By Peter Jackson
No contender for Europe’s blue riband trophy can have endured more heartache in their pursuit than the Scarlets, a point acknowledged by the most ruthless of all England captains.
Martin Johnson has confessed to feeling sorry for the best club not to have reached the final. Coming from a hard-nosed operator not exactly noted for extending sympathy to a vanquished opponent, that is quite something – but then so were the circumstances: a European Cup semi-final at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground in April 2002.
The Scarlets can still claim to be the only team to be bounced out of the final by the most freakish penalty in its history, the one Tim Stimpson launched from long-range against one upright, off the crossbar and then over via the other post.
Had it been down to Johnson, there would have been no penalty shot in the first place. It may push some Scarlet aficionados into renewed torment to be reminded that had the Tigers’ skipper got to within earshot of his goalkicker a few seconds earlier Scott Quinnell & Co might well have gone to Paris for that year’s final against Stade Francais.
“I was heading over to Rod Kafer to discuss what line-out move we should go for when we kicked it into touch when I saw ‘Stimmo’ pointing to the posts,’’ Johnson recalled. “Nothing I could do. The ref had signalled.
“It was a very difficult kick and a brave call by ‘Stimmo’. He managed to get it over, pinballing it between the post and the bar to give us the game, 13-12.
“I felt sorry for Scott Quinnell, a good guy who had put his heart and soul into it and just come up short. In fact I felt for all of them. Llanelli is a great club with some passionate fans and it must have been gutting to lose like that.”
They had, of course, lost in such gut-wrenching fashion two years earlier, in another semi-final against another club from the East Midlands at another football venue, the Madejski Stadium. With extra-time seconds away, a needlessly conceded penalty allowed Paul Grayson to launch a long-distance missile to shattering effect. The last time the Scarlets got that far, in 2007, they gave every impression of being just about the best side in Europe. They beat Toulouse home and away, did the same to Ulster and London Irish followed by a home quarter-final against Munster which allowed them to depose the reigning champions.
Leicester stood between them and the final but with the Stephen Jones-Dwayne Peel axis spinning to optimum effect and Simon Easterby at the helm, what was there to worry about? As if that wasn’t enough, they also had a presidential presence like no other, as provided by the incomparable Ray Gravell whose tragic passing later that year reaches its tenth anniversary this month.
Stimpson had moved and with Johnson in retirement, the Tigers were not quite the formidable force they had been five years earlier. So much for the theory.
The Scarlets flopped and ever since then they have been reduced to making up the numbers as perennial non-qualifiers for the last eight.
Now, after ten years of day-dreaming, the Scarlets take their place on the starting grid as serious contenders. They do so, what’s more, as one of only four among the 20 starters who fit the bill for what the promoters loosely describe as the Champions’ Cup.
As PRO12-14 winners, they rank alongside Saracens, Exeter and Clermont as respective champions of Europe, England and France. And if Toulon next Sunday is a daunting start, then rest assured the money men on the Cote D’Azur will be every bit as daunted by the impending arrival of their Welsh opponents.
No team in recent years can have won their domestic title in more stylish fashion than the Scarlets last May, a challenge which obliged them to defeat not just one Irish provincial powerhouse, Leinster, in Dublin one week but another, Munster, the next.
Toulon lost in Llanelli during last season’s campaign when six Rhys Patchell goals counted for more than seven from Leigh Halfpenny because Scott Williams scored the only try. Halfpenny’s repatriation after an acrimonious end to his time as a highly-paid export puts the boot on the other foot with a vengeance.
They may have lost Liam Williams and DTH van der Merwe to the English Premiership but the Scarlets do have Tadgh Beirne, if only for a little longer. That the match-winning Irish lock will be gone by the end of the season makes it all the more imperative that the west Walians take maximum advantage of his mighty presence before Munster do so from next season.