Scarlets 24-13 Dragons
MORGAN Stoddart made a dream return from injury to help the Scarlets return to winning ways with victory over the Dragons at a rain-soaked Parc y Scarlets last night.
Stoddart, who has been out of action for 14 months recovering from a horrific double fracture of his leg, dived over 10 minutes from time to seal an error-strewn triumph for the West Walians.
Having led 16-3 midway through the second half thanks to a controversial try from centre Gareth Maule, the Scarlets had allowed the Dragons back into the contest at 16-11.
But Stoddart’s intervention sealed a win that will send Simon Easterby’s side into Europe in good heart.
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They will know there is plenty to work on, but a vastly improved set piece, spearheaded by man of the match Samson Lee, will have given the Scarlets cause for optimism before they head to Clermont.
The Scarlets had gone into the game on the back of two successive defeats which had led to them surrendering their position at the top of the Pro12 table.
Just one week out from a Heineken Cup opener against one of Europe’s giants, Clermont Auvergne, Easterby brought back Wales internationals George North and Scott Williams behind the scrum, although centre Jonathan Davies was rested and Rhys Priestland was named on the bench.
Alongside him was Morgan Stoddart, who was set to make his return to action after 14 months recovering from a horrific double leg fracture.
There were plenty of familiar faces in the Dragons line-up, with Dan Evans and Nic Cudd recent departures from Parc y Scarlets — Cudd was making his regional debut for the Men of Gwent just three weeks after leaving Llanelli’s Premiership side.
With the rain teeming down, unsurprisingly there were mistakes from both sides in the opening exchanges.
The Scarlets went into the game as the leading try-scorers in the league and their two top scorers were in action early, with Fenby opening up the Dragons defence and handing on to North, only for the Wales star to lose the ball attempting an ambitious offload.
It was the visitors who got the scoreboard moving through a fine long-range penalty from fly-half Steffan Jones on nine minutes.
Opposite number Aled Thomas responded by bisecting the posts from wide out as the Scarlets started to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
However, conditions were playing a major part in the flow of the game.
The much-maligned home scrum won a penalty on 22 minutes, only for Thomas to push his kick wide, then came a bizarre passage of play that eventually led to the game’s opening try.
After a great break by the impressive Liam Williams, the Scarlets were awarded a penalty from close range, only for Thomas to strike the upright.
The ball bounced clear into the corner and while the Dragons were seemingly getting ready for the 22 drop-out, Maule followed up and dived on to the ball before it went out of play.
It took an eternity for television match official Derek Bevan, who was pretty busy on his last visit to Llanelli, to adjudge the penalty had missed, and a lot less time to make the decision that Maule had claimed the try.
Television replays later suggested that the penalty had been good.
To rub salts into the wounds of the Dragons, Thomas converted from the touchline, only to miss a sitter minutes later.
It was proving a curate’s egg of a kicking display from the Carmarthen product, who after missing two simple efforts, struck one over from 40 metres out on the touchline to make it 13-3, then added another from a similar position to put the home side in control at half-time.
The Scarlets will feel they deserved the advantage, having gained the upper hand at the set piece and played all the rugby with ball in hand, but the Maule try was a major talking point at the interval.
The Scarlets brought on Stoddart at half-time for Fenby, who had been limping during the first half.
It brought to an end a long road back for the Wales international, who last played in the World Cup warm-up at Twickenham in August 2011
With the home scrum driving home its advantage and the Dragons line-out spluttering badly, the visitors continued to live off scraps.
It needed some desperate scrambling defence to deny the Scarlets a second try after a snipe by the lively Tavis Knoyle and a charge from prop Phil John.
Stoddart too was getting himself involved, clearly hungry after so much time on the sidelines.
But the Scarlets were still struggling to move through the gears.
A penalty from the boot of Tom Prydie reduced the arrears to 16-6 after 59 minutes, then the Dragons stunned the home crowd with an opportunist score from Adam Hughes on 62 minutes.
A neat kick through from Dan Evans put Scott Williams under pressure and when he fumbled the greasy ball, Hughes snatched the score.
Prydie’s conversion made it 16-13 and suddenly it was game on.
Errors were littering the Scarlets’ build-up play, but just as the home fans were starting to get twitchy, a penalty from replacement Rhys Priestland pushed his side six points clear.
It also saw Dragons scrum-half Jonathan Evans sin-binned for holding on to possession in the shadow of his own posts.
A fine counter from Liam Williams put Stoddart away down the touchline, but he was hauled down by some last-ditch cover defence five metres out.
However, Stoddart was not to be denied his comeback score, taking a lovely miss pass from Priestland to dive jubilantly in at the corner.
There hasn’t been a more popular try at Parc y Scarlets in a while.