Llanelli Scarlets 20 Toulouse 19: Easterby puts Toulouse in the red

Scarlets push French giants to the brink of elimination with stirring performance at Stradey
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The Independent Online

Llanelli Scarlets have a good record in the Heineken Cup - their glass is of the half-full variety although they have never quite managed to convert the last drop - and yesterday's performance was one of their best. The Scarlets not only maintained their unbeaten run in Pool Five but might well have nudged Toulouse towards a premature exit from a competition the French aristocrats regard as their blue riband.

Toulouse - like Llanelli it is a rugby town down to its DNA - remain an enigma wrapped in a Tricolour. Sometimes when they travel they do not declare their genius at customs, but a psyche so fragile it has "handle with care" written all over it.

They have been champions of Europe three times - in 1996, 2003 and 2005 - and they journeyed in style, winning the finals in Cardiff, Dublin and Edinburgh. But they opened this campaign by barely turning up at all against Ulster at Ravenhill, where they were banished from Belfast without so much as a try to their name.

Toulouse couldn't afford another defeat and look to qualifying for the knockout stages with any confidence so yesterday, dressed all in black, they came to west Wales for a major assault. It makes the Scarlets' achievement all the more praiseworthy.

"It was a significant win but there's a bit more to come from us," Phil Davies, the Scarlets coach, said. "We showed patience, tenacity and guile and showed we can stand up to the challenge. The important thing is that we've got momentum and we'll need it when we go to Toulouse next week." These are exciting days for Davies, who returned to his native Llanelli after a long spell with Leeds. He never enjoyed such red letter days while he was at Headingley.

The Scarlets are top of their pool and not only have an away win, at London Irish, but earned a bonus point there and that, in the final analysis, could be priceless. Nobody was looking at bonus points here - a win, any win, would be cherished. The Scarlets got off to a flier, launching half a dozen attacks from one wing to the other, but the Toulouse defence held. However, Yannick Bru, their captain and hooker, failed to find Fabien Pelous at a line-out and the lock Scott MacLeoddrove over from close range.

After that dream start, the home side could hardly believe their luck when the flanker Yannick Nyanga took out Dafydd James so late it was almost posthumous: it meant the sin-bin for Nyanga and a penalty for the Scarlets which Stephen Jones landed. A 10-point lead became 13 when the Wales stand-off added a second penalty and the game was only 13 minutes old.

For Toulouse it looked like being déjà vu from the nightmare in Ulster, but after 25 minutes Vincent Clerc brilliantly finished a move down the right and suddenly the complexion of the contest changed. Toulouse scored another try within three minutes, the full-back Clément Poitrenaud touching down at the posts after Thierry Dusautoir almost glided through a defence that lost its bearings and its concentration.

Stradey Park, the famous little ground where New Zealand once met their match, is the subject of a planning inquiry. The club wants to sell it to a developer (who will turn it into a housing estate) and move to a new stadium, but there are objectors. Strangely, Stradey has been a happy hunting ground for Toulouse, and having beaten the Scarlets four times out of four in the last two seasons, twice at Stradey, the Frenchmen began to look like they would make it five out of five.

In the first half alone the ball was in play for more than 20 minutes and when another Scarlets attack broke down Clerc was unlucky not to capitalise. He did not have long to wait for his second try, though, as the Scarlets' lead was obliterated, their defence exposed after a line-out had been thrown away. It was, though, about the only thing you could criticise the home pack for. Trailing 19-13 they responded magnificently, and the matchwinning try in the 51st minute was a Stradey classic, appropriately scored by the captain, Simon Easterby. The creator in chief was the right wing, James, who set off on a mesmerising run from deep in his own half. Jones's angled conversion made it 20-19 and it was Toulouse who failed to convert the last drop. At the death, Gaffie du Toit went for a drop goal from a good position but the ball was charged down by a wall of Scarlet.

The only injustice was that James was named man of the match. Any number of the forwards, particularly Easterby and Alix Popham, deserved it more. Easterby may be a Yorkshireman but as Davies said: "He's our spiritual leader and an excellent rugby player." In spades.

Llanelli: C Thomas; D James, R King, G Evans, M Jones (D Daniel, 52); S Jones, D Peel; I Thomas, M Rees, D Manu (C Dunlea, 75), V Cooper, S MacLeod, S Easterby (capt), A Popham, G Thomas (D Jones, 61).

Toulouse: C Poitrenaud (M Médard, 72); V Clerc, F Ritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; G du Toit, V Courrent (M Kunavore, 52); D Human (O Hasan, 72), Y Bru (capt; V Lacombe, 80), J-B Poux, F Pelous (capt; R Millochlusky, 52), P Albacete, Y Nyanga (J Bouilhou, 52), F Maka (G Lamboley, 72), T Dusatoir.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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