A new era beckons for Scarlets

Tom Dean
24 June 2019

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A long season of hard graft came down to the final two games but it wasn’t to be in the end for Scarlets.

The finale to the 2018-19 regular season became a sprint to the finish with Benetton for the final Guinness PRO14 Final Series qualifying spot in Conference B – but ultimately, it was a race the Scarlets couldn’t win.

A 42-0 win over Zebre in Round 20 was followed by a narrow 34-32 loss to Welsh rivals Dragons, meaning they would have to settle for fourth place.

That did, however, lead to an all-Welsh shootout for the final European Rugby Champions Cup spot but a defeat to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium only served to rub salt into the wounds.

That European play-off defeat means that Scarlets won’t be involved in Europe’s top tier for the first time in their history next term – hardly ideal for the 2018 semi-finalists.

Key strengths

Despite their disappointing finish, there were positives for Scarlets to take from the season in the attacking department.

They finished with the third-highest average for metres made and clean breaks over the course of the entire season.

Much of that is owed to star man Johnny McNicholl, who put together some phenomenal performances, resulting in impressive statistics across the board and an 11-try haul.

Scarlets finished second for most passes put together on average per game too, which is no mean feat considering first-choice fly-half Rhys Patchell missed large parts of the season.

Areas to improve

Injuries are part and parcel of the game but it is no surprise that Scarlets have struggled when unable to field some of their key operators this season.

Patchell and Leigh Halfpenny both missed half of the season while Aaron Shingler was unable to take to the field altogether.

Over the years, Scarlets have become renowned for causing havoc around the breakdown and forcing turnovers – but they haven’t been themselves of late.

Steff Evans has often been effective as a first receiver, too, and integral to how they break down defences on repeat phases but it’s decision-making that was awry last season.

Star moment

Scarlets’ Round 2 match-up with Leinster wasn’t just about testing themselves early on in the season but it also presented an opportunity for revenge.

Beaten by the Irishmen in the previous Guinness PRO14 Final, Scarlets had a point to prove and prove it they did by surviving a late fightback in a 23-21 victory.

Halfpenny was on song with the boot, converting both Ken Owens’ and Gareth Davies’ tries and adding another three penalties to take his personal tally to 13 points in the game.

Leinster hit back through Rhys Ruddock to set up a dramatic finish and piled on the pressure with phase after phase – but Scarlets held on for a thrilling win.

Victory for Scarlets meant a 22nd consecutive home win, a run that extended until Cardiff Blues beat them 34-5 after Christmas, and was a huge scalp to kick their season off.

Star man

Scarlets and Wales fans will have been licking their lips watching Johnny McNicholl run in the tries last season, with the speedster eligible to follow Pivac to the Welsh international set up after the World Cup.

Only Rabz Maxwane scored more tries than McNicholl’s 11 and nobody beat more defenders than the 28-year-old over the course of the entire campaign.

In fact, the Christchurch-born speed merchant finished in top five for metres gained, defenders beaten, offloads, clean breaks and carries.

His performances earned him a nomination for the Guinness Players’ Player of the Season award and he will be a key figure for Scarlets moving forward if they are to improve on last season’s final position.

Breakout player

It had been a long time coming for scrum-half Kieran Hardy but this season has provided him with consistent game time to show Scarlets fans what he is capable of.

The 23-year-old from Pontyberem has stepped out of Gareth Davies’ shadow and highlighted his credentials with a stunning two-try performance in his side’s defeat to eventual Guinness PRO14 champions Leinster in Round 14.

Hardy managed 16 appearances compared to Davies’ 12 over the course of the season and gave away only eight turnovers to Davies’ ten.

Who’s in?

Hurricanes lock Sam Lousi was the first headline act to arrive at Parc Y Scarlets this summer.

The Auckland-born second-rower has Tongan heritage and stands at 6ft 6in, also weighing in at 19 stone, so could prove to be somewhat of a battering ram for the Llanelli outfit.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Danny Drake – another lock – has also arrived to bolster Scarlets’ second-row options, with the highly-rated 24-year-old arriving from North Harbour.

And 20-year-old scrum-half Dane Blacker has also come in from Cardiff Blues while Dan Davis has been promoted from the academy.

Who’s out?

Departing head coach Pivac will be the biggest loss for Scarlets this summer but the appointment of replacement Brad Mooar was a relatively swift one.

In terms of playing staff, Scotland international Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has said his goodbyes to west Wales, signing for French side Racing as a medical joker until November.

Second-row Tom Price will be heading off to join Exeter Chiefs while Will Boyde will be linking up with Cardiff Blues.

David Bulbring and Declan Smith have also been released from their contracts, with the former joining Kubota Spears in Japan.

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