Six years ago, the Londoners were set fair for a home quarter-final - a prize beyond value in Heineken Cup terms - until they ventured across the Severn Bridge into Scarlet territory. They lost 25-15, forfeited whatever advantage they had spent the previous months establishing for themselves and duly lost their last-eight tie at Northampton. Yesterday, the 2004 champions messed up again to leave their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage of this season's competition at the mercy of everyone else. Such clemency is most unlikely to be forthcoming.
The Scarlets, who intend to move into a purpose-built 15,000-seater stadium complex covering 55 acres of land on the eastern edge of town in August 2007, will not award this victory a prominent place in the annals. Leaving aside the second-half try from Mark Jones that did most to hurt the visitors - a long-range finish of considerable quality that gave the increasingly depressed Mark van Gisbergen precious little in the way of spiritual uplift - there was nothing of the Llanelli brio of old. They were more interested in cutting off Wasps at the line-out and testing them around the fringes of a zillion slow-motion rucks.
But as Gareth Jenkins, their director of rugby, pointed out within a few minutes of the final whistle, this was not a day for the game's sauces and pickles. It was a raw-meat kind of an occasion - tough and testing, indigestible to those who like to see the ball moved around the field, manna from heaven to those who detest the sight of pat-a-cake rugby. Jenkins put it most succinctly.
"In this sort of match, all that matters is that your players look after themselves. They did that out there." None more so than John Davies, the venerable tight-head prop who might well have played against Noah. Davies admits to being 34, but front-row forwards are not exactly renowned for their veracity. Suffice to say he has been anchoring the Scarlets pack for more years than anyone cares to remember, and yesterday his side needed his strength - his "unbreakability," as Jenkins described it - more than ever, given the enforced absences of the loose-heads Iestyn Thomas and Phil John.
Davies had a terrific afternoon, not only at the set-pieces but in the pick-and-drive routines amid the heavy traffic. Playing the game tight to the tackle area is hardly a staple of Llanelli rugby, but there was a clear logic to the strategy in this fixture against a high-octane side like Wasps, who only function at the optimum when they are permitted to put some pace on the ball.
Time and again, Davies led his fellow forwards into the fray, knocking the visitors backwards irrespective of who might be in possession at any given moment. Time and again, Wasps fumbled their way into turnover situations that drove Jenkins' opposite number, Ian McGeechan, to distraction.
"Playing at Stradey is an emotional business," said the much-decorated Wasps coach. "We set out to get hold of the ball and keep hold of it, but this was exactly what we didn't do. I'm bitterly disappointed, because that was nowhere near the standard we set ourselves. I still have a bee in my bonnet about the things that happen at the breakdown. The ball out there was very slow, and until the game tidies itself up in this respect... But look, part of that was our fault. We simply weren't ruthless enough."
Whatever ruthlessness was in evidence was clad in red. Three points adrift at the end of a barren first half, the Scarlets broke the game open five minutes after the interval when Dafydd James took advantage of a loose pass from Alex King to score to the left of the sticks. Gareth Bowen might have extended the lead with a drop goal a few minutes later, but nudged his shot wide. No matter. When Jones cut a lovely angle down the short side of a scrum, he took the outside line offered him by Van Gisbergen and made the line in Paul Sackey's tackle.
Van Gisbergen, who converted a retaliatory try by Tom Rees, is one of the sorrier figures in professional rugby right now. Foot perfect until England called him into their squad for their autumn internationals, his collapse in form has been so drastic that Wasps left him on the bench for this contest. Called to arms shortly after the hour, he looked a bag of nerves. Few people fell over with shock when he was penalised in contact three minutes into injury time and allowed Bowen to apply the coup de grâce with a simple penalty.
Sadly for Wasps, the team is beginning to mirror the individual. For the second successive season, Europe has left them all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Llanelli Scarlets: Tries James, M Jones; Conversion Bowen; Penalties Bowen 3. Wasps: Try Rees; Conversion Van Gisbergen; Penalties King 2.
Llanelli Scarlets: L Byrne; M Jones, M Watkins, D James, G Evans; G Bowen, D Peel; D Williams, M Rees, J Davies, F Louw, A Jones, S Easterby (capt; I Afeaki, 66), G Thomas, A Popham.
Wasps: J Lewsey; P Sackey, A Erinle, S Abbott (M van Gisbergen, 61), T Voyce; A King, M Dawson (E Reddan, 80); T Payne, R Ibañez (J Barrett, 73), J Dawson, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley (T Rees, 63), J O'Connor, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).Reuse content