AUSTRALIA defeated Wales on Saturday (Nov 11) at the Principality Stadium in the first game of the Under Armour Autumn International series to stretch their run to thirteen consecutive victories over their hosts dating back nearly a decade. Wales now haven’t won their opening match of an Autumn series since 2009 [40-3 v Romania] and this result also extends the Wallabies current unbeaten run to seven, their longest since reaching the 2015 World Cup Final at Twickenham.
Such is their current pedigree they took the scalp of arch rivals New Zealand 23-18 last month and this green and gold side are content to mobilise the ball in direct lines whenever possible, whilst expertly managing the game away from their own try line under pressure. Their first half dominance laid the foundations for the success as they had 67% possession making the home side make 80 tackles to defend their line, whilst having to make just 30 themselves.
Statistics won’t lie to Head Coach Warren Gatland, who selected a side which included eight Scarlets players and scrum half Aled Davies carded as a substitute. Gatland had changed the game plan which served him so well over the decade he has overseen the national side, looking to develop a line up capable of challenging at the very top come the 2019 World Cup.
He gave a debut to Gloucester playmaker Owen Williams at inside centre and with injuries in the backrow of skipper Sam Warbarton, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric his hand was forced to play exuberance, vigour and players in form alongside Taulupe Faletau. Stepping up to the plate in the heat of the battle were Josh Navidi and ‘son of Hendy’, flanker Aaron Shingler, both of whom were tenacious in their defence duties.
A nervous Welsh start settled after six minutes when outside half Dan Biggar put a searching kick into the Aussie 22 and winger Liam Williams followed up to charge down the clearance from full back Kurtley Beale. A scrambled defensive clearance subsequently saw hooker Ken Owens find second row Jake Ball at the front of the line out before third phase ball found winger Steff Evans coming in on the opposite wing to draw a penalty for offside on the 10m line. Leigh Halfpenny, in his first international game under a Scarlets ‘flag’ duly slotted it over for a 3-0 lead, which lasted less than four minutes as the green and gold responded through hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau. He was driven over by his fellow forwards following their first real incision into Welsh territory allowing outside half Ben Foley to convert for 7-3 lead.
Spurred into action prop Rob Evans, returning after a prolonged absence for a head injury suffered against Connaught in September combined with centre Jonathan Davies for the red machine to move the ball 45m, only to see former Scarlets winger Liam Williams held up with a last ditch tackle.
Wales were now confident and scrum half Gareth Davies made an incisive 30m break. Quick second phase ball set centre Jonathan Davies clear once again to put Williams away on a 3 v 1 overlap; demonstrating quick hands through Halfpenny it allowed winger Steff Evans to crash over in the corner on his home debut and Halfpenny added the extras for a lead of 10-7.
The game sea sawed again after 23 absorbing minutes when second row Adam Coleman waltzed over unopposed with Rob Evans guilty of ball watching, for a converted try to see Australia lead 14-10. The experienced Foley and half back partner Will Gena were vibrant and positive with the ball in hand putting Wales firmly on the back foot.
Composure was needed under pressure and the go to man in the line out was back row star Shingler, who was winning ball at the front or back of the line. One such success resulted in a penalty permitting Biggar to kick to the edge of the visitors 22 but to no avail. In such an open and fast game, where the collisions between players was high on intensity, the difference emerged between the two nations as Australia converted their opportunities into points.
Wales conceded a penalty after Tom Francis in the front row was penalised for not scrummaging square and the Wallabies accepted another penalty decision from New Zealand referee Glenn Jackson allowing winger Reece Hodge to thump over a monster penalty and a 17-10 lead with five minutes of the half remaining.
Halfpenny responded with a 35m penalty from in front of the posts after Ken Owens had won the ball back for his team, but Australia completed the first half scoring when some sustained drives and slick hands drew the defence allowing flanker Michael Hooper to slew over the line for a superb try, converted by Foley on the cusp of half time for his side to lead 24-13.
Optimism for the second half was held where the Dragon could roar dependent on them making key decisions to clear their lines and play in the opposition territory. That optimism amongst the crowd was raised when Halfpenny and Faletau put Liam Williams in space and his kick took play midway into the opposition half only to see the ball lost in a tackle on Jonathan Davies. Faletau and Williams again combined on the opposite wing as Foley was putting the ball into the rooftop testing Halfpenny and Evans who fielded the bombardment with aplomb.
