Thursday 21 September 2017

Scarlets and Owens time their run to perfection

Scarlets' Ken Owens. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Scarlets' Ken Owens. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Last August, few suspected that the Scarlets would finish the regular league campaign as the best side in Wales, let alone reach the semi-finals of the Guinness PRO12.

Then again, fewer still might have clung to their belief that Ken Owens would emerge not merely as a contender to tour with the Lions but a nailed-on starter in the first Test.

Club and captain have defied all predictions; and captivated those of us who are afforded the briefest of time to escape from often suffocating parochialism.

From remaining stout and determined amidst the deepest of winter mud, before deploying their vast attacking array upon the harder spring ground, the men of West Wales have made a welcome return to the last knockings of the rugby campaign.

Tradition dictates that Scarlets belong here; for too long, their shoddiness has mocked that proud history.

Back in October, it seemed as if the men in red were well on the road to aiming their perennially accurate stab at muddling mediocrity, losing both pre-season games heavily before a hat-trick of opening league defeats left them marooned in tenth.

Meanwhile, following the November internationals, most pundits had included English duo Dylan Hartley and Jamie George, alongside Irish captain Rory Best or Seán Cronin, in their prospective Lions squads.

Timing is everything, though; the New Year saw them embark upon a charge that featured a home draw against Europe's best club side, Saracens, in the Champions Cup while putting together an argumentative league run that propelled them into the top half of the table.

A sweeping three wins with bonus points helped heave them into the top three by the final afternoon, culminating in a comprehensive dismissal of Welsh rivals Ospreys.

And Owens, who starred in the Welsh win against Ireland during the Six Nations, has managed to shoehorn himself into Warren Gatland's 41-man touring roster; given the lack of trust in Best, Owens is no favourite to start the first Test.

Before then, there is silverware to be won; the 45-9 shellacking by semi-final opponents Leinster at the RDS last March may soften their cough but the happy hooker from Carmarthen promises next week's renewal will be much tighter.

"It is in the back of our minds that it was a very tough night the last time we were at the RDS," he says.

"We were hammered, plain and simple, absolutely outplayed, and we don't want that to happen again.

"We want to make up for that evening and show we are a much better team than we showed last time.

"It is the different variety of rugby they can play. They have a very strong pack and an outstanding back line.

"Johnny Sexton controls the game magnificently, you have players like Garry Ringrose, Joey Carberry stepping in, five Lions in that squad as well and experienced internationals right across the board.

"They can squeeze you be playing the corners or play a wide, expansive game. We need to turn up, put a performance in, perhaps stop Leinster's momentum and hopefully nick a result.

"There have been a couple of games when we have not been at our best, but it is knowing how to win when things aren't going well. We have developed that over the last three years.

"We have got momentum, we have got confidence, but we also know that the last time we came out to Dublin we lost heavily. We are realists as well and we know how difficult it is going to be. We are going to have to be clinical."

Irish Independent

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