Edinburgh v Scarlets: Five Things We Learnt
By Ben Parker
1. What's the Mata you?
The debate has raged on since the days of David Lyons and Ben Morgan about the Scarlets’ effectiveness at making yards on slow ball. When it comes to recruitment, the desire for a Scott Quinnell type no. 8 has been at the top of Scarlets’ supporters shopping list for many a year. Our approach to the game is clear - split the back row on the touch lines reminiscent of an All Blacks approach to the game, and look to play expansively - but I believe there is still a space for a genuine pragmatic number 8.
The lack of an out-and-out ball carrying no. 8 is particularly apparent in difficult away games, such as those miserable nights at Ravenhill and the Sportsground.
Aussie David Lyons was a destructive ball-carrier for the Scarlets for several seasons
...or Murrayfield. Edinburgh’s number 8 Villame Mata constantly carried hard in close-quarters, drawing in at least 3 defenders at a time, making 84 metres from his 24 carries. Add to this his two tries and one assist, and that's not a bad days work for a no. 8. In comparison, the Scarlets’ entire pack only made 21 metres off 46 carries, which isn't pleasant reading for any Scarlets fan and highlights a clear Achilles’ heel: we struggle to make hard yards with ball in hand as a collective. For the meantime, we could benefit from adopting the Exeter chiefs blue-print of close-quarters latch, five-metre carries.
In terms of the current no. 8’s we possess, it must be said that Will Boyde has done a fine job of late and cannot be far off international recognition. The summer acquisition of Blade Thomson has certainly turned a few heads down west, with some wondering whether he was covering second row or back row. Having played blindside and no. 8 this season he has shown himself to be a different mould of no. 8 to the likes of Ben Morgan, demonstrating the kind of ball-playing and offloading skills that were prevalent during his time with the Hurricanes in Super Rugby.
However, the jury is still out on our other backrow signing Uzair Cassiem. The 8-times capped Springbok shone in the Pro14 at times for the Cheetahs last year, particularly in his man of the match performance against the Cardiff Blues and a strong display against the Dragons at Rodney Parade, but he’s not had many appearances so far this season to replicate this form. In the glimpses we have had of him, he was excellent away at the Kings, providing a much needed extra lineout option whilst making 13 tackles. That being said, the Scarlets could really do with Cassiem coming of age in terms of his ball carrying presence in the next month.
Uzair Cassiem has yet to hit the heights he reached for the Cheetahs in Scarlet colours.
2. Morgan rocketing to stardom?
Morgan Williams’ performance from the wing was very composed for a 22-year old making his first start in the Pro14. At 6ft1, he adds good height to our back line and has good ability under the high ball, an area we have been put under pressure in in the past. His ability to cover the whole back three is a feather in his cap and stands him in good stead to make future appearances.
The former Wales 7s player has an eye for the try line, as he showed in his well taken try off Fonotia’s break at Murrayfield, and his tally of 8 tries in 7 appearances is an impressive return. Morgan has taken his opportunity well after impressing in pre-season and in his showings for the Scarlets ‘A’ side, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses.
3. Defence is a worry
We have been leaking tries regularly this season, conceding on average 3 tries a game, which is a damning statistic. The absence of Caerphilly-born Lewis Rawlins has been significant in the second row, as he often delivers a high tackle count and is hugely effective in the Courtney Lawes-esque tackles he makes, hitting the opposition back resulting in a lack of gainline success for the opposition. This part of our game needs to get back up to the standard shown against Toulon at home in Europe last season, which was a vintage defensive performance and must be the benchmark going forward.
Furthermore, the lack of breakdown nous which James Davies provides really is hurting us this year, as we are unable to slow opposition ball down, resulting in relentless attacking waves we are seemingly powerless to prevent. Attacking-wise, our poor decision making is very noticeable, with us kicking the ball away 18 times, often straight to opposition players. This, combined with a lack of kick chase, lead to the ball being caught time and time again by the dangerous Van Der Merwe and Mata, who made easy yards on the kick receipt. This is reflected in Edinburgh’s carrying stats, which showed they made 318 metres ball in hand - almost double the Scarlets’ figures.
Whether not finding touch nor green space in the back field is a tactical ploy or just the result of poor kicking, it highlighted how different a side we are without the lieutenant Rhys Patchell orchestrating the backline.
4. The Final Quarter
A theme of the last few games is our inability to keep the lead and build momentum in the final 20 minutes. The lack of clinical game management was evident for all to see as Pyrgos and Hickey pulled the strings for Edinburgh, after we missed the opportunity to maintain the upper hand when we were leading 21-17 in the 51st minute. Sadly, it was a case of déjà vu with around 20 minutes to go; we attacked the blindside and Fonotia kicked out on the full, leading to an Edinburgh lineout on our 10 metre line, which lead to a box kick, followed by an Edinburgh penalty at the breakdown, which was kicked to the corner, resulting in a try. Critically, this was at a time when Edinburgh were down to 14 men, and better decision making could and should have resulted in us building on our lead and clinching an important away win. Pivac was understandably fuming at the end of the game and commented that we should have kicked on with the numerical advantage, citing silly errors as a key problem.
Our poor final quarter was compounded by conceding two scrum penalties, a real area of weakness of late. Gardiner’s yellow card seemed harsh and was difficult to see from the TV footage, but the numerical advantage for Edinburgh lead to a try which banished any chance of us getting a losing bonus point.
5. The Crusaders Link
The link-up between Johnny McNicholl and Kieron Fonotia has bared fruit a few times already this season, with their understanding from their time at the Crusaders in New Zealand being particularly obvious against the Ospreys. On Friday night Fonotia was at his rampaging best, picking up from where he left off after his ban with a great outside break and assist to Morgan Williams. The link up with McNicholl was disrupted by a few basic errors, e.g. when McNicholl made a clean break in the 32nd minute but knocked on in the tackle. This would have been an ideal time to strike back after Edinburgh had scored in the 28th minute, but instead put us on the back foot again. That being said, he did continue his try scoring run, tormenting the Edinburgh defence at times, scoring a great try after skinning Socino. He looks to be back to his best and making yards at will, and we need to get him on the ball more off 1st phase to utilise his positive running lines.
Kieron Fonotia has linked up well with Johnny McNicholl since his arrival from across the Loughor.
Whilst the overwhelming feeling after the game was one of disappointment at another narrow away defeat, it should also be noted that we could have easily come away with the points despite missing a large portion of our first team - a familiar theme so far this season. It will be interesting to see if our fortunes change for the better when our key absentees return.