Scarlets left to rue tough break
Clermont Auvergne 49, Scarlets 16.
HEARD the one about a Wales international being sent off by an Irish referee against French opposition?
Then you know the ending throws up a huge amount of frustration.
The Scarlets flew back from Clermont Ferrand on Saturday evening, with a cabin full of battered and bruised bodies and a bag-load of what ifs.
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The scoreboard will tell a tale of a six-try hammering, but head coach Simon Easterby and Clermont's Vern Cotter both admitted afterwards that 49-16 didn't reflect anywhere near the full story of this Pool 5 opener.
"Harsh to say the least," was the response of Easterby when asked about Morgan Stoddart's dismissal for two yellow cards, just 37 minutes into his first start in 14 months.
The first came after just quarter of an hour when the wing instinctively caught a pass from home scrum-half Morgan Parra when tracking back from an offside position.
It didn't appear a cynical attempt to halt play and there was no doubt a touch of gamesmanship from the canny Parra about the incident. But referee Peter Fitzgibbon thought otherwise and Stoddart probably didn't help his case by turning and attempting to run downfield.
As for the second yellow, moments before the break, it was brandished for Stoddart's failure to roll away from the ball after making a try-saving tackle on the rampaging Sitiveni Sivivatu a yard out from the line.
At the time the game was finely poised at 13-13 with the Scarlets giving as good as they got.
"We came with a good gameplan and it was going well for 30 minutes, but the sending off changed everything," lamented Easterby. "For the second one, he knew he had just binned Morgan and he just showed no empathy for the game."
Clermont will argue that Stoddart was halting a near certain try with yellow jerseys lining up for the score.
But regardless of whether Mr Fitzgibbon was right or wrong to reach for his pocket, there is little doubt that the decision turned what was promising to be a thrilling contest into a one-sided rout.
"The way we started, we weren't just competing with Clermont, we were on top," added Easterby.
"The players were excellent; they got a lot of things right and yes, we got a few things wrong.
"We went down to 14 men so we didn't deserve to win the game, but we also didn't deserve that scoreline.
"If we had managed to keep all our players on the pitch things might have been a bit different, but we will never know that thanks to the ref."
The challenge now for Easterby and his squad is to lock this defeat away quickly.
They go into Saturday's clash with defending champions Leinster bottom of the pool after Exeter returned from Dublin with a commendable losing bonus point.
They also picked up a number of worrying injuries with Aaron Shingler, Liam Williams, Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies among those to leave the field with knocks.
It was a brutally physical contest with the casualty rate rising alarmingly as the game progressed.
And as Clermont emptied their bench with one international replacing another, it again showed that life at the top end of European rugby is pretty unforgiving.
Unforgiving because the Scarlets had offered 200 or so travelling fans genuine hope of another famous triumph in France with an opening half of high- tempo rugby that bristled with intent.
Back-rowers Rob McCusker and Josh Turnbull hurtled into rucks, Jon Davies, Scott Williams and George North powered forward with purpose, while Rhys Priestland pulled the strings expertly at fly-half.
But as the game wore on, the home side began winning the collisions with some bone-rattling hits taking their toll.
The Scarlets also didn't help their cause with a charged-down kick, lost defensive line-out and late interception which contributed to three of the Clermont tries.
It had looked oh so different early on.
After a fly-past by the French equivalent of the Red Arrows, it was the visitors who soared into an early advantage, silencing the deafening noise of the fantastic home support inside three minutes.
Sharp feet from North and slick hands from Priestland and Scott Williams put Davies away out wide with the Wales centre finishing in style, cutting inside the flailing attempts of three defenders to cross.
After Priestland converted, two penalties from the influential Parra got the stands rocking again, before Priestland — who enjoyed a faultless afternoon with the boot — pushed the Scarlets 13-6 ahead with a penalty and snap drop-goal while Stoddart was in the bin.
Parra was at the heart of Clermont's resurgence and on 33 minutes the French pivot collected a training ground line-out move at the tail before feeding All Black Sivivatu to coast under the posts.
Then, with three minutes left on the clock, the game was transformed.
Sivivatu chipped ahead then weaved his massive frame to the line — although the Scarlets later insisted he had put a foot in touch — before being hauled down by Stoddart close to the whitewash.
Quick ball looked certain to produce a try, but Stoddart failed to roll away and Fitzgibbon had no hesitation in brandishing the yellow again and then the dreaded red.
The Scarlets desperately needed to hang in there at the start of the second half, but it started in disastrous fashion and the remaining 40 minutes had an inevitability about them as the Clermont crowd bayed for blood.
A charged-down clearance from Priestland two minutes after the restart led to a penalty try being awarded from the ensuing scrum. Then, taking full advantage of the absent Stoddart out wide, Clermont crossed for three further tries down that channel.
Wales full-back Lee Byrne, who enjoyed a fine match, man-of-the-match Damien Chouly and back-row buddy Julien Bonnaire all touched down, before wing Naipolioni Nalaga burgled a pass from Priestland in the dying seconds to rub further salt into already painful wounds.
For Cotter it was the perfect start as his side look to go one step further than last season, when they crashed out to Leinster in a dramatic semi-final in Bordeaux.
But the Kiwi also recognised that the Scarlets remain a threat in this pool.
"We were under the gun in that first half," he said.
"I am just pleased that we responded well to that pressure and we are going to need to be able to respond like that again. We are under no illusion that this pool is as tough as tough can be."
As for Easterby, he knows that the defending champions have to be beaten in Llanelli on Saturday to avoid his side becoming the first victims of this pool of death.