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Scarlets soar into European Cup Semis

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Report by Jon Twigg, photos by Darren Harries

SUCH a magnificent occasion on Friday (Mar 30), a Quarter Final of the Heinekein European Cup in the depth of West Wales at Parc Y Scarlets, French giants, metaphorically and physically La Rochelle in town; reminiscent of King William in 1066, to conquer, greeted by a capacity 16,000 natives.

A warm message of welcome from European Rugby’s Chairman Simon Halliday, a flying England winger from the last millennium his roots stretched with longevity to his birth place, Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.

Like King William, having conquered the struggle for La Rochelle was to consolidate their assets, something they failed to do after securing an early 7-3 lead after six minutes, through a converted try by second row Romain Sazy.

Full back Leigh Halfpenny had struck with not five minutes played, a penalty for offside and reduced the lead a minute after the western based side on the Bay of Biscay’s touchdown, with an immaculate reproduction, this time from just inside his opponent’s half.

The Scarlets are a team of Samson Lees, the props uncompromising style making him a fans favourite, anchoring the choral Hymns and Arias at crescendo level. Prop Uini Atonio was stopped in his tracks likewise number 8 Afa Amosa, the Scarlets also winning the crucial first engagement at the scrum set piece, against a heavyweight eight, looking then to play their open game.

‘Try of the round in this seasons Champions Cup for the Scarlets’ Halliday had pronounced, not once but on two occasions. That is no mean feat looking at the quality on show in this seasons tournament, where Wayne Pivac’s charges have a skills set to crunch the shells of any snail in its way; able to up their game to push unseen boundaries making the Easter date of 2018 on par with 1066 for notability.

The fringes were rough and ready, robust tackling and yardage measured in centimetres on the gain line, drawing a mistake, Halfpenny obliging on 17 minutes for a 9-7 lead. Enter a new gladiator, Pontyberem junior Josh Mcloed to the amphitheatre for an injured Paul Asquith, feeding the crowd their ‘bread of heaven’ destructive if the truck and trailer before them, which would last all through the night.

Second row David Bullring dominated the front of the line out, scrum half Gareth Davies afforded time and space to punctuate holes and Ospreys bound centre Scott Williams darting arrow like after 25 minutes, Welsh international Halfpenny, a former adversary with Toulon, majestic going four from four.

‘Freestyle’ rugby witnessed in the cauldron a throwback to the ‘billy can’ victories over Bath at the Rec and Toulon acted as catalysts, the home side with a full complement internationals back in harness, awash with history from eleven years ago, Munster the fall guys, hooker Ken Owens the only player to have witnessed such an occasion before.

Kiwi centre Hadleigh Parkes couldn’t release a scoring pass as the outside cover closed in the twilight, the crowd aware that the breeze would favour the home side in the second half. Rhys Patchell at outside half was dictating direction as players lay strewn across the hallowed turf, the intensity of the conflict taking its toll, with scrum half Alexi Bales slotting a penalty on the half time whistle, his second successful kick for score of 12-10.

Man of the match Owens, an unbloodied hero took not one step back, leading his forwards into the mix in the second half, Aaron Shingler and Tadgh Beirne standing like beacons atop of Snowdon. Crammed to the rafters, the atmosphere electric the crowd played their part as the visiting juggernaut was stopped in its tracks as the Dragon roared fire. Puff the magic dragon, lived by the sea but in this case, unlike little boys, the Dragon would live long as the air from the Lougor estuary built mountains of men. Halfpenny stretched the lead, centre Arthur Retiere sensing his team needed some gusto cleverly built a pathway to the Scarlets line, as his side searched a first victory away from home in 2018.

The penalty count rose quickly, the Scarlets defence holding firm, as did English referee Luke Pearce issuing warnings as try scorer Sazy catch and drive was stopped, wave after wave of French delivery succumbing and the Scarlets, who released the tension as Davies quick tap and go took play over the halfway line.

‘Escargots’ are usually served as a starter in France and it was the dynamic home back row who broke this snails shell, as the definition suggests ‘eating them alive’ a slow and absorbing feast, garlic emanating from within the broken mollusc.

Expensive these French snails maybe, both as a delicacy where 500,000,000 are consumed annually and from their bank role, which saw centre Pierrre Aguillon and Steve Barry wear their black coloured jersey. Snails, 80% water and 15% protein are easily consumed from the tongue, but beware of a marine cone snail, able to paralyse a fish instantly; a new nickname perhaps for the newest Welsh cap James Davies, Cubby now anything but a young fox, developing a name in his own right.

The final quarter saw Carmarthen Quins former star Dan Jones replace Steff Evans, the back line were ‘mustard’ as the diminutive youngster plays with a Gaelic flamboyance. Beirne set a driving maul from the line out, Parkes made a 20 metre break and Patchell, now at full back strode over before Halfpenny, with no nerves and his side led by twelve points at 22-10.

Beirne was a culprit as the visitors tactics of five metre line outs were stopped illegally, referee Pearce lenient, before heroic defence saw the lines cleared, the crowd restored to full voice. Inexplicably Halfpenny blotted his copybook after Bullring and replacement Werner Kruger dug deep the game in its final throws of glory.

