Welsh rugby’s winners and losers as Scarlets ignite, coach left stunned and Morgan is a cut above

A visitor from a distant planet landing at Parc y Scarlets on Saturday evening might have wondered why so much doom and gloom abounded about Welsh rugby.

The Scarlets played some fine rugby and if the crowd was a shade disappointing the atmosphere was lively. All good, then.

But then the newcomer might consider Cardiff’s limitations on the night and two more defeats from South Africa for the Welsh regions. At that point our alien friend might decide to head off back whence it came.

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MARK ORDERS assesses the highs and lows from the weekend.

WINNERS

Family affair for Johnny McNicholl

The week simply couldn’t have gone any better for Johnny McNicholl short of his lottery numbers coming up.

Last Tuesday it was announced that the back-three man had signed a fresh contract with the Scarlets. Four days later he made his hundredth appearance for the Llanelli-based region, with his mother traveling from New Zealand to watch him play in Wales for the first time. McNicholl then came up with two tries in a man-of-the-match performance as his team posted a big over in Cardiff.

“It’s amazing for me,” they said in an interview at Premier Sports after the game. “It just worked out by chance that this is my hundredth and Mum got to fly over. It’s the first time she’s seen me play [in Wales]. She’s been over a few times, but I’ve had a couple of injuries when she’s been here. It was emotional running out, in front of my mum for the first time. It was great. ”

On the field, it couldn’t have gone much better. Close on every time McNicholl touched the ball he did something effective, never more so than when in the opposition 22. The first five-pointer saw him stand-up Jason Harries before effortless acceleration took him over the Cardiff line; then they created space with a step prior to crossing for his second, with the opposition defense opening as obligingly as the doors of an elevator.

There was a message for Wayne Pivac, too: create space and opportunities for McNicholl and and he will do damage. The Scarlets did exactly that against Cardiff. Wales rarely manage it. We’ll call that a work-on for the national side.

Scarlets

If McNicholl did well, so did the Scarlets generally as they overcame the sending off of Sione Kalamafoni to send Cardiff packing with a 35-20 defeat.

The west Walians played with a purpose, skill and physicality that their opponents could not match and it got much for their effort that there were multiple candidates to be named man of the match.

As well as McNicholl at full-back, there were the ubiquitous back-row pair Tomas Lezana and Blade Thomson, the improving Javan Sebastian at the prop, the alert and dangerous Gareth Davies at scrum-half and the quick and threatening Sam Costelow outside him.

Others who caught the eye included Johnny Williams, Tom Rogers, Sam Lousi, Jonathan Davies and the hard-running Ryan Conbeer.

That said, Dwayne Peel will not get carried away. The Scarlets play last Saturday’s opponents at the Arms Park this weekend and Cardiff are a different side on their own patch. Indeed, they have lost just once in the United Rugby Championship at home this season.

But the Scarlets now have the chance to build momentum with home-and-away fixtures against the Dragons to follow their date in the capital. It’s been a challenging season for them during which they have shipped too many heavy beatings, but when they are winning a quick ball and playing with confidence, they are still a handful.

Ask Cardiff.

Jac Morgan

It was said of the Australian cricketer Steve Waugh that if he took the crease with his team having already posted 300 he might not get 20. But if they were 50-3 you could write down a century for him before he went out to bat.

Adversity: some sportsmen shrivel when the world seems against them and their teams; others thrive.

Let’s cut to Jac Morgan in Cape Town on Saturday.

The Ospreys lost 29-13 but the margin could have been much wider because their opponents the Stormers were playing a different game, one involving pace, accuracy, ball-carrying forwards, slick backs, skill and immense power. By contrast, the visitors were stodgy and error-ridden for much of the game, although we must exclude a revitalized Keelan Giles from such criticism, while Morgan Morris and Rhys Webb were combative. Max Nagy and Harri Deaves also made marks off the bench.

But the Welsh team’s best player was their No. 7.



Jac Morgan of Ospreys

This watcher counted three turnovers with Morgan on the scene for a fourth as well. He tackled defiantly and showed a never-say-die spirit that got much for his character. At one point a number of Ospreys players queued up to pat him on the back after the Stormers had coughed up another breakdown penalty. It was deserved appreciation of a player who doesn’t seem to do off days. On another difficult afternoon in South Africa for a Welsh team, he emerged with his reputation intact.

Wales Women

These are heady times for Wales Women, with back-to-back Six Nations wins for the first time since 2015. Trailing 19-7 early in the second half, they looked up against it in a big way against Scotland, but there is belief and resilience knitted into the squad this season and they regrouped to hit the visitors with 17 unanswered points, with Sioned Harris, Kelsey Jones and Ffion Lewis adding tries to Carys Phillips’ earlier touchdown.

The 24-19 success was watched by a record crowd of 4,875 for a standalone women’s rugby international in Wales.

