Rugby Union: Scarlets pray on a classy Kiwi and a loyal Moon

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The Independent Online
Llanelli have risen from near extinction to the brink of having to decide between a European quarter-final place or the chance of playing the best team in the world. As Tim Glover discovers, a New Zealander and a Englishman are largely to thank for this revival.

If Frano Botica needs a refresher in half-back play, a word with the wife will suffice. Like most women from the Land of the Long White Cloud, Tracey Botica, whose brother was a New Zealand provincial scrum-half, is a world authority on the game.

"She is more like Frano's coach than wife," Rupert Moon, the Llanelli scrum-half, said. "She's so knowledgeable it's frightening. I always call her Mrs Botica. That's how much respect I have for her."

At the age of 34, Botica, an All Black more than 10 years ago, is domiciled in Pembrey, an attractive coastal village near Llanelli, with his wife and three children.

In a controversial deal, Botica, who had a fabulous career with Wigan, was signed for pounds 200,000 by Llanelli from Castleford via Orrell. Simultaneously the Scarlets found themselves severely in the red and but for the sale of Stradey Park to the Welsh Rugby Union for pounds 1.25m earlier this year, the club would probably have become the most celebrated casualty of the shambolic move to professionalism.

"We remained loyal," Moon said. "We have not run off to the hills. The players sat down and agreed to get on with it. It would have been difficult if we were thinking about whether we'd be paid at the end of the month. We've blocked it all out and developed a great team spirit. We had to."

In this respect, Botica has played a key role. "He's our shining light," Moon said. "We needed somebody who had experience of professionalism. None of us knew exactly what was required and he's been there, done it and has the trophies to prove it. He is the consummate professional and there is a human side to him that you don't always expect from a Kiwi. You don't see Sean Fitzpatrick enjoying a night out or Jonah Lomu relaxing but Frano's one of the boys. It's nice and refreshing to discover that he's not another cog in the All Black machine. Generally they give the impression that it's a job which they don't particularly enjoy."

Moon, who won 17 caps for Wales between 1993-95, had his partnership with Botica interrupted this season when the New Zealander tore a bicep whilst making a tackle against Treviso. With the fly-half factory, which produced Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies, on short time, Botica was recruited as a playmaker and goal-kicker but the 22-year-old understudy, Craig Warlow, has impressed sufficiently to present the selectors with a conundrum.

Warlow, who scored 20 points in Llanelli's 25-22 victory over Swansea last Saturday, will play stand-off against Cardiff today in the Heineken European Cup quarter-final play-off, with Botica at inside centre. "I was happy to play wherever, it doesn't bother me," Botica said.

"Frano's been very keen to offer support and he's developed an excellent relationship with the younger players," Moon said. "He never stops learning, so it's become a two-way process. He has helped Craig with aspects of distribution and reading of the game and Craig has helped Frano in his line-kicking. Craig's confidence is beginning to emerge and he has a lot to offer. He's lightly built but he puts the tackles in. He's not afraid to put his head on the line when required and he's a phenomenal goal kicker."

Botica, who featured in the inaugural World Cup, won by the All Blacks in 1987, will play for Croatia in the qualifying rounds against Denmark and Italy next May. He qualifies because his grandfather was a Croat and it also helps that the coach is a friend of his. Apparently there are about 30,000 Croats in New Zealand and at least six of them are playing for Croatia, which explains their recent victory over Russia.

First though, Botica would like to win something with Llanelli. His two- year contract expires at the end of the season. "I'd like to stay," he said. "I've had enough of travelling round and chopping and changing countries. This is a lovely part of the world and before returning to New Zealand it would be nice to finish my career here. I don't know what will happen."

Llanelli were defeated 36-26 by Cardiff in the semi-finals of the Welsh Cup last April. "It's a painful memory," Moon said, "and we bear grudges."

Should the Scarlets gain revenge today, their quarter-final is at Bath in a week's time - on the day they have a 25th anniversary rematch against the All Blacks at Stradey. It is not just Llanelli who bear grudges.

"The only reason New Zealand are coming to town is to put the record straight," Moon said. The All Blacks specifically asked for the fixture and will play no other club side on their tour. The match is all ticket and, as in 1972, Stradey Park will be choc-a-bloc.

If Llanelli are successful today they will need the wisdom of Solomon to solve next Saturday's dilemma: do they pull out of the European Cup, field a junior side or mix and match against Bath and the All Blacks?

"Whatever we do we will probably get fined again," said a spokesman.

For their part in an ill-tempered affair in Pau, Llanelli were fined pounds 20,000, half of which was suspended but they have yet to pay a penny. "As far as we're concerned the fine has no legal basis," the spokesman added.

Meanwhile, Moon's love affair with the game in Wales shows no signs of waning. The former captain of England students - he was born in Birmingham, played for Walsall and lives in Pontypridd - has already played 10 games this season. "I'm not stressed out wondering if this is my last opportunity to achieve something. I'm lucky to have been at a club that has given me so many memories. Some people think I'm playing better now than when I was playing international rugby."

Gareth Jenkins, the coach, has advised the 28-year-old Moon to adopt a cooler, calmer approach. "I suppose it's about time. I have been playing from the age of five and I have always had a frantic nature."

A regular contributor to BBC Radio Wales, he is about to start work on his own sports series for HTV, The Moon and Stars. "One day I'll get a proper job," he said.

Rupert H St JB Moon has mastered the National Anthem but has been thwarted in his ambition of learning the Welsh language. "I can understand a lot but the spoken word is the hardest part," he said. "A Brummie trying to speak Welsh? What hope."