By John Billot (Western Mail Newspaper)
Jonathan Griffiths, the daredevil scrum half, played the game of his life against the Fijians at Stadey Park as his club fought back from 25-0 arrears to snatch the most amazing victory in more than 100 years of Llanelli rugby history.
Griffiths and his ice-cool partner Gary Pearce shaped the scarlets’ recovery as their forwards drove with urgency and irresistible impact during the dramatic change of tactics that was forced upon them.
Llanelli had no resource but to turn their pack to take on the tourists who had swooped on mistakes and pounced on opportunities provided by the open nature of the home side’s attacking plan.
"The irony of it was that we were playing with so much adventure in the first half, and playing pretty well, but the Fijians were doing all the scoring," recalled skipper May, who had gambled on giving the tourists first use of a strong westerly wind.
"If I had known they were going to build such an overwhelming lead I would never have made that decision," he smiled. "But we scored two quick tries just before half-time. Without those there would have been no return.
"It still looked a desperate situation. They were so dangerous on the break out we just had to keep the ball tight. It worked for us and this has been my most dramatic match in 12 years with the club."
It certainly was heart-stopping for some 9,000 Stradey fans and they could hardly believe their eyes as their team swept the tourists deep into defensive territory and minute by minute trimmed back the daunting lead.
The Griffiths-Pearce combination won the match behind a superb pack. We expected May’s eight to provide a constant cource of possession and this they did, even though the Fijians were piling up the points.
There were more snappy combined passing from the Llanelli backs during the first five minutes than by Newport throughout the entire match last week; but tacklers were too quick across the field and a dropped ball, intercepted pass or opportunity to counter attack from a too deeply placed punt, saw the visitors race into their overwhelming lead.
Through it all Griffiths was a tormentor of imaginative invention, a scrum half who refused to be subdued and must have been tackled by most of the Fijians at least three times. They knocked him down when they could touch him, yet he always bounced up or wriggled through or flicked away a smart pass.
With a human dynamo such as this vibrating at their heels, the Scarlets forwards never lost hope.
Anthony Buchanan, Davis Fox and Laurance Delaney spearheaded a dominating scrum while May and Rhys Thomas battled for line-out command. The back row also played their part with wholehearted commitment – Alun Hopkins, Mark Lynch and Mark Perego joining the concerted drive and rocking Esala Teleni and his forwards with a supreme, sustained onslaught.
Llanelli marked their intention to match the Fijian style from the first minute. The Stadey runners swung the ball out to their threequarter line, but Jimi Damu’s early penalty goal was followed by the same players’s spectacular long break to create a magnificent try by Tuvula, his fellow wing.
It was the first of four tries scored in little more than 12 minutes of electrifying running.
Finau put Tuvula across for his second try, another piece of sparkling combined attack; Tuvula intercepted Kevin Thomas’s pass just outside the Fijian line to launch a try for Damu; and then link passing, triggered by scrum half Nawalu collecting the throw-in over the top of a mini line-out, put Laulau racing in.
Damu converted those three tries and it was 25-0. The Stradey crowd were stunned. There seemed no possible way their heroes could find their way out of this pretty pickle.
However, May went ploughing over from a spread charge at a tapped penalty and after Damu had made it 28-4 with an easy penalty shot, Buchanan was in from another forward surge. Pearce converted to make it 28-10 at half-time.
The tourists had to bring on Gale as replacement for injured Finau and then when their scrum collapsed on the goal line as Llanelli squeezed, referee Les Peard awarded a penalty try which Pearce converted: 28-16.
Two minutes later Pearce landed a penalty goal, and after Kevin Thomas had failed with a desperate penalty shot from three yards inside his half, Pearce positioned himself behind the scrum and dropped his customary goal; 28-22.
Stardey buzzed like an overturned hive and when Pearce’s next penalty kick made it 28-25 the tension was almost unbearable. Pearce missed a penalty attempt from near halfway and then the Scarlets had a moment of luck.
Damu hit a straight penalty wide from just outside the 22 metre line after the placed ball had blown over twice and Nawalu eventually held it upright.
A special philosophy
Again Pearce missed with a drop kick, but his back row stormed the line and Alun Hopkins went in at the corner. Pearce’s conversion was the finest kick of the match, a masterly shot dipping in late.
Llanelli set the scene for their sensational victory over the Fijians, their sixth success in nine games against touring teams since 1996, by explaining their rugby philosophy in the match programme.
It stated, " As in the past, the philosophy of Llanelli RFC will continue to be to tryto provide entertainment and excitement for its supporters by playing adventurous and effective winning rugby in a style which will be enjoyable for both player and spectator alike. "Hopefully, it will be rugby football of quality, which incorporates the belief that such an approach involves the taking of risks, especially in running the ball from our own line and behind.
"Obviously, rugby played with such style requires players calibre and therefore the degree of entertainment provided will depend on the level of skill and the confidence of the players involved.
"This will necessitate shifts of emphasis in the pattern of play and the coaching thereof, and the club will continue to do its utmost to see that the rugby provided at Stradey Park will be consistently among the best in the country, providing both excellent value for money and pleasure for our many supporters who always expect something special from the Scarlets!"
They certainly enjoyed something special in their recent spectacular contest.