By Graham Thomas
Wales and Scarlets hooker Ryan Elias is desperate to recapture the thrill of springtime 2017 – when he broke through for both region and country.
In fact, the highs Elias experienced three years ago as he clinched a Guinness Pro14 champions’ medal and won his first Welsh cap on the summer tour are firmly in mind as he strives to stay fit during the current rugby lockdown.
The Scarlets’ final triumph over Munster – a classic which is being repeated in full by S4C on Saturday at 5.45pm – is a cherished memory for the 13-times capped 25-year-old.
“That season was a real breakthrough one for me as I began to start a few big games for the Scarlets when Ken Owens was away with Wales,” says Elias.
“On the Thursday before the semi-final against Leinster, Ken took a bang in training. Part of me was thinking, ‘C’mon, Ken – get up.’ But the other half was thinking, I could be starting the semi-final!
“I wouldn’t wish injuries on anyone, but that’s the game we’re in sometimes.
“So, I got the start against Leinster and it all happened pretty rapidly for me after that. I didn’t get too much time to worry about things, which was just as well because I couldn’t hit a barn door with my throws in training. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
“But the semi-final went really smoothly and we were into the final against Munster in Dublin.
“I have to say, that day was probably the most confident we had ever felt as a squad. Things were just easy and fun, we were enjoying our training, and everything was clicking at pace during matches.
“We were tearing teams apart and cutting them open from everywhere. It was just a fantastic moment that we were in.
“I can remember John Barclay, who had been around a bit, saying quietly to all the boys before the game, ‘These opportunities don’t come around too often. Don’t take this for granted. Make sure you seize it.’
“I was a young pup at the time and just concentrated on my set pieces. We gave a good platform up front and the backs just cut them to shreds. We carved them up, really.”
It was the moment the Scarlets crowned themselves champions of their domestic league for the first time in 13 years.
It was also, quite possibly, the final glowing reference on the CV of Wayne Pivac that would later clinch him the job of Wales’ national coach in succession to Warren Gatland.
Pivac had already masterminded one eye-catching performance from his team when they had beaten Leinster, 27-15, the week before – becoming the first away team to win a Pro12 semi-final and upsetting the form book against the most dominant side of the era.
Now, though, the Scarlets needed to back-up that display against another hard-nosed Irish province and a team feeling their own sense of destiny.
Earlier that season, Anthony Foley – a legendary player and captain for Munster who had become their head coach – had died suddenly at a team hotel in Paris.
Driven on by an emotional wave of grief, adoration for one of Limerick’s favourite sons, and a burning desire to mark his passing with a trophy, the Scarlets’ opponents could not have been more motivated.
Munster were also a team shot through with rugged physical capability in the shape of Ireland internationals Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander.
Yet it was the Scarlets who were able to pick up at the ultra-high performance level they had shown against Leinster eight days before.
Even without injured hooker Owens, their front row of Rob Evans, Elias and Samson Lee got on top and that enabled Tadhg Beirne, Aaron Shingler, James Davies and Barclay to go marauding as a pack.
The Scarlets have had some superb back lines through the decades, but their magnificent seven that day were all outstanding in their slick handling, angled running and finishing.
Anyone watching again cannot fail to be impressed by that set of backs – Gareth Davies, Rhys Patchell, Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies, Steff Evans, Liam Williams and Johnny McNicholl.
Elias adds: “It just felt like we couldn’t put a foot wrong. It was definitely the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played in.
“The celebration that night were special and then I flew out on tour and made my Wales debut against Tonga in Auckland. It was an amazing few weeks.”
Munster drew first blood with a penalty from Tyler Bleyendaal, their outside-half, but as an omen it was entirely misleading. Within half an hour, the Scarlets had scored four tries and were 29-3 ahead.
Liam Williams, Evans, Davies and Tadhg Beirne all scored with the Scarlets’ support play and handling a blur of energy and precision.
Even when they chose to kick the ball, it was just as pinpoint accurate, as when Patchell’s brilliant cross-field kick enabled Williams to score and set the tone.
Bleyendaal gave Munster some hope with a try just before half-time to make it 29-10 at the break.
Had Munster scored again soon after the re-start, then the final might have journeyed down a different path. But the Scarlets’ defence was so strong-willed and unyielding that Munster were shut out.
It was 30 minutes of try-less action, but it was captivating stuff and it meant the trophy was going back to Llanelli.
By the time DTH Van Der Merwe scored, it was simply a matter of adding flourishing touches and although Munster replied through Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, a late score from James Davies gave the scoreline a more reflective appearance.
Clasuron Rygbi S4C – Munster v Scarlets 2017.
Saturday, April 11, 2020 – 5.45pm – S4C