Biggar set up a line out from 15m after a penalty was awarded for holding the ball and after several phases of driving play Halfpenny nailed a straight forward penalty from 20m out, leaving Wales eight adrift at 24-16 with half an hour to play.
Turnover ball on halfway saw some enterprise around the hands of Rob Evans as he again sounded the battle cry for his team mates to grow in stature and play the situation which panned out before them. A scrum free kick moved skipper Alun Wyn Jones to call for a second set piece where Faletau and Williams combined on the blindside making 30m as pressure was imposed on the visitors 22 line. Wales were now like a pack of hounds who had found a scent and were firmly hunting for the jugular of a Wallaby side who were pinned inside their own half.
Evans grubber kick was collected by Jonathan Davies as the red tide built momentum to a chorus of hymns ‘n arias. A penalty conceded for not rolling away saw discussion between Jones, Biggar and Halfpenny before the full back pushed his kick wide of the right hand post from just inside his own half.
Bancyfelin born Davies was on fire, bringing his ‘Lions’ form from the summer to the banquet and he collected the restart as play returned deep into Australian terrain.
An expansive Welsh back line moved the ball at will as the halfway point of the half passed, with winger Evans, his namesake Rob and Shingler to the fore in rugby more akin to a Barbarian’s style. On small margins games at the highest level are won and lost; full back Beale performed a sublime tackle to not only stop a flying Evans in his prime but emerge with the ball and race from his own half to score under the posts before anyone in the 70,275 could draw breath. Foley converted for a 29-16 lead as the crowds astonishment at what they had witnessed in a match changing split second slowly dawned and their appreciation followed.
The high tempo of the game saw substitutes enter the amphitheatre and Hodge land short with a penalty from inside his own half as the time wound down to the final 15 minutes. Back came the Men of Harlech and Hooper was yellow carded with Jackson’s patience was eliminated with the build up of infringements. From the dominant scrum Wales applied pressure through Biggar’s touch finder with eight minutes to play. His forwards secured good line out ball to draw another penalty in front of the posts as scrum after scrum ensued in the anticipation of tasting the ‘Bread of Heaven’ from the top table. Scrum half Davies emerged into space to make good ground only for his skipper Jones to spill the ball with the line agonisingly close.
Aled Davies came on at scrum half and fellow replacement Hallem Amos was held up just short of the line as Wales went through a plethora of moves to test the wilting golden wattle to the brink. Biggars hopes of a quick play were called back by Jackson and from the resultant penalty ball was again secured at the line out which allowed for some enterprising handling before Amos harvested his first international since the 2015 World Cup. Halfpenny missed the touchline conversion which would have put Wales within a score of victory and the game ended 29-21 and parity in terms of possession and territory, a startling turn around on the first half statistics.
Gatland will be pleased, if he can be in defeat where the set piece was dominant, the defence successfully making 98% of their 264 tackles but most importantly seeing his attacking options bear fruit. In an offensive display his runners beat their man on 20 occasions and off loaded 18 times as they had a 100% success from mauls and 95% success rate at rucks, conceding just three penalties, ten less than their opponents.
The error count ultimately proved the difference for Wales between success and failure as Australia outscored them four tries to two. To a man those Scarlets players who drew on their countries colours did themselves, their Region and nation proud, where the tourists clinical execution of turn over possession to points was key. Youngster Evans will reflect on a positive try scoring attacking display with some concern over his defensive decision making. He will do well to remember Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Scarlets style of play is certainly a blueprint Gatland and his staff are embracing for the future.
Injuries to Evans plus more concerningly Lions star centre Davies may cause some player rotation before Wales take on Georgia tomorrow [2:30pm] with an eye on New Zealand the week after, coached by former Wales head honcho Steve Hanson who bring an unbeaten record stretching back 64 years.
One Scarlets player who will not be playing in these games will be New Zealand born centre Hadleigh Parkes, who is earmarked for a debut in December against South Africa. Parks was reunited with Scarlets Head Coach Wayne Pivac when he came to Parc Y Scarlets in 2014 and he will be a beneficiary of the three year residency rule, allowing him to make his debut three years to the day from his signing for the Scarlets.
Scarlets name unchanged XV for final pool clash
THE SCARLETS will welcome RC Toulon to Parc y Scarlets on Saturday afternoon in the final pool game of the 2017-18 European Rugby Champions Cup campaign.
