later, however, that the home team secured a try bonus point as replacement, Marco Zanon raced over in the corner from the restart to further increase Benetton’s lead to 22 points to 7 as the Italians aimed to notch up their fourth successive league victory.
With fresh legs on the pitch, and the clock counting down to the end of the game, a break from Captain, Steff Hughes saw replacement Scrum Half, Declan Smith in support. He passed to Tadhg Beirne who crossed for the try. Jones was unable to add the extras with a tricky conversion attempt as the Scarlets narrowed Benetton’s lead to 10 points – 22 to 12 as they attempted to end the game on a high by securing a losing bonus point.
Unfortunately, this was not to be, and the Scarlets missed the opportunity to go back to the top of Conference B. Whilst the loss was disappointing, it was the manner of the loss that will cause frustration for Head Coach, Wayne Pivac, with the Italians enjoying a whopping 82% of the territory in the second half as the reigning Champions suffered only their third league defeat of the season.
With three Irish fixtures up next for the Scarlets, it was hoped that the Benetton contest would be a stepping stone towards maintaining the threat at the top of the table in the quest to remain in the top 3 come the end of the season, however, success in these fixtures will now be paramount in the quest to reach the knock-out stages once more.
Next up for the Scarlets is a trip to Dublin to face Leinster Rugby next Saturday, 17th February 2018. Kick-off is at 3.15pm.
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