There were only three clubs not based in a city in this season’s Champions Cup. Castres, Northampton and ourselves. The Scarlets represent something that is unique in the Champions Cup. We are a European outpost. A club based in a smallish working class town in the west of Wales representing a largely rural region. However, it is not the size of the town (Castres is smaller than Llanelli with only 43,000 inhabitants) that sets us apart from our European rivals. It is the close bond that the region has with its supporters. They represent us because they are bred within. Honed and developed within the region. A club that is a true representation of their local area.
On Saturday evening Toulon’s cosmopolitan blend of rugby superstars were worthy winners. No arguments there. They controlled the game and clinically turned pressure into points. Their hulking behemoth of a pack was brutal in the tight exchanges and the sheer power they were able to exert upon us was a stark reminder of where we reside in the European pecking order.
At one point prior to a first half scrum, the sheer size of the two packs emphasised the sobering reality of the task that we faced. It was like looking at a youth pack going toe to toe with the seniors. That said, we afforded them far too much respect during the first half and it was all too easy for them to dictate the pace and tempo of the game.
The second half was a different affair altogether. We appeared to grow in belief and confidence and gave them a real game. Lewis Rawlins was magnificent and I’ve been hugely impressed with his bravery and attitude over the past month. I must hold my hands up here and admit that I was cynical about his chances of making the grade. However, he is brave and gutsy and put in a couple of shuddering hits on far bigger and more decorated Toulon players. Furthermore, he didn’t appear overawed by the task, a further indication of a good attitude and the most precious sporting commodities of belief and desire. For me he now is a viable alternative to Shings Snr and Gog at 6 and provides us with real depth in that position.
The emergence of Lewis Rawlins represents yet another player to have been developed within the region. The 24 year old Caerphilly product arrived via Cross Keys in 2012 on a development contract but is beginning to flourish under the tutelage of Pivac.
Indeed, for all the stars on show at Y Parc on Saturday evening, the brightest star of all was our Academy. Looking at our 23 man squad, 15 players had come through either the Scarlets Academy or been developed by the semi-professional feeder teams. The academy and the development of players within our system represents our lifeblood. Of the 36 players that were registered for the Champions Cup 26 were homegrown compared with Toulon’s 5. An incredible 72% of our squad. Imagine where we would be without it? Imagine where Wales would be without it?
In addition, the lengthy absentee list for the final leg of the Champions Cup group stage included Samson Lee, Phil John, Ken Owens, Emyr Phillips, Kirby Myhill, Jake Ball, James Davies, Jordan Williams, Liam Williams and Gareth Davies all of whom have been developed by the Scarlets. Add to this already glittering list, George North, Foxy, Ben Morgan, Josh Turnbull and Dom Day and you begin to understand the staggering array of talent that we are producing. I’d argue there isn’t a finer, more prolific system in the sporting world. Truly world class.
Even with the arrival of the dual contracts (a contentious subject following Saturday’s early departure of Scott and the suspicious absence of Jake) we are in no position to abuse the chequebook and spend big in the manner of a Bath, Toulon, Saracens or even London Irish (Pat Mckibbon signed today to follow hot on the heels of Sean Maitland and Ben Franks). That is why identifying the right players becomes imperative. We don’t have the financial muscle to attract world class internationals and realistically they do not represent a good option for us.
We need players that will be available throughout the season who can offer a good quality and consistent level of performance to help bind our talented local players together. Hadleigh Parkes has been superb since his arrival from the Land of the Long White Cloud and if Pivac is able to unearth players of a similar calibre we will be in a strong position in terms of our playing squad ahead of 2015-16 season.
However, currently it is the top 6 of the Pro 12 that must be our primary concern. We currently find ourselves languishing in 8th place. Mercifully we do not play Connacht for 3 weeks giving the bruised and battered bodies of Shingler, McCusker and co time to recuperate and recharge ahead of a crucial run in.
We found ourselves at an identical juncture last season with 28 points from 13 games. Then we managed to put a run of form together to take 27 points from our final 9 fixtures and finish in 6th place. This season will be more hard fought than last with many twists and turns still to come,
Our European adventure may have ended in a resounding defeat but the spirit that was shown at Y Parc on Saturday will have given supporters heart and hope. Our Pro 12 season is just getting interesting. I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey.