A return to rugby following the Covid-19 enforced break, in the surreal surroundings of an empty stadium, was not the start to 2022 we had all hoped for. The result certainly, was not the one we should have relatively easily secured, given the opportunities we had to put in the books what would have been a vital away conference victory.
The selection looked a poor one from the outset with a defensively suspect combination in the back three, an inexperienced 10, and very little quality on the bench outside our front row replacements. This was, however, explained in the post-match press conference, when it was stated that due to Covid-19 and injury we only had a bare twenty-six players to choose from.
Despite these disadvantages, the game was there for the taking. Young Josh Thomas has massively improved from last season and started to put some shape on our attacking structure. Rhys Webb bailed us out with a couple of short range tries on two occasions, after we had bombed virtually certain tries with poor finishing in the outside channels. The game was there for the taking when two of our most experienced players, in Webb and Collins, somehow decided to throw out risky long passes that were easily intercepted. The first one was a carbon copy of one in the Cell C Sharks defeat and came at a vital point when a score that would have taken us two scores clear was lost through a total lack of composure. The second was totally unnecessary given the state of the game. Even after these errors, thanks to some woeful goal kicking from the Scarlets, we still could have closed the game out, but our narrow defensive structure and inability to protect the outside again came back to haunt us, as we conceded a very soft try in the closing minutes.
There will not be many better chances for road victories this season despite our depleted squad. The effort and endeavour of the players is unquestionable. The defensive organisation and skill execution and simple foot speed in key positions is however painfully absent. The enforced departure of Richie Pugh to Wales 7s, and the hunt for a new defence coach should give us the opportunity to look at our defensive structure and coaching. At times you could be forgiven for believing we are defending with 14 or 13 men, even though there are 15 on the field, given the ease opponents can score against us, particularly on the road.
The next few weeks are going to be difficult, and selection will inevitably be an illness lottery. We will just have to put our best foot forward and deal as best we can. When it comes to competing with the best sides over the coming years, which is our stated ambition, it is going to need some very decent player acquisitions in this and future recruitment periods and an enlargement of the coaching group, if this is to be a realistic target.