Llanelli victims of Human nature

Northampton 25 - Llanelli Scarlets 3
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The Independent Online

Arwel Thomas, once a classic model from Wales's fly-half factory, was taken off here at the interval, by which time the cause of his team had already been lost. Thomas, like Llanelli, looked a shadow of his former self. So far, Welsh clubs - played six, lost six - are finding the Heineken Cup too strong to handle.

Four years ago the Scarlets where desperately unlucky to lose 31-28 to the Saints in the semi-finals of Europe's blue riband event. Northampton went on to lift the Heineken Cup at Twickenham. They are not the force they where but are on Easy Street compared to the fading Scarlets who, like Cardiff, are living on Sunset Boulevard, dreaming of yesterday's glory days.

Pool Three has already been dominated by Northampton and Toulouse, leaving Llanelli and Glasgow badly adrift. The Saints won by two goals, a try and two penalties to a penalty. "You have to win your home games to stand a chance of qualifying," said Alan Solomons, Northampton's coach. "We would have liked a bonus point but it wasn't to be. Winning our first game in Glasgow was critical in restoring the confidence of the players and they stepped up to the mark."

The discrepancy between the haves and the have nots is already as wide as they Severn Estuary, though Solomons had the nerve to complain that Toulouse had an "open cheque book" while poor old Northampton were restricted by the English Premiership's salary cap. To illustrate his point he compared the situation to the difference between Manchester United and Crewe.

All of which, of course, begged a question of the Scarlets coach Gareth Jenkins. If Toulouse are Man United and Northampton are Crewe, who on earth are Llanelli? "Pwll," replied Jenkins. "It's a little village in west Wales."

Jenkins, who admitted that his club's chances of qualifying to the knock-out stages were now "remote", which is an understatement, highlighted a crisis in the Principality. "My team needs seven, eight or nine players to compete in Europe but I can't get them in Wales. A lot of the clubs in this tournament carry quality overseas players."

He didn't have to look any further than Northampton, who yesterday fielded 10 non-English players. So, Jenkins seemed to be saying, the home-grown produce wasn't up to it and Llanelli would have to look abroad. The only problem is they can't afford it. "Our level of performance was way below of what was required," Jenkins added.

Llanelli actually led, Arwel Thomas kicking a simple penalty in the second minute, and it was about the only thing he did right. Early on he punted the ball straight to the South African Wylie Human, who gave the New Zealander Bruce Reihana, playing in his rightful position of full back, the opportunity to display his running skills. Thomas did not learn the lesson. After Paul Grayson, back at stand-off after an absence of six weeks, kicked Northampton into the lead with two penalties, his opposite number put up a high kick which the New Zealander Mark Robinson ran back through a disorganised defence. Reihana inevitably had a hand in the move which ended in a try for the flanker Darren Fox.

Fox is likely to be the prey when he appears before a disciplinary tribunal this week on a charge of butting in last week's Heineken victory in Glasgow. Fox is alleged to have delivered the Glasgow kiss not once but twice. At least he is a creature native to England.

It was only Northampton's third try in seven matches and the fourth arrived two minutes later when Llanelli ran into trouble, lost possession and Human fully exploited an overlap on the right wing.

Trailing 18-3 at half-time Llanelli replaced Thomas with Gareth Bowen but their aging pack was already under ominous pressure up front, where the Saints forwards, minus the injured England hooker Steve Thompson, performed like a dog with a particularly tasty bone.

Northampton had to wait until the 74th minute for their third try and it was worth waiting for, Reihana brilliantly offloading to the Human cannonball and the wing touching down near the posts.

Llanelli defeated the Saints home and away last season. "Since then," Jenkins lamented, "we have lost key players and we haven't been able to replace them." They were not singing in Pwll last night.

Northampton, who made a promising start to the season but then suffered an alarming slump, look as if they are back on track, thanks in no small part to the return of Grayson and the irreplaceable Tom Smith. Solomons' experiment of playing Reihana at stand-off was a disaster but a natural order has been restored. What they need now are a couple of decent centres. What Llanelli need is a wholesale blood transfusion.

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, A Blowers, C Krige (capt).

Llanelli Scarlets: B Davies (S Finau, 40); G Evans, M Watkins, M Taylor, T Selley; A Thomas (G Bowen, 40), D Peel; I Thomas (P John, 40), M Rees, J Davies, A Jones, C Wyatt, D Jones (G Thomas, 62), S Quinnell, S Easterby (capt).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)