The French side were unable to invade Scarlets territory, Owens and Parkes making headway before McLoed burnt a furrow on the touchline, Williams taking up the mantle, crossing from 25 metres unopposed, Halfpenny resumed normal service and the party in the park bellowed loud and clear.

The final score, at 29-17, a length of the field consolation try from replacement Pierre Boudehent secured the Scarlets place in the European Champions Cup semi-final, as Glynneath’s President Max Boyces signature tune danced the yellow brick road.

Following the other quarter finals, Scarlets will now play Leinster in Dublin’s Aviva stadium on Saturday (April 21), the heart and soul of Llanelli left many a head ‘felinfoel’ the following day. Rest assured, Llanelli and the whole region are ‘quite alright’ as they entertain Glasgow Warriors on Saturday (Apr 7), no thought yet of the semi-final date with destiny.

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Bont up to third

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PONTYBEREM travelled to Burry Port on Saturday (Dec 15), and came away with an excellent 33-5 victory in difficult conditions.

The Bont were looking to bounce back after a disappointing reverse at Fishguard last weekend, in an attempt to keep in touch at the top end of the league, while opponents Burry Port were also looking to get back to winning ways.

Despite the conditions, with credit, the pitch was in surprisingly good nick, but the weather was remarkably bad with both heavy rain, freezing temperatures and high winds throughout the 80.

Pontyberem put in an excellent performance on the day, one which has been described as possibly their best of the season so far.

Photo by Darren Harries

They scored five tries in their 33-5 victory and showed good determination, strength, discipline and no lacking in skill and great handling.

Burry Port suffered an injury midway through the first half and they opted for uncontested scrums from then on.

The try scorers for Pontyberem were Centre Aled Rees (2), wing Tom Lloyd, no8 Wayne WIlliams and Centre Mike Jenkins with one apiece. Mike Sauro amazingly kicked the other eight points.

Burry Port battled hard and crossed over in the final play for a deserved try that was unconverted.

It was a great win for Pontyberem and that now sets up an exciting fixture with local rivals Tumble on Saturday (Dec 29).

Burry Port will now look for a return to winning ways in their next fixture, away to Loughor.

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Scarlets edged out by Ulster

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SCARLETS were narrowly beaten by Ulster in their Heineken Champions Cup game at Parc Y Scarlets on Friday (Dec 7).

A late try had brought them to within a point but they were unable to find a winning score and Ulster held on for a 25-24 win.

Scarlets got the game underway through Rhys Patchell and Ulster knocked the ball on handing possession straight back to the home side. The Scarlets were given a penalty which Patchell sent through the post to give them a 3-0 lead inside the first minute.

On the five-minute mark Ulster found themselves in Scarlets territory with advantage after Scarlets are penalised for offside. The Ulstermen decided to kick for the posts and scrum half John Cooney brought them level.

Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale then ran through Scarlets defence scoring the first try of the evening in the corner. Cooney’s conversion attempt was wide of the mark but Ulster go ahead for the first time.

Lewis Rawlins is taken for a HIA assessment after a big tackle from Sean Reidy. He catches him high and both go off for an assessment. Steve Cummins is on for Rawlins.

Photo by Darren Harries

Scarlets stepped up the pace a little after that tackle pushed in to Ulster’s 22. An attacking phase sees Steff Evans cross the line. Patchell added the conversion putting the Scarlets back in front.

With only six minutes of the first half remaining Ulster got a second try through winger Henry Speight after a period of pressure in the home side’s 22. He crossed in the far corner making it too difficult a conversion for Cooney.

The Scarlets got a foothold late in the first half but couldn’t turn the pressure in to points, kicking the ball in to touch. Ulster kicked themselves out of the pressure position and the score finishes 10-13 at half time.

Scarlets returned to the field in advance of Ulster looking to get a strong start to the second half. Some positive play returns in the form of pressure for Scarlets but unusual handling errors meant that Ulster keep themselves in Scarlets territory.

Ulster were then awarded a scrum penalty on Scarlets’ 10 metre line despite their tighthead pulling the scrum down. They kicked to the corner and set up an attacking phase with a line out on the 22. Centre Will Addison crossed under the posts and scrum half Cooney adds the conversion, 10-20.

As the game passed the 50-minute mark the Scarlets began to find their mojo. Jonathan Davies got them moving in to opposition territory.

The Scarlets ran it from the base of the scrum. There was great work from the forwards to win important territorial gains but they were then penalised for holding on and Ulster won a penalty under the posts which they kicked to touch.

Johnny McNicholl got  the Scarlets moving once again in the right direction. He had great support from his backline and winger Steff Evans gathers and spotted a gap on the touchline to go over the whitewash for his second of the evening. Patchell added the conversion to make it 17-20.

Just as soon as Scarlets get back within three points Ulster hit back with a third try. They got down in to Scarlets territory and ran strongly in midfield and despite what looks like a knock on play continues. Number eight Marcell Coetzee crossed the whitewash. Captain Ken Owens protests that there was a potential knock on and the referee consults the TMO for confirmation. He’s happy that the ball goes back and try is awarded. The wind pulled the conversion attempt across the posts.

