Scarlets know they are due a break

Munster and Leinster take the annual plunge into Europe, fortified by more than five European titles between them in six years.

Llanelli Scarlet's Leigh Halfpenny.

Ireland’s perennial contenders share the added advantage of being able to give the Scarlets the widest of berths, at least until the quarter-finals.

The luck of the draw leaves both to concentrate on a renewal of Anglo-French rivalry, each more than happy to dodge the West Walians, whose unprecedented Dublin double in outplaying first Leinster, then Munster on successive weekends at the end of last season completed the most exhilarating crowning of all.

How to stop the stylish Scarlets from transferring that success into the more rarefied atmosphere of Europe is now a matter for Bath, Treviso and Toulon, first up at the Stade Mayol on Sunday afternoon.

The bullring on the Mediterranean may strike fear into fainter hearts, but the visitors have at last passed beyond the stage of being there simply to make up the numbers and avoid any embarrassment.

No contender for Europe’s supreme tournament over its 21-year existence can have
endured more heartache than the Scarlets.

Just as Stade Francais are the only club to reach two finals without winning either, so the Welsh triple semi- finalists from ‘Heart and Soul Rugby Country’ stand alone as the unluckiest never to get that far.

Many of those on the starting grid this weekend will bolster their collective morale with the conviction that they are overdue a break.

The Celtic champions have been waiting for theirs longer than the rest, for so long that, when the fates conspired against them, they were plain Llanelli in the days before the regional revolution in Wales allowed them to continue as normal without any need for
reinvention.

There was no shotgun marriage to a warring local rival like the merger of Swansea’s All Whites and Neath’s All Blacks into the Ospreys, or Bridgend and Pontypridd into the long gone Celtic Warriors, closed down by the Welsh Rugby Union with indecent haste before they had time to run.

For the first time in the 10 years since Scarlets reached their last semi-final, Wales has a serious challenger, an event in itself for a country which has never failed to under-achieve at European club level since Cardiff reached the final of the first competition in 1996, a heavily truncated one, given the absence of the English contingent.

No Welsh team has got there since.

Yet, internationally Wales won three times as many Grand Slams between 2005 and 2012 as Ireland, a period when Munster and Leinster won five European titles

between them. If the Scarlets were to emulate both by putting the entire continent under Celtic rule, then no self-respecting student of rugby history could dare accuse them of not having paid their dues.

Nobody has acknowledged that point more readily than a man who conquered Europe for his club one year and the world for his country the next.

As the most ruthlessly effective of all England captains, Martin Johnson didn’t get there by wasting time feeling sorry for the opposition.

That he has confessed to feeling exactly that for the Scarlets in Europe speaks volumes even now for how close they have come to breaking the Welsh hoodoo.

Coming from a hard-nosed operator not noted for public expressions of sympathy is quite something, but then so were the circumstances: A European Cup semi-final at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground in April 2002.

The Scarlets can still claim to be the only team to be bounced out of the final by the most freakish penalty in its history, the one Tim Stimpson launched from long-range against one upright, off the crossbar and then over via the other post.

Had it been down to Johnson, there would have been no penalty shot in the first place. Had the Tigers’ skipper got to within earshot of his goalkicker a few seconds earlier, Scott Quinnell & Co might well have gone to Paris for that year’s final against Stade Francais.

“I was heading over to Rod Kafer to discuss what line-out move we should go for when we kicked it into touch when I saw ‘Stimmo’ pointing to the posts,” Johnson recalled.
“Nothing I could do.

The ref had signalled. It was a brave call by ‘Stimmo’. He managed to get it over, pinballing it between the post and the bar to give us the game, 13-12.

I felt sorry for Scott Quinnell, a good guy who had put his heart and soul into it and just come up short. In fact, I felt for all of them.”

They had lost in such agonising fashion two years earlier, in another semi-final against another club from the East Midlands at another football venue, the Madejski
Stadium.

With extra-time seconds away, a needlessly conceded penalty allowed Paul Grayson to launch a long-distance missile to shattering effect.

The last time the Scarlets got that far, in 2007, they gave every impression of being just about the best side in Europe.

They beat Toulouse home and away, did the same to Ulster and London Irish. followed by a home quarter-final against Munster which allowed them to depose the reigning champions.

Leicester stood between them and the final at a time when Ireland’s Simon Easterby led the pack.

Off the field, they had a presidential presence like no other, as provided by the incomparable Ray Gravell, whose tragic passing later that year reaches its 10th anniversary this month.

The Scarlets flopped and ever since then they have been reduced to making up the numbers as perennial non-qualifiers for the last eight.

Now, after 10 years of day-dreaming, they take their place as one of only four among the 20 starters who fit the bill for what the promoters loosely describe as the Champions Cup.

As PRO12 winners, the Scarlets stand shoulder-to- shoulder with Saracens,
Exeter and Clermont as champions of Europe, England and France, respectively.

If Toulon on Sunday is a daunting start, then rest assured the money men on the Cote D’Azur will be every bit as daunted by the arrival of their Welsh opponents.

The ex-triple champions tripped over their chequebooks in Llanelli last season when six Rhys Patchell goals counted for more than seven from Leigh Halfpenny, because Scott Williams scored the only try.

Halfpenny’s repatriation after an acrimonious end to his time as a highly paid import, puts the boot on the other foot with a vengeance.

They may have lost Liam Williams to the English Premiership, but the Scarlets do have Tadgh Beirne, if only for a little longer.

That the match-winning Irish lock will be gone by the end of the season makes it all the more imperative that the champions take maximum advantage of his mighty presence before Munster do so from next year.


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