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Scarlets Bid for Uplift After Season of Struggle and Farewells

By Graham Thomas

This time 20 years ago, Welsh rugby giants The Scarlets were busy winning what was then the Celtic League and everything in their garden looked, well . . . scarlet.

But 2024 appears very different to 2004 and the current side are reaching the end of their season 14th out of 16 teams in the United Rugby Championship.

Dwayne Peel’s team have won only three matches in the tournament all season, but on Friday comes an opportunity to improve that record when they are in Italy to face Zebre, the basement-dwellers who have won only once.

It’s not a ringing endorsement, but DragonBet make the Scarlets narrow favourites at 8/13 to win, with the hosts at 11/8.

The Scarlets’ decline has been abrupt as it was only seven years ago they were champions for a second time, but there is little doubt the last remnants of that era are now being lost.

This is the final season at the region for former Wales trio Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, but amid all this upheaval and struggle there have been occasional flashes of a brighter future.

Emyr Phillips – the former international hooker, now assistant coach – certainly thinks so. The forward who won three caps whilst competing with Owens for the club and country shirt, thinks there will be gain after all the pain.

“We’re not making any excuses,” says Phillips. “We’ve got a young group which has had a lot of minutes this year, but we can’t hide away from the fact that we’ve been disappointed with the season.

“I think the generation that’s slowly leaving Welsh rugby now, they have had so much success and have been such a strong group of players. This period was always going to come. 

“It’s been a really strong group of players in terms of leadership and performance, those boys have been so good to Welsh rugby. Maybe, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but the experiences some of the younger boys have had this year is only going to be good for them.”

If the Scarlets can overcome Zebre and then finish their campaign by beating the Dragons in the Judgement Day finale, then five victories in their win column will certainly make the summer break more enjoyable for their long-suffering fans.

They are currently 23 points adrift of their rivals, the Ospreys, who themselves look huge outsiders to make the play-offs.

With two games to go, the Ospreys are eight points behind eighth-placed Benetton although Toby Booth’s side will fancy their chances of picking up a five-point maximum at home to the Dragons on Saturday.

Should they manage that, their odds of winning the URC title from their current 11th place in the table will improve, but at present they are 500-1 shots.

The Ospreys are the only one of the Welsh sides still mathematically capable of making the knockout stages, with the Irish, South Africans and Scottish teams all being well represented at the head of the betting.

Leinster are 8/15 favourites for the title, with the Bulls next at 11/2. Then come Munster at 13/2 and Glasgow at 10/1, the same price as the Stormers.

Cardiff and the Dragons long ago gave up any dreams of the play-offs and, like the Scarlets, have only won three games.

There is a realistic opportunity for both to improve on that record on Saturday, though, with Cardiff out in South Africa to face the toothless Sharks and the Dragons sensing the Ospreys may still be bruised after last week’s hammering by Leinster in Dublin.

The Dragons themselves ended up shipping 44 points at home to the Stormers last week, but will be motivated by two derbies to finish the campaign.

“We’ve got two derbies and that’s superb for us, what a way to finish the season,” said head coach Dai Flanagan.

“We had a shot at knocking Connacht and the Stormers off but unfortunately didn’t get there.

“I love [Ospreys head coach] Toby Booth to bits, and [coaches] Richard Kelly, Richard Fussell and Mark Jones, but it would be nice to upset their plans for the play-offs.”

Cardiff lost 34-13 to the Lions in their first game of their South African trip, but should find the Sharks easier to take a bite out of, since the Durban-based team may have their minds on other things, such as their European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester.

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