Scarlets overcome nervy start to end La Rochelle’s European dream
Welsh side will be away to the winners of the Leinster v Saracens quarter-final
Scarlets’ Rhys Patchell scores his side’s opening try despite the tackle of Arthur Retiere of La Rochelle during the Champions Cup quarter-final at Parc y Scarlets. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Scarlets 29 La Rochelle 17
The Scarlets became the first Welsh region to reach the last four of the European Cup for nine years as they overcame a nervy start against imposing and enterprising opponents to seal victory with a Scott Williams try five minutes from the end when they were down to 14 men. They will be away in the semi-final to the winners of Sunday’s match between Leinster and Saracens.
The Scarlets were playing their first knockout match in Europe here, and had to provide extra seating to get the capacity above the requisite 15,000. The match sold out in less than an hour, and there was a sizeable contingent of supporters from La Rochelle who had not seen their team win away since the beginning of November.
An early Leigh Halfpenny penalty gave the home side the lead but they paid for carelessness in possession which saw them pushed behind the gainline by a rush defence. La Rochelle had a bulky pack and a frontrow that seemed to cover most of the width of the pitch, but in Arthur Retière they had a centre who weighed little more than 11st.
It was Retière who inspired the opening try of the game after eight minutes. He picked up a loose ball just outside the home 22 and caught his own chip ahead. He was tackled just short of the line and when Jérémy Sinzelle kicked to the corner, Steff Evans failed to catch the ball. The television match official, David Grashoff, then ruled that the secondrow Romain Sazy had grounded it over the try line.
It looked a decision based on World Rugby’s pronouncement following the failure to award Gareth Anscombe a try for Wales at Twickenham last month, one where the slightest contact is enough. The crowd voiced its disgust but the Scarlets picked themselves up, carried on winning penalties at the breakdown, and within 10 minutes were back in the lead through two Halfpenny penalties.
The Scarlets are known for their flair, but they had to meet straight-running opponents head on. Their captain, Ken Owens, led the way by felling both props in quick succession and with the English referee, Luke Pearce, allowing a contest at the breakdown (to the bafflement of the French side) John Barclay became a pivotal figure.
Barclay started at number eight but became his side’s poacher after 14 minutes when the wing Paul Asquith suffered a leg injury and, with the Scarlets only having a scrumhalf and an outhalf on the bench, was replaced by a backrower, Josh MacLeod. The move saw the openside James Davies moved to the wing, but despite the desire of both sides to move the ball, both struggled to achieve width.
La Rochelle were dominant in terms of territory and possession, kicking the ball in defence only for tactical advantage rather than to relieve pressure. But it was the Scarlets who led at the interval, 12-10, after Halfpenny’s fourth penalty was answered by one from Alexi Bales at the end of the opening half.
Nerves were less of a factor after the break. Halfpenny’s fifth penalty extended his side’s lead, but La Rochelle were making clean breaks, led by Retière, whose deceptive strength in contact allowed him to bounce off tacklers who went too high.
The Scarlets were forced into a reshuffle behind when Steff Evans suffered a head injury as he chased a kick ahead, inadvertently elbowed in the face by Bales. Halfpenny moved to the wing and Rhys Patchell took over at fullback with the replacement Dan Jones taking over at outhalf.
La Rochelle sensed a game there to be plundered, and laid siege to Scarlets’ line. They were held up three times, a combination of courage and a willingness to bend the breakdown laws to breaking point keeping the Scarlets ahead. Their beautiful game had had to turn ugly.
Having absorbed numerous blows, the Scarlets delivered the knock-out on the hour when Hadleigh Parkes broke through the midfield and Dan Jones’s losing pass allowed Patchell to use Halfpenny as a decoy before cutting inside Vincent Rattez to score.
La Rochelle kept coming, Lewis Rawlins sabotaging a driving maul as it juddered towards Scarlets’ line, but the Scarlets played the final 10 minutes a man short after Will Boyde was sent to the sin-bin for entering a ruck from the side. Then Williams got the home crowd singing and Pierre Boudehent’s late try was the scantest of consolations. - Guardian service