Scarlets 22, Blues 16: Scarlets get job done in LV= Cup
THERE was a wry smile on the face of Simon Easterby when asked about the prospect of Kirby Myhill joining the ranks of Wales's battered national squad this week.
"Great for Kirby, not so great for us," said the Scarlets head coach as he contemplates the prospect of heading to Cork to take on Munster next weekend without three front-line hookers.
But these are the stark realities of autumn in Welsh rugby.
It is the season of regional coaches nervously watching Test matches through their fingers, while avoiding ladders, mirrors and black cats in the hope of their star players coming through unscathed.
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There again, at least there's only the All Blacks and Wallabies to come.
What shape the Scarlets, Blues and Ospreys will be in by the time their squad members return for the next round of Heineken Cup action in December is anyone's guess.
Already, the Ospreys are facing up to the prospect of heading to four-times champions Toulouse without Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and possibly Richard Hibbard and Dan Biggar.
Josh Turnbull is one of the Scarlets casualties so far, while Matthew Rees and Rob McCusker have also been on the treatment table.
There are sure to be more.
It has got to the stage where the Welsh sides are now resting fringe players for the LV= Cup to ensure they will be injury-free for the resumption of league action.
And you wonder whether those regions have the same appetite for an Anglo-Welsh competition that in the past has proved an entertaining distraction.
Easterby and Blues boss Phil Davies did give certain players the cotton wool treatment on Saturday, but they were still able to put out competitive line-ups for a hard-fought pool encounter.
"These last two weeks have served a purpose for us," admitted Easterby, after a strong second-half showing earned his side a first victory of the competition.
"The first 50 minutes against Worcester was excellent and the second half against the Blues was good, but it was nowhere near where we want it to be and we are going to have to be a lot, lot better against Munster.
"The pleasing thing is that we came out of it with the right result.
"I get a little bit frustrated and sometimes in the first few minutes after a game I can be fairly negative to myself, but looking back at that second half we were much improved."
Easterby will know the Scarlets line-out and discipline will also have to be improved at Musgrave Park, but one area which would have delighted the former Ireland flanker was a high-powered scrummaging display which helped claw the home side back into the contest after they had trailed 13-3 late in the first half.
Samson Lee, one of four players on show who had been released by Rob Howley in the week, gave the Wales coaching team something to think about with a hungry performance at set-piece and in the loose.
And when the 19-year-old made way for South African Jacobie Adriaanse, the home dominance continued.
Of course, it is far too early to suggest the Scarlets' scrummaging ills have been cured, especially when the Blues scrum has had reverse as its default position for the majority of the season.
But at least it was something to warm the hearts of a decent crowd of 6,469 on a chilly evening.
"We haven't had that scrum dominance in the past and it fed us crucial points," added Easterby.
"The plan this season was to strengthen that position (tight-head) with quality and I think we have done that. Danny (Wilson) has also done a lot of work not just with the front row, but the second row as well with feet positions and body height and they are working hard in the scrum as well.
"We are not going to get it spot on like that every week, but we have seen a steady progression in that area, which is pleasing."
Another to show up well was full-back Liam Williams, who picked up his third man-of-the-match award of the season.
Williams has developed into one of Easterby's most consistent performers and also unveiled a potential goal-kicking option, pushing a long-range penalty just wide and landing a second attempt to draw the sides level at half-time.
After dominating the opening 15 minutes the Scarlets were hit by a sucker punch of a try from Blues flanker Luke Hamilton — a former member of the Scarlets academy.
Fly-half Gareth Davies kicked two penalties to make it 13-3, but a reckless shoulder challenge by prop Sam Hobbs on Williams saw the pendulum swing back in the favour of the home side.
Perhaps Hobbs felt he could get away with such hits after watching the Samoans in action the night before, but he was fortunate the card brandished by referee JP Doyle was only yellow. Williams was also fortunate to still have his jaw intact.
Within minutes the Blues were underneath their posts after Doyle ruled one forward surge by the Scarlets scrum was enough to warrant a penalty try and after Williams had dusted himself off to step up for a penalty, it was all square at the break.
A Davies penalty shortly after the restart made it 16-13 to the visitors, who were searching for a first win over the Scarlets in six attempts.
But it was replacement Aled Thomas who steered the Scarlets home with three penalty successes — one of which led to Hamilton spending the final 10 minutes in the bin.
Thomas has proven a fine deputy to Rhys Priestland this term, while Dan Newton impressed at fly-half in his first appearance of the season following a groin problem.
Hooker Emyr Phillips also made an encouraging return as a second-half replacement.
It could prove timely.