Cockerill: Wage cap harms players

Scarlets 18 Leicester 32
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The Independent Online

Few people mistook Richard Cockerill for Socrates during his playing days – the beer-swilling Englishman's playing days, that is, not the hemlock-sipping Greek's – but times and perceptions have changed a little since then and, when Cockerill, Leicester's head coach, slipped into philosophical mode down there in Carwyn country on Saturday evening, people listened.

"If we want Premiership teams to win the big European prizes year-on-year," he said, "we have to start comparing apples with apples. The clubs spending the most money have the biggest squads, which gives them the best chance in the major tournaments. I'm no genius, but I can work that one out."

He was talking about the French and their cash, which is currently being splashed in unprecedented volumes. "We talk about player welfare being our top priority," he continued, "yet what do we see happening in England with the salary cap in operation? Wages are going up, which means smaller squads, which means more rugby for everyone, which has a negative impact on player welfare."

And the point of all this? Leicester, along with a small group of like-minded Premiership clubs, want to see less in the way of financial regulation and more in the way of a free market.

All of which will raise a sardonic smile or two in Llanelli, a union land full of memory and desire but very little money. The Scarlets drew a record European audience of 12,400 to their stadium on the edge of town, but could not quite sell out even for the most important home game of the season. If the daft kick-off time (5.45pm) had something to do with it, so did the state of the local economy. Who knows? Had the place been absolutely packed, Stephen Jones and company might have found the inspiration to play two halves of terrific rugby rather than just one.

For 40 minutes, the Welshmen drew on all their courage and all their creative instinct to give the English champions a serious hurry-up. Josh Turnbull was nothing short of sensational in the back row, Jonathan Davies repeatedly caught the eye in midfield and when it came to the scrum – very much a pressure point for a Scarlet forward unit that had been reduced to its component parts at Welford Road in October – the young tight-head prop Simon Gardiner, aided and abetted by veterans Iestyn Thomas and Vernon Cooper, found a way of coping. The try Davies created for Morgan Stoddart at the end of the first quarter had many a fabled Scarlet of yesteryear nodding in appreciation.

Yet there was always the sense that whatever the home side brought to the party early on, the visitors would leave with the goody bag. Nigel Davies, the Scarlets coach, felt obliged to withdraw Gardiner and Cooper early in the second half – "There is only so much you can ask people to do, and they'd given all they had to give," he explained – and from there on in, it was Leicester all the way. When Anthony Allen's midfield break resulted in Alesana Tuilagi's left-corner finish, Cockerill went for the kill by introducing the England prop Dan Cole off the bench.

The Tigers may not have the purchasing power of Toulouse or Toulon, but there is not a club in Europe with a better pair of tight-head operators than Cole and Martin Castrogiovanni. Cole does not much like sitting on the bench for the first 50-odd minutes of these big games: he is, after all, a player of considerable stature these days. Does Cockerill mind that Cole minds? Apparently not. "I have two world-class tight heads, and both of them play quite enough rugby," he said. "The days of front-row forwards playing 35 club matches plus internationals have gone. It just can't happen now. And anyway, where was Dan a year or so ago? He was in National Division One. Let's have some perspective here. He'll overtake Martin at some point because he's seven or eight years younger."

Talking of men with wonderful careers ahead of them, it was the scrum-half Ben Youngs who won the game for Leicester with a scurry to the corner just past the hour mark, sliding in close to touch and then raising a finger to his lips footballer-style as if to demand silence from the home crowd. "If you do that before the referee awards the try, you run the risk of looking a prat," Cockerill said, grumpily. But the referee did award it, and judging by the way he played here, Youngs is anything but.

Scarlets: Tries Stoddart, Lamont; Conversion S Jones; Penalties S Jones 2.

Leicester: Tries A Tuilagi, Youngs, Mafi; Conversion Flood; Penalties Flood 5.

Scarlets R Priestland; M Stoddart, G Maule (L Williams, 72), J Davies, S Lamont; S Jones, T Knoyle; I Thomas (R Jones, 74), M Rees (capt, E Phillips, 74), S Gardiner (P John 50), V Cooper (J Fa'amatuainu, 50), L Reed, R McCusker (B Morgan, 72), J Turnbull, D Lyons.

Leicester S Hamilton; M Smith, M Tuilagi (H Agulla, 72), A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 81), G Chuter (R Hawkins, 81), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 55), L Deacon (capt), G Skivington (E Slater, 81), T Waldrom, C Newby (S Mafi, h-t), J Crane.

Referee A Rolland (Ireland).