Scarlets hit by power failure as Ospreys finally find form
IT'S not been a happy weekend in Llanelli unless you're a grief counsellor who's been short of work of late.
Business will have been booming after the Ospreys' surprise 23-16 derby success at Parc y Scarlets.
Many home fans streamed out early after Hanno Dirksen scored the visitors' second try. The disgruntled looks on their faces suggested they weren't hurrying off to catch the final episode of Parade's End on TV.
Some had simply seen enough of the action unfolding in front of them.
They'd arrived with high hopes of witnessing their side score an emphatic victory; they left with the singing of Ospreys fans ringing in their ears.
They weren't alone in feeling unhappy.
In his TV interview after the game, Simon Easterby looked as if he'd just heard that the meteor fireball that lit up the UK sky last Friday evening had landed directly on his car.
"We lost out on the 50-50s, conceded ball too easily and the possession and territory stats were heavily in favour of the Ospreys," he lamented.
Invited to comment on refereeing decisions that went against the Scarlets, he was having none of it. "There are no excuses," he said.
"We were not good enough. In fact, we were far from good. We were poor in a lot of aspects of our game."
Credit the Scarlets coach for his honesty.
Like Steve Tandy a week earlier, he made no attempt to disguise his true feelings in defeat. He was unhappy and he let it be shown. Not for him greeting adversity with a smile.
How a coach reacts to a loss, and how his players respond to the cue from the man overseeing them, can go a long way to shaping a team's season.
Easterby was a winner as a player and he gives every impression of being made of the same stuff as a coach.
That said, he will be counting the minutes to the arrival of all the Scarlets' imports for the season, with his front five so obviously underpowered, a point the Ospreys ruthlessly exposed.
They deserve a pat on the back for the way they got their act together after opening the season with three defeats. Undoubtedly, they were helped by being written off. Many doubted they would be competitive in Llanelli let alone emerge victorious.
Their coaches got the psychology right, with Tandy initially branding their performance against Glasgow "unacceptable" and then the line being all week that there was no crisis in the camp but they were respectful of how dangerous the Scarlets were.
They travelled west without expectation, a factor which doubtless contributed to a vastly improved display which belied the sides' respective positions in the Pro12 table.
On the night, the moment that summed up the game wasn't a try or a goal-kick, missed or otherwise.
It was Richard Hibbard pinning both Aaron Shingler and Richard Kelly to the floor at the same time like a champion wrestler. As microcosms go, this one summed up the match perfectly.
The Ospreys were too strong for their neighbours.
The two Scarlets couldn't join the defensive line because of Hibbard, the referee eventually intervening. Overall, the visitors' power proved decisive.
After the game they kept the significance of their success in perspective.
Ryan Jones said: "After the first couple of weeks we didn't think we were the worst team in the world, and on the flip side we certainly don't think we are the best team in the world after a win like that."
Maybe not, but they did impress in the way they executed their game-plan, cutting the supply line to the home backs and targeting the Scarlets' scrum, with Duncan Jones giving Deacon Manu a torrid time.
The hosts had no answer to the relentless Jones or to the foraging Justin Tipuric, the thundering Hibbard, the hard-hitting Andrew Bishop, the controlling Dan Biggar, the strong-running Hanno Dirksen or the returning Ryan Jones, back after missing the opening weeks of the season and quickly settling into the groove.
The Ospreys won all the key battles. Not only did Duncan Jones give Manu an aerial view of Parc y Scarlets, Biggar comprehensively outkicked and outplayed Rhys Priestland, while Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans outshone George Earle and Richard Kelly, though Kelly was his side's best defender.
The fired-up Hibbard took the honours at hooker, with Tipuric peerless at openside and Bishop stamping his authority on the midfield battle, in opposition to Jon Davies and Scott Williams.
Bishop carried the ball 16 times — once more than the entire Scarlets' three-quarterline.
Even George North found it hard to make headway, with Hibbard singling him out for the tackle of the night, a hit that didn't just stop the big man in his tracks but also lifted him off his feet and drove him backwards.
Such was the Ospreys' dominance that Shingler, usually so effective with ball in hand, was restricted to just one charge forward.
Perhaps the best news for the visitors was the way Ryan Jones performed after coming off the bench. He wasn't on the field half-an-hour but the Scarlets must have felt the Ospreys had sneaked two or three Jones clones onto the pitch as well as the original article, so ubiquitous was the back rower, white headband to the fore.
It came as no surprise that he marked his comeback with a try.
His joy at the end contrasted with Priestland's downbeat look, the fly-half having again had an off-night in front of goal, missing four kicks out of seven.
The worry for the Scarlets and Wales is that their playmaker's kicking travails will undermine his confidence and affect his general play.
Last Boxing Day he imposed himself on the match against the Ospreys, oozing authority and controlling play with skill and self-belief.
But Biggar eclipsed him three nights ago.
This time it was the Osprey who bossed the game, stretching the Scarlets' back three and putting over some supremely difficult goal-kicks. Whatever Wales think, he is a match-winning asset.
It was a night when the Ospreys pack ruled and the Scarlets backs struggled to get in the game.
It is all very well having beauty, but the best sides also need a bit of beast. The Ospreys had it, the Scarlets didn't.