Wayne Pivac and the Scarlets are on the verge of a Champions Cup final – standing in their way is Leinster, the bookmakers favourites for the title, in the semi-final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.
The Scarlets have been here before and ripped up the script. They defeated Leinster 27-15 at the RDS in Dublin in the Pro12 semi-final last year, even playing the entire second half with 14 men thanks to Steff Evans’ red card – they’re a resilient bunch in West Wales. That was reinforced with the revelation from prop Rob Evans that he’d broken his finger in the first few minutes of that game too. “Not ideal, but that’s the way it goes”, the laidback 26-year-old said ahead of game. “I don’t mind breaking them once you have won”, he quipped.
Once again the Scarlets are the underdogs, but it’s a label that doesn’t bother them.
“Maybe we are underestimated but we don’t really care. We are happy with ourselves, we have a good spirit amongst the boys and people in this community have belief in us as well. If people want to underestimate us, ‘happy days.’ We’ll see the outcome afterwards, if they’re right, they’re right, but hopefully we can make sure we are on the money and get the result.”
“I think both sides have improved, especially Leinster, so it’s going to be a whole different challenge for us.”
One man Evans is certainly wary of is tighthead Tadhg Furlong, his direct opponent on Saturday. But at 118kg and 1.88m himself, the loosehead is no slouch either.
“He’s obviously a good player, a British (and Irish) Lion. He’s probably known as one of the best in the world now. It’s nothing I’m really scared about or anything, I’m looking forward to giving it a good go.”
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The Scarlets have shown doggedness in this Champions Cup campaign. Down and apparently out after defeats in the opening two matches and on the verge of a third against Treviso, only to score two tries in the last four minutes to snatch a 33-28 victory. They haven’t looked back since, rattling off another win over Treviso, followed by impressive wins at Bath and at home against big-spending Toulon to seal top spot in Pool 5.
La Rochelle were defeated 29-17 at Parc y Scarlets in the quarter-finals. Their impressive performances in Europe have earned admirers, notably at the WRU. They’ve sounded out Pivac as they seek a replacement for Warren Gatland following the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But has the speculation been a distraction? “No, not really”, says Evans. “Obviously there has been the odd bit of banter flying about but we’re very much focused on what we’ve got to do in hand and towards the end of the season, as we want to be very successful. Nothing has really been spoken of. As soon as the media get hold of something in Wales they will make it massive”.
“I know Wayne is happy at the Scarlets at the moment, but I’m sure if Wayne did get the Welsh job he would do a good job.”
Pivac has played a large role in Evans’ rise and he eulogised about the New Zealander’s attributes as a head coach.
“He means a lot to me, he came in gave me a shot. He’s a great bloke to talk to. He’ll give you good advice and, as you say, he’s a very knowledgeable bloke and very humble and down to earth. He’s great for us boys and great for the squad, he manages extremely well.”
“He definitely demands a higher standard on the pitch. He goes about it in the right way. He has a good way of getting the best out of us. I know boys the respect him a lot and when you respect someone you want to give it your all for them.
But asked whether there were similarities between Gatland and Pivac and Evans joked “Yeah, both from New Zealand!”, before adding “Both going grey!”
The Scarlets have failed at the semi-final stage in Europe three times, the last of which was in 2007, were they to reach the final this year the clamour for Pivac to take over from his fellow greying New Zealander would ramp up.
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