Scarlets got back down in to Ulster territory. Johnny McNicholl gets the ball out to Steff Evans who ran along the touchline. He looked like he may make it a hat-trick but he was bundled in to touch.

Scarlets kept building and a try came from replacement flanker Dan Davis. Dan Jones added the conversion but the Scarlets were still a point behind.

The clock turned 80 but the Scarlets managed to keep the game alive. They won a penalty in the shadow of Ulster’s uprights, a kick to touch handed them a line out on the 10-metre line. Scarlets made territorial gains but they were unable to get the penalty required and Ulster saw the game out.

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Old Gold made to work for win

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CARMARTHEN progressed to the Fourth Round of the Welsh Cup with an ultimately comfortable victory over Goytre United on Saturday (Dec 8) – but they were made to work hard for that achievement by the competitive Welsh League side and only secured success thanks to three moments of clinical finishing by experienced strikers Luke Bowen and Liam Thomas.

United almost took an early lead when after only 4 minutes Joe Hopkins produced a speculative long-range shot that skidded unpredictably off the saturated turf, catching Lee Idzi by surprise and forcing the experienced ‘keeper to bundle the ball clumsily around the post.

From thereon the match quickly developed into a fast-paced, end-to-end affair although, with both defences looking quite secure, no further early scoring chances arose until the 16th minute when the Old Gold went ahead after a brief spell of pressure.  Luke Cummings fired a searching corner-kick into the crowded goalmouth where Bowen arrived with perfect timing to plant his close-range header past ‘keeper Luke Martin and into the back of the net.

Goytre immediately responded with a series of spirited counter-attacks but Town’s experienced and well-established back-line of Lee Surman, Dave Vincent and Jordan Knott were, as so often in recent games, in commanding form and capably resisted any serious threat to their goal – and directly ahead of them, industrious midfielders Mael Davies, Greg Walters, Cummings and Declan Carroll eagerly provided a further valuable layer of defensive support whenever necessary.  Consequently, Idzi was never really tested again during this period.

Meanwhile Carmarthen’s strikers were always an available outlet, willingly using their pace and mobility to keep the home defenders fully occupied – and on 35 minutes they went close to extending their lead when, after a slick interchange of passes with Bowen on the edge of the penalty area, Sean Hanbury released a rasping strike that Martin, diving swiftly down at full length, resisted.

In the 41st minute the Old Gold were successful.  Cummings, an increasingly influential figure in midfield, surged forward from the centre-circle before producing a sublime pass that set Thomas racing towards the penalty area and Town’s all-time top scorer completed this incisive move with his customary composure, smartly driving the ball beyond Martin’s reach and into the corner of the net.

After the interval the same pattern of end-to-end football soon emerged but the pace of the game had noticeably quickened with United pouring forward at every opportunity, clearly intent on reducing the deficit.  However the Old Gold defence again comfortably withstood that early pressure – moreover, from those positions, deep inside their own half, they were frequently able to launch rapid counter-attacks.

On 74 minutes Carmarthen further increased their lead in just that fashion.  The ball was played out of defence to Hanbury who moved forward along the left flank before firing a long cross deep into the penalty area where Bowen, with impressive anticipation of the scoring opportunity,  created the time and space to power another close-range header into the net leaving Martin well beaten.

Goytre, stung by that further setback, immediately swarmed upfield and soon went close to reducing the deficit when Hopkins, from 25 yards, struck a promising drive that drew a fine save from Idzi, diving low at full stretch to turn the ball around the post.

Then on 77 minutes Rhodri Cole, from near the left touchline, delivered an inviting free-kick into the packed goalmouth but saw Adam Jenkins direct his close-range header just wide of the goal.

The Old Gold, with some rapid counter-attacking, were still posing a serious threat at the other end of the pitch.  After 81 minutes Walters moved in from the left-wing and, from the corner of the penalty area, released a stunning angled volley that Martin, with a spectacular flying save, turned past the far post.

The exhilarating end-to-end pattern of play continued to the end of the match.  In the 89th minute Hanbury, enjoying possibly his best performance for Town since he joined the club at the start of this season, made ground along the left touchline then lifted a huge cross-field pass that reached Bowen on the right-wing – he, in turn, fired the ball across the goalmouth where Hanbury, having enthusiastically continued his run, sadly managed only a weak shot that Martin easily gathered.

Then in added time at the end of 90 minutes a corner from United substitute Zac Brown reached Thomas Doidge in the goalmouth but from a good position he wastefully sent his looping header over the bar.

This was a highly satisfactory performance by Carmarthen playing away from home against a very capable Welsh League side (that included several former WPL players in its squad), and on a pitch made increasingly difficult by poor weather conditions which was in complete contrast to the 3G surfaces which they have regularly encountered so far this season – all the ingredients for a typical Cup upset were there but, thankfully, overcome by the Old Gold.

For their next fixture Town return to League action when they entertain Barry Town United at Richmond Park on Friday, December 14, k/o 7.30pm.

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