Monday 21 May 2018

Regions to be cheerful - Patchell aims to ride the wave of Welsh optimism

Rhys Patchell a key man as Scarlets secure place in the final Photo: Sportsfile
Rhys Patchell a key man as Scarlets secure place in the final Photo: Sportsfile

Mick Cleary

Rhys Patchell stopped at Lidl in Llanelli on Monday to buy some salmon and rice for his evening meal. It was meant to be a quick shop. Half an hour later the Scarlets' fly-half was still dissecting all the possibilities of this Saturday's Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster in Dublin with one of the store managers.

Dinner has to wait in west Wales where everyone is trying to ride the wave that is Scarlets' quest for elite European honours.

No Welsh side has ever won the European Cup. Llanelli, three-time semi-finalists, have never breached that last hurdle. And even if Leinster are warm favourites (albeit beaten at home in last season's Pro12 semi-final by Scarlets), this is a moment of opportunity.

"As much as this is a massive game for the region and our supporters, it is also a huge game in its own right for the players," said Patchell. "We have got to go to (the) Aviva with no fear and express ourselves. There is no point turning up just to be there. We have got to give it a go.

"The backing we have had from everyone in the area has been fantastic. We owe it to them and to ourselves to go to Dublin and show what we are about."

What the Scarlets are about is a mirror image of the Llanelli teams that have gone before: from those who so famously beat the All Blacks in 1972 to the teams that made the last four three times only to fall short. Their journey to this point has been one of the season's uplifting tales, much-needed in Wales, which has not had a side in a semi-final since 2009.

For all the fine notices Scarlets have received for their bold attacking play, their willingness to strike from deep, the defining aspect of their campaign has been their grit. Scarlets lost their opening two pool games to Toulon and Bath yet rolled back the stone on that seemingly doom-laden predicament to qualify with a victory over Bath at the Rec and finished with a rousing home win over Toulon.

This is a team of character, of heart as well as of muscle. Their fans have been as captivated by the spirit shown as much as by the sparkling skill. "The hymns and arias that rang out at the Rec when we won a penalty from a scrum late on is one of my memories of the season," said Patchell. "We do love to play with the ball but nothing would happen if there were no possession from the forwards. The fluffy stuff is fine but it so often comes down to the nuts and bolts of what the forwards can provide.

"The pack has been phenomenal. There are 4,000 fans headed to Dublin: last one out of Llanelli turn out the lights. That's hard-earned money being spent. Those supporters do make a difference. You couldn't get a ticket for love nor money in Llanelli for our quarter-final against La Rochelle. This club means so much to so many people."

Patchell is something of an outsider in that he was born in Penarth but he has become very much part of the west Walian spirit since moving there two years ago. The 24-year-old has plenty of talent but has had to work hard to find more consistency.

He only has eight caps to his name despite making his Wales debut in 2013. England head coach Eddie Jones looked to expose that inexperience by referencing the fact that he was Wales' "third-choice No 10" and wondering if he had "the bottle" for Test rugby. Patchell did not have his finest hour at Twickenham but insists that being targeted by Jones did not unnerve him, putting his faith in the progress he has made under Llanelli backs coach Stephen Jones, the former Wales fly-half.

"Stephen is very demanding, challenging you all the time," said Patchell. "There have been a few ugly conversations when things have not gone well but it has been so rewarding. That was my first experience of the Six Nations. You can't appreciate the circus that surrounds it until you're on the inside. People can say that they like. It's only white noise."

Patchell's father, Howard, often reminds his son that he was once coached at college by one of Llanelli's most famous sons, Carwyn James, Lions coach in 1971, and the man who plotted the downfall of the All Blacks.

"Of course, that history is important, of Carwyn and Phil Bennett, and people want you to play that same exciting style. There is a real expectation there," he said.

"But there has to be defence as well as attack, stemming lineout drives, winning scrum-penalties, going all-in with your tackling. We will have to bring our A-game to Dublin, be at 100pc in every aspect, if we are to beat Leinster. But we are ready." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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