Scarlets stand toe to toe with European heavyweights in Heineken Cup draw with Racing Metro
SCARLETS 26 RACING METRO 26
THERE was a strange mix of emotions swirling around Parc y Scarlets on Saturday evening.
Disappointment appeared the main one in the air after the home side had let Racing Metro back into a gripping contest in which they had led by 13 points at one stage.
But there was also plenty of pride in a team who had been written off as pool whipping boys before the tournament began.
"The feeling in the changing room is that it is an opportunity lost," admitted Scarlets head coach Simon Easterby after this eventful first ever meeting between the sides.
"But in the end it was a game we probably could have lost.
"There were lots of real positives in our performance — the disappointing thing is that at 23-10 you would like to think we could close the game out and we didn't."
That disappointment will have eased this morning when Easterby takes a glance at the Pool 4 table and sees his Scarlets side sitting on the top, above two of the tournament's big-hitters, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne.
The West Wales region have been a side transformed over the last two weekends, bursting with energy, endeavour and spirit and winning plenty of admirers along the way for the way they have played against clubs with far superior financial resources.
The Scarlets' reputation in Europe took a battering last season in a winless campaign that left few scraps of comfort.
But already, after a stunning victory at The Stoop and Saturday's see-sawing draw with Racing, they have shown they deserve to be dining at Europe's top table.
"We watched the Scarlets on TV last week and they were on fire. They showed again today that if you switch off against them they can go end to end," said Racing's Wales and Lions flanker Dan Lydiate.
"They have such a dangerous back line; Danny Wilson (forwards coach) has worked wonders with their scrum and they have great line-out forwards like Aaron Shingler.
''They are a real handy outfit and on their day are a match for anyone. Our two points here could be vital at the end of the pool."
Kind words from Lydiate who will no doubt be named alongside a number of those Scarlets players when Warren Gatland unveils his squad for the forthcoming autumn Test series tomorrow.
The four Williams boys — Scott, man of the match Liam, Jordan and Rhodri — along with the likes of Emyr Phillips, Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull have done their cause no harm in the last two performances.
But the double-edged sword of having a large contingent in the national camp means that Easterby will have next to no time to prepare for the biggest test in European rugby when the Heineken Cup resumes in December.
Taking on Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin is daunting enough without having just a couple of training sessions to get ready for it.
And that's before injuries are taken into account.
But at least the Scarlets will head to the Massif Central confident they have the armoury to compete against last year's runners-up.
Against Racing, their defence was strong and aggressive, they more than held their own at the scrum, while also managed to largely counter the French side's renowned driving line-out — apart from one monstrous rumble which went from one 22 to the next.
Behind the scrum, Liam Williams was imperious in the air at full-back, Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies threatening in midfield, while Rhys Priestland was also lively with ball in hand. The Achilles heel for the Scarlets was their line-out — they lost a third of their own throws — and it was one lost attacking platform that caused a huge swing in momentum on 51 minutes.
Up until then the home side had looked strong favourites to make it two wins from two and add another French scalp to an already impressive list.
They had managed to overturn a shaky start that had seen Racing claim a controversial opening try by flanker Wenceslas Lauret.
The Scarlets felt the openside shouldn't have been allowed to pick up the ball from under the feet of the home eight. But referee Neil Paterson had no issue and the score stood.
The Scarlets' response was stunning.
John Barclay, who enjoyed a fine match, burgled the ball at the breakdown as Racing pressed inside the home 22. A Priestland clearance bounced kindly for wing Nick Reynolds, he tapped back to Davies, who sped upfield before passing inside to midfield partner Scott Williams to run in unopposed.
With a vocal Parc y Scarlets crowd in good voice, the pendulum, which swung relentlessly throughout the match, was firmly in favour of the home side.
Racing were reduced to 13 men when skipper Dimitri Szarzewski paid the penalty for an accumulation of offences by the visitors, then replacement centre Fabrice Estebanez followed for a right hook on Scott Williams. The Scarlets' decision to go for an attacking line-out instead of the posts paid dividends when scrum-half Rhodri Williams pounced for his second try in as many games.
And when Priestland landed a penalty shortly after the restart to extend the lead to 23-10, the Scarlets appeared to be nearing the winning post.
But with the Racing forwards cranking up the pressure, No. 8 Sakiusa Matadigo drove over from a close-range scrum and Ireland's Jonny Sexton did the rest.
Sexton and Priestland exchanged penalties and Scarlets lock Jake Ball came agonisingly close to the whitewash after charging down an attempted clearance.
Then came the final drama.
With the clock ticking into red, the Scarlets spilled possession inside their own half and Lauret hacked through and touched down.
However, television match official Iain Ramage picked up a knock-on by Sexton as he ripped the ball from the grasp of Turnbull and the score was ruled out — much to the relief of the home camp and the anger of Racing's players and coaches who were still remonstrating with Mr Paterson as he left the field.
Once that anger had subsided, Racing would have returned to Paris pretty satisfied with a couple of away points.
As for the Scarlets, they can be proud of two performances which have given their European rivals plenty to think about.