It was in danger of being an anti-climactic festive season, but the Scarlet Christmas period finally sparked into life with about half an hour to go at the Liberty Stadium on December 27th. That game feels like a lifetime ago as the Christmas and New Year festivities become a hazy, bloated, bleary blur of beverages and biscuits.
Strangely, the Scarlets run of Christmas derbies began at Cardiff with a stumble and a stagger and the kind of unsteady performance you would have expected at the end of the run of high intensity encounters. It was a bit like when you get convinced to go for one last pint when you know that, really, it would be better for everyone if you just headed home. A slurring, shambling jumble, past its peak and rambling incoherently.
The game in the Liberty offered hope. We were bright, positive and determined and it was the our own errors and the frustratingly inconsistent Marius Mitrea that gifted the Ospreys their unassailable half time lead. Quite what Mitrea thought he saw at some of the scrums is utterly mystifying. Watching Dimitri Arhip and the Ospreys front five being shunted backwards at pace could only mean, to Marius, that the shady Scarlets were cheating in some way and he repeatedly ordered resets rather than awarding penalties. Bizarre. But…the Ospreys took their chances and we failed to create any meaningful openings and exert any real pressure on a punch drunk Ospreys side creaking badly at the seams. Close but no cigar.
Saturday’s encounter was undoubtedly our best performance of the season. We were ferocious, streetwise and physical. Where, a week earlier, we had allowed Alun Wyn to referee the game, this time we forcibly asserted ourselves and Pivac’s appeal for leadership seemed to have taken root. Our key players stood up. Watching the coverage again, it was so heartening to see Liam Williams taking charge prior to kick off. Forceful, still a whirling dervish, but with control and focus. A new Liam. He has developed hugely over the past 12 months and is clearly revelling in the responsibility of being one of our key men. Marvellous.
Similarly, it seems that Scott has flourished in the absence of Foxy. He was majestic on Saturday evening. Seemingly able to carve the Ospreys open at will with dazzling footwork, slight of hand or a searing turn of pace. He ran riot causing total chaos and creating the second try with a turbo charged break at the beginning of the second half. Scott has played well before and particularly at times this season but that was the kind of performance, as captain, that will give him enormous confidence and sends a stark, deafening message to Gatland. He is the best centre in Wales on current form. But does Warren care?
Elsewhere? Where to begin? Our pack were dominant in every facet against a more than useful Ospreylian 8. The scrummaging of Rob and Samson was a joy to behold and it will take Arhip, Baldwin and Thomas a long time to recover from this brutal chasing. Even the fresh legs of Aaron Jarvis did little to turn the tide and this is a notable fillip for our young pack, led expertly by Barclay and Gog, while the work rate of Ball and Snyman was phenomenal.
In addition, our aggressive defence put our west Walian rivals under enormous pressure with an honourable mention going to Hadleigh Parkes. He’s not a winger. He’s not particularly quick. He is, however, physical, committed and a leader. He kicks well and makes good decisions. It’s early days but so far the signs are that he is a positive and valuable addition to the playing staff.
But. Hyperbole abounds…particularly in Wales. Excellent value as we were for a memorable win, we must begin to recognise that while we are able to match ANY side at home, we are unable to match ANY side away. Our away form is miserable and Pivac has admitted as much to the press this week stating, “When we are at home, those energy levels are up.That’s something we are going to have a really good discussion about this week, to take that sort of performance on the road.”
The reality of the situation is that we have just lost an accomplished playmaker to Bath. Rhys is not a good goal kicker, granted, but every other aspect of his play was superb on Saturday evening. He comprehensively out-gunned Biggar in the battle of the fly halves, admittedly helped by an armchair ride. He will take some replacing. To replace him with proven quality, we must qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
At the moment, that prospect hangs in the balance with a resurgent Connacht putting Munster to the sword on Friday. We play Connacht at home on an international weekend in February, which is hugely problematic for us given that we are likely to lose half a dozen key players with Connacht unlikely to be affected.
The next month or so is absolutely crucial and will define this season and next. Away games at Glasgow and Leicester and home encounters with Toulon and Connacht. Pivac has made a promising start and our performances at Y Parc suggest that there is far more to come. However, it is our away form and Pivac’s ability to manage a weakened squad that will define us. In a month we will no far more about Pivac, the coaching team and playing squad. If ever there was a time to get down to the Parc and support it is now.
A huge challenge awaits. 10 league games to go and all to play for. Who said this restructured Pro 12 was a bad idea?