A victory for the Scarlets would see the region make it through to the knockout stages of the coveted competition for the first time in over a decade and head coach Wayne Pivac has rewarded the side that secured such an emphatic victory over Bath last weekend by naming an unchanged XV.
With over 13,500 tickets sold already Saturday’s game will be the region’s biggest in European history at Parc y Scarlets, the record currently stands at 12,392 against Leicester Tigers back in January 2011.
In the only change to the replacements bench the region’s supporters will be delighted to see British & Irish Lion Leigh Halfpenny return to fitness.
Looking ahead to the game head coach Wayne Pivac said; “We know what to expect from Toulon, we’ve come up against each other on numerous occasions in the last few years. We need to make sure that we’re defensively on our game.
“There was only one point separating the teams in the first round of the competition this year and we gifted them some points early on from our errors. To fight back and get ourselves into a position to possibly win the game out there was very pleasing.
“I think it’s going to be another one of those games. It’s the same for both teams. Whoever gets the win is through. It’s a chance for both of us. We’re not through yet but you don’t want to be the team looking at the mathematical equation. It’s all set up for a great evening.”
Scarlets side to take on RC Toulon at Parc y Scarlets, Saturday 20th January, kick-off 5.30pm;
15 Rhys Patchell, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Hadleigh Parkes, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Paul Asquith, 10 Dan Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 1 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens ©, 3 Samson Lee, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 David Bulbring, 6 Aaron Shingler, 7 James Davies, 8 John Barclay
Replacements; Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Werner Kruger, Lewis Rawlins, Will Boyde, Aled Davies, Steff Hughes, Leigh Halfpenny
Elfyn Evans raises the stakes in Monte Carlo
ELFYN EVANS’ bid to add further success to his history-making win on last year’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB blasts off with next week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo (25-28 January).
As tradition dictates, the FIA World Rally Championship commences with the notoriously challenging Alpine classic – a wintry event that always throws up an ultra-testing cocktail of ice, snow and slush making the already demanding mountain roads among the trickiest on the 13-round WRC calendar, which reaches Wales in early October.
Evans has contested Rallye Monte-Carlo four times previously and has never finished outside the top eight. His best result to date is sixth place on his debut in 2014 and again last year.
“It’s never an easy event,” admits the 29-year-old from Dolgellau. “There are so many factors that come into play that you don’t generally get on a more normal round of the championship but it’s an iconic way to start the year. The stages themselves – if you take away all the snow and ice – are absolutely fantastic.”
Since taking his maiden WRC win in Wales – the first for a Welsh driver, and the first for a British driver on home soil since the late Richard Burns in 2000 – Evans has been promoted by his title-winning M-Sport team. For 2018, he and co-driver Daniel Barritt line up alongside five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier in one of the Cumbrian outfit’s pair of front-line Red Bull-liveried Ford Fiesta WRCs.
“It’s a good place to be alongside Seb again this year,” he enthused. “We worked together well last year – albeit on different tyres – so to continue that on now with identical equipment is a fantastic opportunity.”
While clearly keen to make the most of his coveted seat alongside the French maestro, Evans is by no means overawed by his illustrious team-team. “He’s a fantastic benchmark to have in the team, has a lot of experience and is the best in the world at the moment, so you’d be a fool not to capitalise on that and learn from him. My aim, though, is always to try to beat him if we can.”
And the Welshman is certainly brimming with confidence after his break-through season in 2017 when he not only posted his first WRC victory but also two impressive second place finishes en route to fifth place in the final WRC championship standings.
“We made some good steps forward and found a happy place with the car – hopefully we can continue improving from there,” he disclosed.
Evans, though, will need to be at his brilliant best not just to beat Ogier but also to fend off some world class opposition in what promises to be another thrilling world championship series. Last year’s introduction of new technical rules not only introduced faster, more exciting cars but also created renewed rivalry between the top teams.
M-Sport might have won both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ crowns in 2017 but the opposition from Citroën, Hyundai and Toyota will be even stronger in 2018. Evans, however, believes the M-Sport technicians – now benefiting from increased support from Ford – will keep the Fiesta in front.
“There are small improvements but ultimately, with the regulations as they are, it doesn’t give anyone the scope to make massive changes. More a case of tweaking here and there,” he explained.
“We already had a strong platform, we just need to keep nibbling away to find gains in performance. Hopefully, the guys have been doing that over the winter and we all will continue pushing hard with the support of Ford this year. There’s always been a Ford connection with some engineering support but that’s now stepped up a level – that should help us to improve and stay at the top.”
