Gulf shows as Scarlets suffer home defeat by Clermont
IF the Welsh regions had felt there was a gulf between the haves and have-nots of European rugby before this Heineken Cup campaign, that gulf looked more like a chasm in Llanelli on Saturday evening.
The Scarlets had never previously lost to a French side at Parc y Scarlets in this competition with Stade Francais, Brive, Perpignan and Castres having been beaten following the move from Stradey Park five years ago.
With Clermont in town, that record never remotely looked like continuing.
For a club/region with such a proud history in this tournament, this latest reality check will be hard to take down west.
But the bottom line is that the Scarlets, having once been ranked in the top five sides in Europe alongside Toulouse, Leinster, Munster and Leicester, are now freefalling towards the bottom tier with the likes of Treviso, Connacht and Zebre for company.
This season, more than any in recent memory, has highlighted that Europe is no longer a level playing field.
Yes, the Ospreys bucked the trend with their stunning victory over Toulouse at the Liberty last month, but genuine shocks have been few and far between this season and it is no surprise to see the best-funded sides sitting pretty in the quarter-finals.
The war chests available to the Michelin-backed Clermont, the galacticos of Mourad Boudjellal's Toulon and even Ulster and Saracens are leaving the paupers of continental competition scrapping for crumbs of comfort.
And the Scarlets are among them.
On Saturday, Clermont head coach Vern Cotter opted to rest, among others, star centre Wesley Fofana, All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, Aussie fly-half Brock James and drop Regan King to the bench.
In their place he had the luxury of bringing in Benson Stanley, capped three times for New Zealand, as well as France internationals Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu and David Skrela with 119 appearances for Les Bleus between them.
Last year's semi-finalists — who had won 41-0 on their only other visit to Llanelli in 2008 — played with the confidence, adventure, power and precision of a champion team in waiting and the Scarlets had no answer.
That said, Simon Easterby's side didn't help their cause and like much of this Pool 5 campaign, many of the wounds came self-inflicted.
"We conceded 24 points in the first half and they didn't have to work for a huge amount of those," conceded Easterby afterwards.
"Against any side that is tough, but against a team like Clermont you just a dig a big hole for yourself.
"It has been a tough campaign.
"Have we learnt things? I think we have.
"We have learned we are making basics errors and not being accurate in key areas of the pitch and that is going to hurt you against the top sides.
"Clermont are a quality outfit, as good as anyone in this competition.
"They have got a squad who can compete on all levels and it doesn't take me to pinpoint the fact there is an obvious gulf in the strength of the squads and that comes down to the size of the budgets.
"But I still think we have underachieved with the squad we have got. There are a lot of things we have got wrong in this competition."
Falling off one-on-one tackles, aimless kicking and gifting interceptions were three on the home charge sheet on Saturday, allowing Clermont to cruise into a 17-0 lead in as many minutes.
And from the moment Fijian powerhouse Napalioni Nalaga romped over after Kristian Phillips and Aled Thomas had been brushed aside by Malzieu and Benjamin Kayser, there was an air of resignation to go with the icy chill at Parc y Scarlets.
Morgan Parra, who could easily have earned the man-of-the-match award on the back of a 33-minute scrum-half masterclass, snaffled Rob McCusker's pass for the second, then Stanley cut a sharp line to slice through the home midfield for the third just before the break.
To their credit, the Scarlets offered up a contest after half-time, evening up the possession and territory stakes with Wales wing George North coming more into the game and international colleague Aaron Shingler making an impact off the bench.
But apart from a breakaway from centre Adam Warren which led to Josh Turnbull knocking on over the line, the only glimpse of past glories came via the mesmeric hands of former Scarlets favourite King, who delivered a sublime offload to his skipper Rougerie for Clermont's bonus-point try.
How the Scarlets fans would love to see the All Black still weaving his magic in Llanelli, but Clermont's bargaining power is such that they can afford to offer a player of King's calibre a hefty contract and then use him sparingly when needs must.
King's presence in the yellow and blue of the Vulcans also showed how much quality has left Llanelli in recent years.
David Lyons, Stephen Jones, Sean Lamont and Ben Morgan are among those who have said their farewells and the Scarlets haven't been able to replace that international pedigree.
The absence of injured Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland should also not be underestimated.
He is a player who gets the Scarlets three-quarters moving and at the moment, the home back division is a pale shadow of what it can be.
Positives? The set-piece was much improved with Samson Lee continuing to develop at tight-head prop, George Earle put in another mighty shift at lock, while Liam Williams was his usual whole-hearted self.
Easterby will also console himself that a brutal run of fixtures that has seen his side suffer at the hands of the Ospreys, Ulster, Leinster and now Clermont, is finally over.
"I think we all knew this pool was going to difficult and maybe I was a bit over-ambitious at the start," admitted Easterby.
"But I still say we bombed a couple of games. Exeter home we played poorly, Leinster home we played poorly — we have contributed to the losses.
"But we have got to try to put Europe behind us and try to build some momentum for the Pro12 games we have during the Six Nations."
It is now six years since the Scarlets graced the Heineken Cup knockout stages.
At the moment, they look as far away from returning there as they ever have.