No fair-minded person could accuse Llanelli of being part of the silver spoon brigade, for the ledger shows they have not had a brass farthing to spend on new players since Noah was a promising outside-half with a ground-breaking approach to wet-weather rugby. Yet the Scarlets are suddenly awash with money, having flogged their Stradey Park cathedral for £20m in preparation for a move to a publicly-financed stadium on the site of the old steel works at the edge of town. Very nice, too. If only they were not bankrupt in the personnel department, they would be laughing all the way to the bank.
If this was not their most lamentable performance in 55 Heineken Cup matches since 1996, it was certainly in the top two or three - right up there alongside the 49-3 whupping by Stade Français in Paris seven seasons ago. That year, they regathered their wits sufficiently to beat the Frenchmen in the return match and qualify for the knock-out stage of the tournament. This year, they hold out no such hope for themselves. Gareth Jenkins, one of rugby's optimists, has given up the ghost already.
By so doing, he opened up a whole new can of worms on the political front. In pointing to a Northampton line-up positively smothered in non-English talent - "Just look at them: an All Black at full-back, a South African on the wing, an Australian in the centre, another New Zealander at scrum-half, and so on, and so on" - this modern-day Carwyn James openly questioned the sanity of the Welsh Rugby Union's decision to impose tight restrictions on the numbers of foreign players in their four regional teams. Jenkins went still further, predicting that success at elite European level would never be achieved with such a policy in place.
"We can't have particular people in Wales clinging to these values when Welsh players are not performing to the necessary levels," he said. "To survive in this environment, you need quality players in key positions, and we're seven or eight light. If we can't find them at home, the obvious answer is to look abroad. Will that be acceptable? We'll see, won't we? Northampton and the other English clubs do it; by bringing in high-class talent to work alongside their youngsters, they develop a culture of success that helps them pull in crowds of 12,000-plus. We've given Wales an identity in this competition for a good number of years, but this is the season where reality kicks in."
Stuart Gallacher, the Scarlets' chief executive, has been chasing players up hill and down dale for weeks now, but with the single exception of the All Black prop Dave Hewitt, few have expressed a serious interest in moving to west Wales. And when an international-class operator does make the right noises, his plans are invariably blocked by his home union, as Hewitt's were a week or so ago. "Typical," Gallacher groaned. "We've been skint for years. Now we do have some money, I can't spend the bloody stuff."
Llanelli's problems were transparently evident at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday. Northampton had lost five Premiership matches on the bounce and struggled to beat a limited Glasgow team the previous weekend, yet they waltzed past the side who had spiked their Heineken Cup ambitions at the same venue only nine months previously.
After a rough 10 minutes at the start, during which their scrum creaked arthritically, it dawned on the Saints that the Welshmen were in no state, physically or temperamentally, to make a contest of it at close quarters. Once Paul Grayson, profoundly influential on his return at stand-off, had cancelled out an opening penalty from the somewhat less authoritative Arwel Thomas, there was only one side on show.
The Midlanders might have won more comfortably had Wylie Human maximised a first decisive raid on 33 minutes, launched by Grayson and Bruce Reihana, in wondrous form at full-back. But instead of stepping past the last Llanelli man standing, Barry Davies, the right wing dropped his head and careered into him, finally spilling the ball four metres from the line. If the incident left Davies in need of medical assistance, it would have left the criminally wasteful Human requiring of a lawyer had he not made amends with two well-taken tries, the first on half-time and the second six minutes from the end.
Poor Llanelli needed far more help than Human was able to offer them. The ineffective Thomas was ditched at the interval, shortly after being stripped of the ball and left in a shallow grave by Corne Krige, whose comprehensive triumph in this mismatch laid the foundations for the first of Human's tries.
Simon Easterby and Dafydd Jones, two international flankers, failed to make the slightest sense of the uncapped Darren Fox, who made a thorough nuisance of himself without resorting to the bovver-boy stuff that had left him up to his eyebrows in trouble the previous weekend. Llanelli were minced in the second row, too, largely by Damien Browne, a shovel-handed lock from the far west of Ireland who just happens to be the most substantial specimen in the England Premiership.
Northampton's future in this tournament hangs on their two matches with Toulouse and Alan Solomons, their coach, appreciates the scale of the challenge. "Toulouse have an open chequebook, we have a salary cap," he said. "In financial terms, we're talking Manchester United against Crewe."
If the Midlanders feel like this, where the hell does it leave Llanelli? "By comparison," Jenkins sighed, "we are the equivalent of Pwll [a small west Wales village]." That just about said it all.
Northampton: Tries: Human 2, Fox; Conversions Grayson 2; Penalties Grayson 2. Llanelli: Penalty: A Thomas.
Northampton: B Reihana; W Human, M Stcherbina, C Hyndman, B Cohen; P Grayson, M Robinson (J Howard, 78); T Smith (B Sturgess, 70), D Richmond (J Van Wyk, 67), C Budgen, M Lord (G Seely, 66), D Browne, D Fox, C Krige (capt), A Blowers.
Llanelli: B Davies (S Finau, h-t); G Evans, M Taylor, M Watkins, T Selley; A Thomas (G Bowen, h-t), D Peel (M Phillips, 74); I Thomas (P John, h-t), M Rees, J Davies, A Jones, C Wyatt, D Jones (G Thomas, 62), S Easterby (capt), S Quinnell.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).Reuse content