McNicholl looking to keep top of the charts

Rob LloydNews

Johnny McNicholl has been striding out in front in the BKT United Rugby Championship stats charts this season.

The Scarlets back three man has made more metres (805) and more offloads (21) than any other player, beaten 26 defenders and produced 13 clean breaks. He’s also made the most metres in contact (68) among the full-backs in the league, while he’s come up with five try assists.

As for his own ever-growing scoring tally, he’s touched down seven times in all competitions. Suffice to say, he’s having a season to remember.

Having arrived in Llanelli from the Crusaders in 2016 with a reputation as a top-class finisher, McNicholl has lived up to that billing, recently joining an exclusive group of players who have scored 50 tries for the west Wales region.

He brought up his half century against the Dragons in January and has added three more touchdowns to his haul since then.

Head coach Peel has been delighted with the 32-year-old’s all-round game and he’s sure to be a key man for the Scarlets when they travel to Munster this weekend.

“Johnny has been one of the form players. He is a devastating attacker, he loves getting his hands on the ball, he beats defenders and he’s been very disciplined in the defensive side of the game,” said the former Wales and Lions scrum-half.

“He’s got the ability to play 15 and 14. When he’s played on the wing, he’s defended well. I like him at full-back as well because he gets more touches.

“In the Stormers game, he had 26 touches on the ball, which is a hell of a lot for a full-back. Get him on the ball is the biggest thing for me. We need him there as much as we can.”

McNicholl has contributed significantly to the Scarlets’ excellent recent run which has seen them win eight of their last nine matches in all competitions. That’s a big turnaround from the start of the season when they won just one of their first nine.

“I think we always had it in us to be performing well, we just didn’t quite start as we expected,” says the man born in Christchurch, who qualified for Wales on residency.

“Having the trip to South Africa in the autumn got the boys nice and close together. Once a team is gelling well off the field, the performances start happening on it.

“You need confidence to play well. I feel like we have a bit of momentum now and we are looking to keep building that.”

Next up for the Scarlets is the BKT URC clash with Munster at Cork’s Musgrave Park on Friday evening. The Irish province are another team to have turned around a shaky start to the season and are now up to fifth in the table, so it will be a big test for the visitors who are boosted by the return to fitness of Welsh internationals Johnny Williams, Josh Macleod and Tom Rogers.