While next week’s famous Rallye Monte-Carlo will provide a stern opening test, the WRC calendar throws up numerous challenges before the intrepid teams encounter the legendary Welsh forests in early October. As ever, the calendar is an epic adventure ranging from the snow packed tracks of Sweden to the rock-strewn mountain passes of Mexico and Argentina.
“To be honest, there are no rounds that I’m not looking forward to,” continued Evans. “I now have fond memories of just about all of the events. My focus this year will be to enjoy them all and to get the most out of each one, rather just targeting a handful.
“It will, of course, be special to be back in Wales,” he grinned. “The DMACK tyres obviously helped to put us in good position last year, now we’re equal Michelins to everyone else. Let’s wait and see. It’s a few months away but, obviously, we will be looking for another great result.”
In the meantime, all those wanting to follow Evans’ fortunes on television are spoilt for choice with both live and highlights coverage of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship on Channel 5, BT Sport, S4C and Red Bull TV.
Tickets for the 2018 Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (4-7 October) will go on sale when the competitive route is revealed in April.
Scarlets set up Toulon showdown
SCARLETS head coach Wayne Pivac, as an ex-policeman, orchestrated a crime of immense proportions at the Recreation Ground in Bath on Friday (Jan 12), when his Scarlet side won their must win European encounter 35-17.
Greeted onto the pitch by Greenhill School’s year 10 students as flag bearers, the game got off to an electric opening when Wales international centre Scott Williams caught the kick off and immediately referee Jerome Garcos awarded a penalty.
Outside half Dan Jones line kicks missed touch in the initial stages and his nervousness in such a titanic game was obvious.
Second row, Irish international Tadgh Beirne, rescued the situation by taking the line out ball against the throw, with the tackling strong from the visitors who were unable to recycle the ball as the game settled.
A blooded nose for skipper Ken Owen as ‘Bread of Heaven’ rang loudly from the Thatcher’s terrace, alongside sympathy for former outside half Rhys Priestland, whose birthday celebration were ruined when he limped off with a pulled hamstring to be replaced by Freddie Burns.
The Scarlets, now set and stable and got a nudge on at the scrum to establish the mantra for the evening with scrum half Gareth Davies darting clear on the blindside; England international full back Anthony Watson showed a clean pair of heels himself in response when running 40 metres from deep in his danger zone with flanker Sam Underhill in support.
A score was inevitable with such a frantic opening and it was the Scarlets who got the scoreboard rolling in a scintillating manner after nine minutes, starting from Beirne’s clawed line out ball.
Williams made the initial break, finding the support of second row David Bullring; centre Hadleigh Parkes took up the mantle finding Australian winger Paul Asquith, to flanker Aaron Shingler as they moved the ball with silky hands hitting gaps before it fell once again to the marauding Beirne.
From 15 metres out, he produced a Phil Bennett sidestep to screech in for a try converted by outside half Dan Jones.
Hymns and Arias was resounding into the cold air but the try was sweet, Neil Diamond’s appreciation of Caroline perhaps a better analogy for possibly the try of the season from the Land of my Fathers.
Freddie Burns pinged the Bath opening score after No. 8 John Barclay stopped their forward impetus and left the field for ten minutes on the French referee’s direction.
It was the Scarlets however who then dug deep, making ground and managing the game time superbly.
Shingler, running straight and with purpose made the gain line.
Full back Rhys Patchell and Parkes endeavour had the 13,822 crowd on the edge of their seats, which put Asquith in corner for a score despite being down to 14 men.
There was no stopping the red tide as five minutes later scrum half Davies rumbled 25 metres and found Welsh international Parkes on his shoulder and the centre crossed for his ninth try in 71 appearances, under duress, for a converted score and a 19-3 lead.
Williams was on fire, making another break to set up a scrum when the Scarlets were living in the moment; if he timed the pass his side were clear again for a score and perhaps on reflection needed just to consolidate their exuberance and make half time with their tail feathers unruffled may have suited.
A war of attrition with short passes and yardage in the tight areas wore down the clock and with it the Bath players and supporter’s hearts. The dominant scrum was verbalised loudly from prop Rob Evans and Jones slipped over the penalty for a half time lead of 22-3.
Bath as a city welcomes an array of nationalities but the atmosphere that trounced around the English fortress in January was full of ‘Heart and Soul’.