There’s a huge test next up with a trip over the border to face England, who has been professional for the past three years and has enviable quality and strength in depth.

But that can wait for the next weekend.

On Saturday evening, it’s hoped Wales Women savored the win over Scotland. They have brought a pocket of sunshine into Welsh rugby at a difficult time. All concerned credit.

LOSERS

Welsh rugby lacking the feelgood factor

Well, is it, isn’t it?

Memories are still fresh of Wales’ Six Nations implosion against Italy, after all, a result for which Wayne Pivac might have paid with his job in more trigger happy days.

Just 7,087 attended the Scarlets v Cardiff derby in Llanelli. That’s a better crowd than the 5,767 who watched the Ospreys play Cardiff at the Swansea.com Stadium earlier this season, but when regional rugby began the union’s then chief executive David Moffett said he wanted to see gates of at least 8,000 in professional rugby in Wales.

What is there to say? This was a derby and a bigger attendance might have been expected but Saturday-night rugby doesn’t do it for many and despite the new South African teams sending standards through the roof, some in these parts still appear less than enamored of the United Rugby Championship, with under-funded Welsh sides blowing more cold than hot this season.

Many are also presumably uncertain of the standard in Wales right now. Yes, the Scarlets looked good against Cardiff, but Welsh teams have just finished a block of matches in South Africa that saw them collectively end up on the wrong end of a 351-106 scoreline.

But, still, the regional matches in the coming weeks should cushion the game here from such horrors.

Meantime, it’s up to all concerned to try to raise standards and ensure such miseries do not become the seasonal norm.

Welsh international props

We must be selective here and exempt a few from criticism, among them those who represented the Scarlets as they gained the upper hand in the scrums in Llanelli.

But it was a particularly tough evening for Cardiff’s Dillon Lewis, who suffered the referee’s wrath until being yellow carded just before half-time.

Over in South Africa the Dragons suffered an ordeal at scrum-time against the Sharks, with their scrum being reduced to rubble more than once. In fact, much more than once. If Greg Bateman endured a torrid time, Leon Brown wasn’t exactly light years away from such a state, either, as the men of Gwent came close to being shoved into the Indian Ocean. The home front row of Ox Niche, Bongi Mbonambi and Thomas du Toit were every bit as good as the Welsh team must have feared they would be.

Staying in South Africa, nor did the Ospreys have it easy at scrum-time against the Stormers, with Gareth Thomas and Tomas Francis both having their hands full. That said, they were up against Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, two of the top scrummagers in world rugby.

It was all more than a bit sobering.

Dragons, Cardiff and Ospreys

Where do we start? With the Dragons, maybe, losers by 51-3 against the Sharks. Were it boxing, the match wouldn’t have been allowed, such was the hosts ‘power against opponents’ who, well, were not very powerful.

Let’s absolve Ross Moriarty from blame.

The Dragons’ best player fronted up bravely before succumbing to what looked like a nasty injury. He’s due to undergo a scan on Monday and Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan won’t be the only one who’ll be hoping the injury isn’t as bad as first feared. Wayne Pivac will be of that mindset as well.

Ryan’s side are game enough but they’re not equipped for this level of rugby, and it’s going to take a lot for that situation to change. Their past three games alone have seen them concede 170 points while scoring just 26. How much damage must those kind of experiences do to the morale of players?

The Ospreys could console themselves that they weren’t overrun against the Stormers, but it wasn’t much of a consolation, with the Swansea-based team showing next to no fluency. They were tested at the scrum, displayed poor ball retention and four of their forwards made zero meters when carrying; not one of the starting pack came up with an offload. Gareth Anscombe had a difficult time as a handler and as a kicker out of hand, while Dan Evans found himself barged out of the way for one of the opposition’s tries.

The Welsh side never lack for spirit, but spirit on its own isn’t enough in a league where opponents have in their ranks a multi-skilled and immensely powerful and mobile forward such as Evan Roos, with the No. 8 to the fore. He made more ground with the ball in hand than the entire Ospreys starting pack.

Creativity is also hopelessly lacking.

Cardiff are a more entertaining team than the Ospreys, but they, too, endured a sorry Saturday. “I don’t think I’ll park it, to be quite honest,” said team boss Dai Young afterwards. “The biggest disappointment is that we seem to go two steps forwards and one back.

“We have an opportunity to right a few wrongs back at home [next week]. But we can’t brush this under the carpet, because it wasn’t good enough. We came second best in every area. We have to ask ourselves why and make sure it doesn’t become a regular occurrence. I don’t want to make too much of an issue of it but you have to ask questions. ”You can read more from Young here.

James Botham battled hard and Jarrod Evans and Ben Thomas had their moments but Cardiff were smashed in the scrums and need to add ballast to their front five, a requirement that seems to have been on the to-do list at the Arms Park since man’s early attempts at powered flight.

Against the 14-man Scarlets they were dismal.

Young will know that has to change.

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