Pro 12 Season Preview: Scarlets
The Llanelli based and West Wales region had yet another year of highs and lows for the duration of 2011/12 season. Great away wins in their Heineken Cup campaign against Northampton Saints and Castres, progressing to the quarter finals in the Amlin, progressing to the semi-finals in the LV Cup were all steps in the right direction and improvement on previous seasons, proof that Nigel Davies’ plan for progression was working. The one slight glitch was yet again finishing 5th in the RaboDirect Pro 12, agonisingly short yet again of a play-off spot. And when you look back at some of the results, the draw at home against Munster being a standout, then the Scarlets in the league at least, look to have underachieved.
The summer has been an interesting time for the Scarlets, with the quiet murmur of new signings (Kristian Phillips and Gareth Owens moving over from the Ospreys, George Earle heading to the land of the Sospan from South Africa, Tomás Vallejos moving from Harlequins) being overshadowed by the news of Nigel Davies’ departure. The man who had given 28 years, as a player then as a coach, to the West Wales side, announced his shock departure to Gloucester. Up steps Scarlets legend Simon Easterby to take the reins.
Easterby has already had two seasons of being the Scarlets’ defence coach (and in his second year making huge improvements), he’s a past Scarlets captain and a hugely respected individual in the Scarlets set up. But does he have what it takes to make the step up as head coach? Press conferences show him in a favourable light, but nervous times are ahead as the Scarlets, who should have been viewing this as the year they finally delivered some silverware, might yet again be forced into viewing this as another building season.
The departures of old heads such as Stephen Jones and Sean Lamont to new clubs and of Iestyn and Rhys Thomas to injury forced retirement could have a bigger impact than many even suspect. The Scarlets, much vaunted for their belief in giving younger players a chance, may have inadvertently gone too far in the wrong direction. They are left in the backs with their oldest player being a mere 27 years of age in Morgan Stoddart. They have lost 3 of their locks and only so far recruited two replacements (one of which the Argentinian Vallejos will miss a large chunk of the season due to international obligations). They are still to recruit a replacement prop – for either side of the scrum. They have lost Stephen Jones, and have limited back up at 10 for when Rhys Priestland will inevitably be away in the Wales camp.
It is facts like that that can send a slight shiver of unease through even the most ardent of Scarlets fan, yet there are glimmers of hope too. A second row pairing of Earle and Timani has the potential to be the boiler house workforce the Scarlets have been missing. Wise recruitment in the backs can now ensure squad cover for when Gatland comes calling. And the academy, as ever, is set again for another season of producing start. The under 20’s front row of Rob Evans, Kirby Myhill and Samson Lee will be pushing for game time. Flanker Dan Thomas, such a highlight of the Junior Rugby World Cup that saw Wales dish out New Zealand’s first ever defeat in the competition, will be eager to impress. The LV cup is likely where these youngsters will get their chance to shine, but it’s their energy, commitment, drive and competition for places that can really help spur on this young Scarlets squad. Add to that the recruitment of a new forwards coach, Danny Wilson, who is fresh from taking the Wales U20’s side to their best ever Junior Rugby World Cup result by finishing 3rd then there is a lot for the Scarlets to be positive about.
The fixtures for next season were announced just today. Scarlets have Leinstser, current Heineken champions, first up, at home. They can face no sterner test. As tends to happen in the Pro 12 it will be unlikely that either side will be able to field their star players (the likes of North, Prietland and Davies will have to wait to re-prove their worth) but it will be a chance for those quality players within the squad to really show how much they want that Scarlets shirt for their own. In the Pro 12 it is the strength of your squad that will see you through to the play offs. Leinster have long mastered this aspect, the Scarlets have long been falling just short. Can this be the season they put it right?
In the first month of the new season, three of their matches will be against teams that did what they could not last season and made it to the playoffs. Leinster, Glasgow and the Opsreys. Add in there an away trip to Connacht which the Scarlets can never seem to win and it’s one of the toughest beginnings to a season the Scarlets, or indeed any side, could face.
Confidence, despite some points of alarm, seems to be high at the Scarlets. A new head coach, some bright new faces, and a real desire to right last season’s wrongs would indicate that this is a group of young, determined men set out to do nothing but win. And no one can deny the talent they have. Time and again they’ve come close to beating the top sides and fallen just short. This season is the one where they must progress. This season they have to finally learn how to close out tight matches. Fail to do that, and I for one see yet another season of being the almost team, the team that’s just short, the team that’s always second best.
Make no doubt of it, reaching the Pro-12 play-offs has to be their aim, and they are definitely a side that is capable. Whether or not they can learn from previous season’s mistakes? I for one think they will, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to be one hell of a season finding out.
My players to watch: Rhodri Jones, Ken Owens, Liam Williams, George Earle and Rob McCusker.