The Welsh contingent were delirious with their melody for a team of ‘Samson Lees’ eloquently reverberating around a city’s proclaimed architecture. Having been missing from the front row for many weeks before Christmas the prop was quite superb alongside fellow international Evans and his skipper, Ken Owens anchored between them.
Pivac has been coaching for 22 years since his first footstep on the rung in Northland, New Zealand but the victory in the back yard of the Aviva Premiership rugby giants was surely up with his best moments. Pro 12 champions last season having beaten Munster in Dublin to return a week later and rumble Leinster in the same venue included.
The ‘Rec’ was a cultural phenomenon, when Scarlets rugby once more came of age as they sat on the brink of a place in the European quarter final for the first time in 11 years. Bath rugby had lifted this trophy 20 years ago under the leadership of Scottish scrum half Andy Nicol’s but through their parade at half time, would have been in awe of the first half performance.
Music and Wales go hand in hand. Greenhill School, on tour at Backwell with the year ten students playing football, rugby and netball had the experience of a lifetime arranged through PE teacher Phil ‘Taffy’ Williams.
A school whose equally renowned musical talent under Samantha Hughes would have taken the Irish love ballad ‘Fields of Athenry’ to new heights given the opportunity.
Innate to the Irish famine of 1845 this anthem of the ‘underdog’ often resonating at Landsdowne Road or even Anfield a mercurial throw back to the task that sat before the visitors.
Top of Conference B the Scarlets took control early in the second half as they went in search of their bonus point try. The home eight were not match at the scrum set piece as Owens didn’t hesitate in choosing a rumble instead of taking a pot at goal.
Three times they drained the time and the Bath spirit, perilously close to crossing the try line through forward drives. Six minutes into the second half Patchell received the ball to deftly put a grubber kick through, allowing Williams to dab down wide out and Jones add the extras for 29-3.
The red tide were feeding the baying supporters cries for evangelical bread, where the ‘manna’ and intensity was unyielding. The team of Samson Lee lost their talisman on 55 minutes as his replacement Werner Kruger was rock sold as the choristers ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ resonated loudly and proudly.
Bath coaching guru Todd Blackadder needed his side to develop a pattern of play as they refused a kick at goal in search of a try, which came when winger Matt Banahan caught Burns kick in the corner allowing the outside half to convert with an hour played.
‘Long John’ Welsh second row Luke Charteris, a man with a biochemist degree and a fluent French speaker to boot took the hand-me-down inspirational singing to his hear. Not one for ‘losing my religion’ the boiler house man’s efforts allowed him a well earned rest at the same time as opposite number Bullring.
Over 150 years of rugby history in North Somerset has placed foundations from which the home side ran with their head of steam. Pivac manipulated his cast list with the game and full points in the bag, with Aled Davies arriving at inside half. Tried and trusted combinations saw Owens and Beirne orchastrting the line forcing Watson to desperately run from deep as the ‘big shift’ put in from down West was recognised.
Owens, Hong Kong born Barclay, and Evans were done but still the tide wouldn’t subside, drawn to their supporters in the Dyson stand as Pivac’s decision to play a six to two forward split off the bench drew a scrum penalty.
Jones added the points for a 32-10 and a fourscore lead with 12 minutes to play. The defensive patterns were as impressive as any offensive effort, Patchell making a last ditch cover tackle on Zach Mercer with five minutes to play typifying the ‘hywl’.
Top of the ball line out and replacement Josh Macloed madeground and play was outside the danger zone with Jones clearance. Back came Bath and No. 8 Zach Mercer couldn’t be denied in the opposite corner for a converted try after a cutting run from winger Aled Brew, skipper Matt Garvey and second row Paul Grant.
Williams and Prydie responded to gain a penalty for offside with ‘Sospan Fach’ finishing proceedings fittingly, with Jones boot, edging the score to 35-17.
The Bath faithful, forlorn and remorseful took an early bath wondering what had happened.
LTC Mobility sponsored Furnace rugby club members summed it up amidst their exuberant acclaims.
Centre and club vice captain Scott Davies hoarsely crooned: “It’s the best away trip I’ve experienced. Our 1800 strong choir left nothing in the changing room and it was certainly a factor in lifting the squad.”
On Saturday (Jan 20) another blockbuster awaits, when Toulon visit Parc Y Scarlets and the home side need a minimum of a bonus point to progress into the knockout stages.
Davies smiling face finished the evening with: “Let this be the springboard to the next level. This could be the year we lift the Heineken trophy and the whole of Europe will stand up for the champions.”
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