Ulster Rugby vs Llanelli Scarlets


Outside the modern home of the Scarlets stands a wondrous sculptured likeness of one of the club’s greatest players, Ray Gravell.

A loss in Toulon offered encouragement in October for the following weekend’s defeat of Leicester, and both of tonight’s sides would accept that defeat would effectively end hopes of qualifying for the New Year’s knock-out stages. The stakes could hardly be higher, in European rugby terms, and a fascinating contest is expected to unfold in front of another full house at Kingspan Stadium. Ulster, dramatically denied a PRO12 win in Munster last weekend, dearly hope to involve the inspirational Ruan Pienaar this evening. The Springbok pivot has yet to pull on a white jersey this season, and his well-chronicled talents, his very appearance, will lift the fans and the players around him. Head Coach Neil Doak will have considered his options in other key areas, the continuing enforced absences of those such as Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson and the dynamic Chris Henry offering real opportunities to others who have the pedigree to shine at the highest level. Pivac took his Scarlets to Connacht last week, and like so many before the Welsh found the Sportsground a real fortress now that Pat Lam has taken the helm. A losing bonus point offered some solace to a team which was shorn of those on international duty for Wales, and Liam Williams, Jake Ball, Rhodri Jones, skipper Scott Williams and Emyr Philips will almost certainly return to the matchday squad in Belfast. Included too will be the remarkable prop Phil John, 301 appearances for his club and counting, a huge influence still on the pitch, and a marvellous presence in the dressing room. For him and his team-mates a packed floodlit Kingspan, a top-class opposition to take on, offers the sort of occasion players live for, when they can show the modern professional game at its most skilfully enthralling and combative. For Ulster victory would keep the qualification gate in Europe ajar, and similarly a win would offer the Scarlets real hope, and as the two teams meet again in a week in Llanelli tonight will provide a real guide to how realistic progress to the quarter-finals will be for two of the big Celtic clubs. This fixture would decorate any season, in any competition, but this is one European arena in which nobody is voting to exit!

The international and Lions centre was a force of nature, garrulous company, an evangelist for his beloved Welsh language, latterly a superb broadcaster, but above all a member of an elite, unique corps of rugby players who used rickety but engaging old Stradey Park as more than just a sporting stage. For the Llanelli club to which he was devoted he was a truly iconic figure, a physically imposing three-quarter who could transform himself into a powerfully silky runner with wonderfully deft hands and a brain always finding new ways to conjure up rugby magic. As the professional age was uneasily born in Wales the Scarlets in a nod to the historic colours worn by the rugby men of the Carmarthen town for a century or more – was immediately recognised for acknowledging a rich, character-forming past and set in a modern, forward-thinking environment. The ground was an upgrade of supreme proportions, but the character, the essence of the club, lived on in the heroics of Gravell, and before him of men such as Carwyn James, Delme Thomas, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, JJ Williams and Tom David. It was sustained and embellished by such as Ieuan Evans, Stephen Jones, Iestyn Evans, Gareth Jenkins and by so many more, including Derek, Craig and Scott Quinnell and the brothers Guy and Simon Easterby. Names with which we are all familiar, players who’ve left indelible marks – some of them literally! – on the sport. But it is not a laurel-strewn history upon which anyone has rested, it’s one which has nourished a deeply-rooted community ethos, in sporting terms epitomised by the Scarlets who come calling at Kingspan Stadium this Saturday evening. In December 2008 Parc y Scarlets hosted its first European Cup game, and – coincidentally – the opposition was provided by an Ulster side building its own progressive reputation. Both clubs have rich histories, passionate, committed support, and the stands and terraces will bear colourful testament to sides shaped by a wonderful past but focussed firmly on a successful, enterprising future. Wayne Pivac, who took charge as Head Coach after Simon Easterby took emotional leave of the club to join the Irish management team, has a panel which is littered with internationals and which, like Ulster, is hoping still to make a real impact in this inaugural Champions Cup.




www. ulster rugby.com

Made with