Relief all round as Scarlets find form with win over visiting Tigers
A FIRST win in six matches, a first victory at home since mid-November — there was no hiding the sense of relief around Parc y Scarlets following this much-needed LV= Cup triumph.
"It has been a long time coming," admitted head coach Simon Easterby after watching his side see off holders Leicester thanks to a rousing second-half display.
"To be fair to the players and coaches we have stuck at it, we have come under a bit of criticism and some of that has been justified.
"But what was good was that we rewarded the boys and the fans with a performance and hopefully have set a template for the next four or five weeks which are so important to us."
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After just one win in nine matches, this triumph, even in a dead rubber, was a welcome one for everyone down west with crucial Pro12 contests on the horizon against Connacht and Munster in Llanelli — matches that could make or break the region's play-off bid.
Easterby is likely to welcome back a number of players who have been rested over the last fortnight, but the likes of Adam Warren, Rhodri Jones, Owen Williams, Gareth Owen and Kieran Murphy would have given the former Ireland flanker plenty of food for thought in terms of selection for Friday night.
South African lock Joe Snyman was another to put himself about in the loose and tight in a match that had plenty of Anglo-Welsh edge to it, while skipper Emyr Phillips was his typically tenacious self at hooker.
Williams, whose reputation is growing by the match, kicked seven penalty attempts out of eight to keep his side in contention after Leicester had led 19-15 at the break through three unanswered tries.
"Owen kept the scoreboard ticking over which was crucial when we got the ascendancy in the second half," added Easterby.
"We really kicked on after half-time and our scrum, line-out and some of our back play was excellent which rewarded us with the scoreline in the end."
As for Leicester's director of rugby Richard Cockerill, he admitted the Scarlets had been hungrier for the win than his Tigers side, winners of the Anglo-Welsh crown last season and boasting a number of experienced Premiership performers.
The Scarlets had played with plenty of adventure in the opening half, but still found themselves four points adrift at the break.
With centre Warren and wing Andy Fenby causing the Tigers' defence problems and Williams kicking astutely from fly-half, a crowd of 6,496 were given plenty to enthuse over for their Sunday lunchtime fare.
Yet all the good work by the home side was being undone by ill-discipline.
After Williams had opened the scoring with an early penalty, a series of home infringements led to No. 8 Thomas Waldrom — released from Six Nations duty by England coach Stuart Lancaster — to touch down from a driving line-out.
Williams's boot pushed the Scarlets 12-5 ahead, but the quickfire sin-binnings of Phillips — for coming in at a maul — and Fenby — for palming away a try-scoring pass — allowed the Tigers back into the match.
A penalty try from a close-range scrum was inevitable once the Scarlets eight was reduced to seven and although Williams put the Scarlets back in front with a fifth penalty success, Leicester crossed for their third try on the stroke of half-time with centre Andy Forsyth finishing off a concerted period of pressure.
The Scarlets, though, were not to be denied and dominated the second period.
A sixth Williams penalty reduced the arrears to a point shortly after the restart, but the turning point came when Cockerill opted to haul off his powerful Samoan tight-head prop Lugovi'i Mulipola with half an hour remaining.
From then on the Tigers scrum was unrecognisable from anything resembling a set-piece forged at Welford Road.
The Scarlets shoved them back on their heels at scrum after scrum and with lock Rob Andrew and replacement prop Fraser Balmain shown yellow, the Scarlets went for the jugular.
Another Williams penalty nudged the Scarlets back ahead at 21-19, then Fenby darted down the touchline for the first of three tries in a frantic final ten minutes.
Full-back Gareth Owen cut inside to race under the posts to seal the win and it was left to centre Nick Reynolds to have the final word when he caught veteran Ireland international Geordan Murphy napping to chase his own kick through.