Peter Jackson discusses ’What’s Hot and What’s Not’ in this weekend’s review.
A revolution in rugby country
The Scarlets have been exiled from Europe’s top table for so long they could be forgiven for wondering if General de Gaulle is still alive and well in the Elysee Palace.
Like the other tribes in the Red Dragonhood, Llanelli along with all the little towns dotted around ‘Heart and Soul Rugby Country’ would appear to have fallen perennial victim to a Brexit of their own, one brought about by an inability to hack it at the highest level.
In the course of giving Bath the father-and-mother of a run-around, the Scarlets achieved more than stitch together the best Welsh display in Europe for more years than anyone cares to remember.
The wider message, that Wales at last has a team capable of conquering Europe, will not have been fallen on deaf ears.
The serial champions will all have got the message, not least Leinster and Munster, each aware of how the Scarlets showed them the PRO12 door last May as the result of a telling lesson in the arts and crafts of the game.
That knack for taking their game to a higher ground has given them a unique capacity to deliver the kind of pyrotechnics which have proved beyond the wit of the national team.
Of the ten Welsh starters in Scarlet last Friday night, only three – Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Aaron Shingler – have been regular members of a Test team suffering by comparison to their most westerly region.
To describe theirs as a wrecking of The Rec is to do the Scarlet cavaliers an injustice, suggesting a demolition job, all brute force and therefore void of subtlety.
It would be fairer to say they repainted the place with the sheer artistry of a passing game designed to find space.
As a consequence of bouncing England’s fifth-ranked team from pillar to post, Bath took enough counts for Les Dawson’s gag about a horizontal boxer nicknamed ‘Battling Rembrandt’ – because he spent so much time on the canvas.
The most unsung of the Scarlets’ coaches would appreciate the sentiment more than most.
Byron Hayward, a two-Test Wales full-back and a champion middleweight as an amateur who trained at the valleys’ gym run by Joe Calzaghe’s father Enzo, has given the West Walians the grit and gristle to fight their corner.
It’s not as if they haven’t paid their dues.
No team has been to three semi-finals and no finals, a catalogue of heartache which included losing one to the only goal in Champions’ Cup history, Tim Stimpson’s for Leicester which somehow bounced over after hitting both posts and the crossbar.
Most neutrals expect the Scarlets to keep boxing clever against Toulon on Saturday evening and prove cute enough to win the pool.
They really are speaking a different language, in keeping with their most renowned Welsh- speaker of all, Carwyn James, still the only coach to win a Lions series in New Zealand.
Whistling a welcome tune
At long last a referee has stepped forward to save the most battered law in the book from further punishment.
For those of us who had all but abandoned hope of ever seeing a scrum-half being brought to book again for a crooked feed, lunchtime in Dublin offered a sight to behold.
Historic may have been stretching a point but Marius Mitrea’s stand at the RDS brought reassuring evidence, however belatedly, that the scrum law decreeing a fair contest on the basis of a straight put-in has not been laid low by President Trump’s contagious disease known as fake news.
“Straight into the second row,” Mitrea told Ali Price at the first set-piece.
Glasgow’s Price wore the incredulous look of a man who, like the rest in his trade, had been getting away with it ad nauseum all season.
Mitrea then pulled up Leinster’s Luke McGrath for the same offence. When Price re-offended, the referee upgraded the punishment from free-kick to penalty. Now that Signor Mitrea has done the game a service, it’s up to others to follow his example.
Boy wonder proves his worth
Marcus Smith is the world’s highest-paid rugby teenager. The word on the street about his new contract is that Harlequins have given him a pay rise of £200,000-a- year to around £230,000 and nobody will dare ask why after what happened on Saturday night.
Quins were losing 28-12 to Wasps going into the final quarter and in danger of disappearing without trace when Smith came off the bench.
His presence coincided with a come-back even Lazarus would have been hard pushed to believe, the kid inspiring three converted triespainting for Quins to win 33-28.
The weekend brought more evidence that the game is not what it used to be. As an exercise in how to defy gravity while being hit fore and aft by opponents hell-bent on bringing you down, the old game can’t have seen acrobatics on a more daring scale.
Matt Banahan set the tone in Bath on Friday night, the giant Channel Islander soaring into thin air to catch a cross-kick, get it down into a target area measured in millimetres and do so while suspending his body over the touchline.
Another English wing, Olly Woodburn, followed that with two more astounding pyrotechnics for Exeter against Montpellier.
Seeing is supposed to be believing except in both cases the naked eye needed technological assistance which simply made each finish all the more wondrous.
Even with one round to go, it can be said without fear of contradiction that, for the third time in eight years, there won’t be a single English pool winner.
It could get worse and end up without a single Premiership team in the last eight which has never happened before.
Saracens, teetering on the brink after Owen Farrell’s drawn penalty shoot-out with
Dan Biggar in the Swansea rain, need a landslide home win over Northampton to
have any chance.
Only a try-bonus win in Glasgow will do for champions Exeter.
How ironic that after falling foul of Irish, French and Welsh opponents, the English should end up knocking each other out.
Wasps, stooping to conquer at The Stoop for most of an uproarious set-to with Harlequins only to collapse in a heap, were so distraught they wrote themselves off as hopeless also-rans.
Should Ulster confirm their prognosis in Coventry next weekend, Ireland can count on
three in the last three which might just be three more than England.
What’s that they say about a first time for everything…?
Maybe all that money sloshing around the Top 14 is weighing them down and slowing them up but it may be difficult to spot the Frenchman in the quarter-finals.
Montpellier set a new all-time low before their tie at Exeter with a starting XV that included
just two French players, Louis Picamoles and Yacouba Camara.
Their six-try rout added up to another all-time low despite all that lolly poured in by Syrian
tycoon Mohed Altrad, Clermont took that old theme about the French not travelling
to new depths by losing at Northampton.
The Michelin Men having shipped almost 150 points in losing their last four matches, Ospreys will smell a giant-killing.
JamesHaskell,sent off for the first time during the kind of globe-trotting career that would make Marco Polo look a travel-sick layabout, will have spent the weekend beating himself up over Wasps’ first red card of the season.
At least he was man enough to issue a public apology to the fans and to Jamie Roberts over the high tackle that flattened the Welsh doctor.
“Never my intention to hurt another player,” Haskell tweeted. “Got my height
wrong. You know me, never one to do anything subtly.”
Champions’ Cup team of the weekend
15 Rhys Patchell (Scarlets)
14 Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
13 Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets)
12 Scott Williams (Scarlets)
11 Olly Woodburn (Exeter)
10 Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
9 Maxine Machenaud (Racing)
1 Rob Evans (Scarlets)
2 Rory Best (Ulster)
3 Dmitri Arhip (Ospreys)
4 Donnacha Ryan (Racing)
5 Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets)
6 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets)
7 Don Armand (Exeter)
8 James Chisholm (Harlequins)
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