Please Mind The Gap!

Here is a sobering reality for any Welsh rugby fan. Since 2012, the premier talents of Ben Morgan, George North and Jonathan Davies have bid west Wales farewell and departed for the lucrative shores of the Aviva and the Top 14.

However, it is not only the loss of these star names that has contributed to our current predicament, but also the loss of experienced, talented and consistent performers. Earlier today it was announced that Dom Day has signed a new contract with Bath. A player reborn in the West Country.

In addition, over the past 3 seasons, we have lost Andy Fenby, Sean Lamont, Gareth Maule, Damien Welch, Stephen Jones, Tavis Knoyle and Josh Turnbull. World beaters? Perhaps not, but more than competent, experienced professionals that the club would, in an ideal world, wanted to remain at the region. Looking at our current pool of wingers, I’ve never missed Andy Fenby more…

The dust has settled on Welford Road and Leicester. A casual look at the scoreboard would suggest an emphatic victory for the Tigers and a 40 -23, 6 try to 3 scoreline would endorse this view. However, we trailed by just 3 points at half time and probably should have led if were not for a misfiring lineout shorn of the athleticism of Joe Snyman and some erratic goalkicking from the otherwise excellent Priestland.

In the run up to the game, Pivac appealed for character and he got it in abundance from his young, earnest and callow squad. Rob Evans was magnificent in the tight and loose, a constant nuisance (my favourite moment was him advising Ghilardini where to throw it) showing no shortage of spirit or quality. Hadleigh Parkes is developing into a real cult hero and is already one of the first names on the teamsheet while Scott Williams just gets better and better, a totemic and inspirational figure.

Honourable mentions must also go to Aled Davies and Jake Ball. I don’t think Aled has had enough credit so far this season. He is a technically excellent scrum half who rarely makes a poor decision and I thought he had a good game on Friday evening. There are not enough superlatives available for Jake Ball. Just imagine how good he is going to be when he is 27. An incredible specimen.

In fact, I would argue that we had the better individuals on show. We have plenty of stardust in the form of Scott, Rhys, Jake and Rob and some solid reliability in the form of Gog, Barclay, Hadleigh and George. So what was the difference?

Age, experience and cold hard cash. In abundance.

Rugby is no longer a 15 or even 23 man game. Its brutal, physically gruelling nature means that a player being ever present in a season is a thing of a bygone age. On average, 20% of your squad are unavailable at any one time through injury. During the Autumn Internationals and 6 Nations that rises to 35%.

On Friday evening we were without Samson Lee, Gareth Davies, Rhodri Jones, Ken Owens, Emyr Phillips, Kirby Myhill, Michael Tagicakibau, Joe Snyman and Phil John. At least 8 of those players would have been included in the match day playing squad. At least 4 would have started the game.

This is not a sob story. All sides have injuries. Very rarely will you see a side field their first choice XV. That is the nature of the modern game. However, with the majority of our budget being tied up in our key internationals, as it should be, the gap in funding between Leicester and ourselves became evident during the second half when a raft of quality emerged from their bench to save the day and emphatically put us to the sword. As shows of strength go it was as assertive as it was decisive.

Realistically, we had punched ourselves out by half time. Pete the Meat is a good scrummager and scrummaged commendably during the first half but the arrival from the Leicester bench of a fresh front row trio in the form of vastly experienced Argentine international Ayerza,  British Lion Youngs and promising youngster Balmain must have sent a shiver down his already exhausted spine.

Leicester were not only able to call on talent from their bench, but experienced talent. During the first half we had witnessed the seemingly evergreen Brad Thorn replaced by England international in waiting Graham Kitchener and by the time the young pretender Owen Williams left the pine, the damage had been done and the game had long been over.

The average age of the Leicester starting team was 29 years 5 months, in comparison to our 25 years 9 months. 7 of our starters were 24 or under in comparison to Leicester’s 1. The average age of our replacements was 23 years 6 months compared with Leicester’s 26 years 6 months. The oldest replacement we used was the 25 year old Rory Pitman, hardly an experienced campaigner.

I do not mean to sound like I am denigrating these players. I believe they are all talented players who performed admirably in a hostile environment. Ultimately though, age and experience (expensive) told with the seasoned campaigners emphatically and clinically taking control of the game.

We kept going and huge credit must go to all involved for a display packed with commitment and character. The reality is we simply don’t have the resources to compete with sides that still manage to pack their benches and squads with experienced internationals in spite of injuries and international call ups.

The gap is only going to get wider with the Aviva Premiership sides having their salary cap increased and being able to augment an already hefty 5.5million with 2 marquee signings and a £400,000 budget for academy players. Realistically that takes them into the realm of the French clubs. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how we are going to catch up, particularly given the nature of our precarious league position.

We have done ourselves proud in Europe again this year, whatever the result against Toulon on Saturday, when it will be David against Goliath once more. I implore Scarlets fans to pack out Y Parc on Saturday evening for one final hurrah in this season’s competition. Let’s hope it is a see you soon and not a goodbye.



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