Scarlets geared up for more success
On the last Saturday in April this year Scarlets went to Galway looking for a lifeline. Would you believe it, it was wet and windy. Not the ideal conditions for a side described by a friend of ours, at the start of the campaign, as being "seriously underpowered". Not the ideal conditions either for a club with a poor record in big games.
They were, however, on a good run at the time. Since Christmas they had won eight from nine Guinness Pro12 games, but lurking beneath the surface was the nagging doubt that they would fail, and with it would go a secure spot in the knock-out stages.
"I've been around the Scarlets a long time and sometimes when the pressure has come on we've not delivered, or only just scraped wins," hooker Ken Owens says. But they were energised rather than lumbered by the prize on offer. "It opened up our eyes to what we could achieve if we set our minds to it. I just thought the quality we produced on that day under difficult circumstances was great."
Owens and his team-mates left Galway that weekend feeling pretty good about themselves. Over the course of the next few weeks they averaged 37 points a game over three ties, two of them coming away from home in the semis and final against Leinster and Munster respectively. Coming third in the regulation phase of the league, they had been long odds to lift the title. The manner of it was emphatic. And the scale of it spectacular.
"There's a lot of high risk and high reward, but it's about players making calculated decisions on when to offload or when to pass," Owens says. "We've really grown in that as a squad. If we need to kick for field position we still do that, but with the quality of rugby we've been playing in attack, people tend to forget about how good our game management is. The understanding the players have within the squad is almost second nature now.
"Some boys are expecting offloads and running off each other naturally because they've done it so many times. Steffan Evans is always on Jonathan Davies's shoulder because he knows there's an opportunity there. That was evident at the end of last season and the challenge now for us is to continue to do that under a lot more pressure. Sides are going to be analysing us a lot more this year."
Connacht discovered that last season, but whether through direction or loss of some key personnel the only recognisable difference was that they were less efficient and more predictable than when they had won the title a year earlier. Time will tell, but it would be a surprise if coach Wayne Pivac goes down the same road.
"I think Ken hit the nail on the head when he talked about our game management," Pivac says. "Everyone analyses everyone so much these days and you're right about Connacht. The thing with them is that they were moving the ball from anywhere, whereas we are a little bit more subtle, I'd like to think.
"It's about picking your moments to play. It's been a work in progress and yes, we're going to tinker with our game, but not a lot. We know opposition teams are going to analyse and prepare for us and we have to be ready for that, obviously."
What Scarlets and Connacht have in common - aside from being outside the runners and riders tipped to win - is that they won their titles playing rugby that was as good to watch as it was effective. It shredded comprehensively the top two on this island.
"We have accountability and the senior players drive standards," Pivac says. "We're getting some really good leaders out of that as a result. Since I arrived three or four years ago the key guys have really stepped up. Now this team is not remote controlled from the grandstand. We can improve again.
"We want to get to the stage where 100 per cent of the decisions are made by those on the field. If you get that you're in a pretty good space. Ken and the guys who have led the team have done a brilliant job and when they're not there, others step up. Jake Ball and Ken couldn't play in the semi-final and final and other guys came to the fore like Tadhg Beirne, Ryan Elias and others. It's building nicely."
They open their defence against the Southern Kings in Parc y Scarlets on Friday evening. This time last year they had a horrible start at the same venue, losing to Munster in front of a crowd of just over 6,000. Expect a bigger attendance, better rugby, and a different result this time around.
Sunday Indo Sport