What's actually up with the Scarlets?
By Greg Caine
Our recent disappointing results in Europe have led certain Wales-based media outlets to suggest that the Scarlets ‘just aren’t the same’.
If you haven’t read it, maybe give it a quick scan before reading on. On seconds thoughts, maybe best not to feed the clickbait machine - I’ll just give you the gist of it here.
Here’s the main reasons given for our ‘downturn in fortunes’:
Scott Williams’ departure
Loss of form for Hadleigh Parkes and Steff Evans
Pivac working his notice
Opponents have worked us out
While the article gave us a general overview, it didn’t really give any sort of tactical insight into what exactly is going wrong with us on the field of play, and most of it was just pointing out what we already know.
To be fair to the mystery journalist, he/she's not wrong – some (not all, but I’ll get to that) of the factors cited are definitely playing a part in our perceived loss of form – but I think they’ve had more of an impact on our tactical play collectively than first meets the eye, with a proportion of these factors actually being inextricably linked. It’s actually the top 3 that I’ll focus on here.
‘No Plan A’
I wrote an article earlier in the season about how our lack of physicality in defence at the breakdown last season cost us in our two biggest games of the season, which were the semi-final of the Champions Cup and the Pro14 final, both against Irish giants Leinster.
We had a fantastic Plan A last season, which most teams found impossible to deal with. To recap what was mentioned in my previous article, our defensive plan is essentially this:
Our defensive line approaches the opposing attacking line with as much speed as possible
Win the 1st phase collision – either stop them in their tracks or push them backwards – normally doubling up, with one defender going for the legs and another for the ball
Don’t commit more than 2 to the first ruck, and instead focus on getting our defensive line set and spread evenly across the pitch
Our breakdown operators – Beirne, Barclay, (no longer, sadly), Cubby, Shingler, Owens etc. – then make themselves a nuisance, slowing the ball down and taking further momentum out of the attack
Rinse and repeat until the opposition kick the ball back to us, make an error, or we turn the ball over via jackal, rip, or other method.
To elaborate on this, a large focus of the plan (and very possibly the ultimate aim, as in the best possible outcome) was to win the jackal, which was made possible not only by the groundwork which has been laid by the first 4 stages of the above plan, but by utilising players that are not only intelligent decision-makers, but athletes who are perfectly suited to this style due to their physical attributes – a good combination of strength and pace, without having an excessive amount of either.
See below a turnover from Tadhg Beirne’s extensive collection, in last season’s 10-10 home draw against Leinster, for a perfect example of how this is carried out.
As you can see, the groundwork for Beirne’s superb turnover is laid by the fantastic defensive work in the 3 phases previous. Other players we’ve been missing this season, like John Barclay who’s departed to Edinburgh and Aaron Shingler who’s out for the season, contribute a lot to this groundwork with their marshalling of the defence and their ‘donkey-work’ (no offence lads) at the breakdown to slow opposition ball after the hit.
The reason we didn’t commit many players to the rucks is because we like to have our players get onto their feet and back into the defensive line as quickly as possible. This is because our backrowers, and our pack generally, weren’t suited to an arm wrestle – we simply didn’t have the muscle up front to enter into a scrap over the ball at every breakdown. Instead, we’d be more opportunistic, keeping our breakdown operators out of the arm wrestle of a ruck and waiting for the right time to strike at a jackal.
Change of Plan
Last season, this ‘Plan A’ was extremely successful - until we faced Leinster, where because we were getting dominated physically in that initial collision, we were having to commit more players to the breakdown, including our turnover specialists, which meant we not only were unable to challenge for the ball, but also didn’t have the numbers in defence to cope with their relentless attacking waves.
I'd argue that Pivac & co. figured that in order to go one/two steps further and win the Champions Cup, we needed to adapt to deal with the uber-physical sides, and our off-season recruitment reflected this – big fellas such as Cassiem, Thomson and Kennedy were recruited in order to not only give us that extra muscle at the breakdown, but to add further depth and give us the option of another weapon in our tactical arsenal.
Big fellas: Uzair Cassiem, Ed Kennedy and Blade Thomson were all brought in, presumably to add some more depth, physicality, and variety to our back row options.
I believe this was all part of giving us a ‘Plan B’ – or, to be more precise, to improve on our current Plan B - an alternative approach to the breakdown (and thus our defence and attack) for when the turnover threat is nullified by the opposition’s pure physicality. Not only that, but our Plan A would’ve been enhanced. However, to quote the great Robert Burns (that’s right, I’m about to quote Robert Burns in a rugby article): “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” (Or for the Scots reading, “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, Gang aft agley”).
And agley they’ve gone, due to a combination of things: mainly, a horrendous injury list and a failure to replace the turnover threat that left in the summer in the shape of Tadhg Beirne. In the Scarlets backroom staff’s defence, there’s no other 2nd row in the world that can do what Beirne does and replacing him was always going to be nigh on impossible, and nobody could’ve predicted the number of injuries we’d sustain, particularly to key personnel.
As a result of this, our Plan B has now become our Plan A; our physicality has improved significantly, reflected in the bruising, hard-fought wins over Leinster and more recently the Kings, but we’ve sacrificed a certain amount of turnover threat, as well as leaking more points than we’d like to.
"Are there any other factors at play?" No
With regards to Scott Williams’ departure, I think this has been overplayed as a reason for why we aren’t performing as well. We have two world-class international centres, who will more than likely by Gatland’s 12/13 partnership going into the World Cup, plus Kieron Fonotia who has been a revelation since crossing the Loughor up until his ban – and as much as we miss Scott, who is a great player and a Scarlet through and through, his departure isn’t having any bearing on our performances this season.
The idea that the opposition have worked us out is nonsense. Teams do extensive analysis on their next opposition, and every opponent we’ve come up against will have seen exactly what we do - but knowing what to expect and being able to counteract it effectively are two different matters entirely. We’ve played a similar style for the past 2-3 seasons now, and only Leinster have really had an answer to it. Teams are definitely successfully spoiling our free-flowing style of play, but not because they've worked us out - just because it's become easier to do so.
"Wayne Pivac working his notice" having an impact on our performances is again, nonsense. As was alluded to in the original article.
The loss of form of Hadleigh Parkes and Steff Evans is simply picking out two key players from a team that is under-performing generally in comparison to the standards we've come to expect.
What I’m trying to say is, we are actually in a remarkably similar position to last season. We are 2nd in our conference, having scored more points and conceded less than any other team bar Leinster. We have lost 2 from 2 in the Champions Cup, but as recent history shows, it’s still more than possible to qualify from your pool after such a start.
The situation at Parc y Scarlets is nowhere near as bad as sensationalist media discourse will have you believe. It is simply a case of a terrible injury list combined with an adaptation phase to a different style of play. Once our key players return, particularly in the backrow, our performances will improve significantly.
Whether they’re back quickly enough to save our European season remains to be seen.