This week’s Opposition View sees the return of @ScarletsHQ as he offers his thoughts on a mixed bag of Scarlets form, the previous encounter with Cardiff Blues and this Friday’s game.
It’s been an up and down season with Scarlets suffering from a lengthy injury list at times, are the struggles all down to that or is there more to it?
There has been a pretty hefty injury list at times this year, that has been undeniable. First team regulars like Leigh Halfpenny, Jonny McNicholl, Rhys Patchell, James Davies, Aaron Shingler, Jake Ball and Steve Cummins (amongst others) have missed substantial time, before even mentioning solid squad players like David Bulbring, Will Boyde, Uzair Cassiem etc missing time too.
That said, there has been obvious and affecting turmoil with the announcement of Pivac as Gatland’s successor, and his search for a backroom team and his planning for post-World Cup will have definitely taken time away from the Scarlets, whether he would admit it or not. Add in the turmoil of the last two months and the proposals to changes to Welsh rugby meaning some players have been left wondering if and who they’ll be playing for next year, and there has been plenty of off field distractions.
Finally a mixed bag of recruitment for next season has left the squad short of a couple of key contributors, and on such a small budget that can really affect results. None of Clayton Blommetjies, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (has since joined Harlequins on loan), Blade Thompson (struggles with concussion) or Uzair Cassiem have been consistently available all year, and that has held us back.
Away form has been quite poor with just one win on the road in all competitions, how much of a concern is that heading to the Arms Park?
It’s definitely a concern. Our path to the Pro12 title a few years ago was based on not caring who or where we were playing, with wins away in Munster and Leinster in the semi-finals and final on the way. This year it seems to have become a mental hurdle, and it will be something we will have to overcome if we want this season to become a success.
Cardiff Blues are an excellent team and we expect a tough game this Friday, but recent better form and the return of some of the Grand Slam winning Welsh squad should hopefully give us some fresh impetus.
It was a comfortable win for Cardiff Blues at PyS in December, expecting a closer game this time?
I would certainly hope so! I don’t think many people would disagree that the reverse fixture was one of the worst home performances of the Pivac era, something that has traditionally been a strength.
I would hope that the newspaper clippings of the last game will be up on the wall in the changing rooms pre match, and that the players will be itching to return the favour. So yes, I’m expecting and hoping for a much closer game this time!
Pivac has opted to leave the likes of Ken Owens, Rob Evans and Gareth Davies on the bench after their Grand Slam exploits, what do you make of the team selection?
I just wouldn’t have liked to be the one who told Ken he wasn’t starting! Honestly I trust Pivac’s judgement, and the pedigree of Marc and Wyn Jones and the form of Kieron Hardy means I’m not too worried. I’m just impressed by what these players can put themselves through week in week out, and with two weeks of the next three after this game off there should be the chance for more recovery ready for the run in.
Who has been the standout Scarlets player this season?
It’s been tough to say! Not many players have managed an extended run in the team due to injuries, fluctuating form and international call ups. From the senior players Kieron Fonotia has stepped up really well and excelled in our system, plays with passion and is a popular figure in the changing room.
But I would share my standout player between some of the younger players who have stepped up during some trying times. Josh Helps, our ex Wales u18s Captain from out West, has shown he is at the very least a capable Pro14 second row, and could be the first homegrown second row we’ve had since the days of Dominic Day or Lou Reed.
My other suggestion would be Kieran Hardy, who has simply been a revelation after returning from Jersey. His story must be an inspiration for any players released from the academy, and his excellent service and ability to make a break has led Scottish international Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, the big name summer signing, to be pushed out the door. He has plenty of class in front of him, but if he keeps up his performances he could get a chance in a Welsh jersey at some point.
Finally, prediction for the game?
Tough to call. Two very strong teams have been picked, but the first week back after the 6 Nations is always physically and mentally challenging for the players. Good weather and the 4G pitch will hopefully lead to an open attacking game, and I’m going to go for a narrow Scarlets win, 25-27.
Thanks again to Scarlets HQ for offering some excellent insight, and here’s hoping the game is as high scoring and entertaining, but perhaps with the scoreline the other way round!