It’s a mix of the old and new for the Scarlets this season in their choice of captaincy. As is starting to become more common place amongst rugby sides, the Scarlets have opted for two captains; Rob McCusker retaining the role from last season and Jon Davies, fresh from a successful Lions campaign which also saw him collect three Lions caps.
The Scarlets have a hugely youthful squad with just two players, Phil John and fellow front row forward Deacon Manu, aged over thirty. The need for leaders is clear, and the structure where they now have a forwards and backs captain who are both capable of leading and helping to develop the west Wales region can only be a positive as they aim to improve on their semi-final showing of last season in the RaboDirect Pro12.
It has been a fairly frugal summer in terms of signings yet Simon Easterby’s team have made sure that those they have recruited are ones that will add significantly to their squad. The securing of Scotland international John Barclay is a massive boost for a backrow that was sometimes lacking in balance last season, and the return of Steven Shingler from his stint at London Irish provides more cover in the backline that has been severely depleted after the departure of players and early retirements. Rumours abound also of another back three signing, with Frazier Climo of Taranaki looking to have all but confirmed his transfer to the Scarlets.
The only position where the Scarlets are still slightly lacking is the need for a more mobile no.8. Rob McCusker performed well out of position last season and the up and coming Craig Price looks to have a lot of promise, but with the departure of Keiran Murphy they are still lacking in a damaging ball carrier that could help to get them on the front foot.
The Scarlets had their first pre-season friendly at home against the Exeter Chiefs on August 17th. Conditions were not kind as a steady downpour led to handling errors that only exacerbated the usual error strewn pre-season fixtures. There was a lot of promise on show, especially with the youthful front row of Rob Evans, Kirby Myhill and Samson Lee who were reunited for the first time since their successful U20’s world cup campaign two seasons ago.
Steven Shingler slotted in well in the flyhalf shirt, with junior world cup star Jordan Williams carrying on his fine form out of his usual position on the wing, and utility back Gareth Owen working well from full back. It was clear to see all three players alternating their positioning and often Williams came in from the wing to act as first receiver.
The same problems from last season persisted however with the Scarlets often outmuscled or out thought at the breakdown. On the front foot they looked confident and dangerous yet the same frailties still appeared when under pressure. As more of their first choice players return to their side they will hope they can improve in their forwards play to allow their talented backs to progress.
Jordan Williams looks like he has the potential to provide the Scarlets backs with a clinical finisher, and with Scott Williams, Jon Davies, Liam Williams and Rhys Priestland all still to return that despite the loss of George North and Andy Fenby to the English league, there is still a large pool of talent for the Scarlets to choose from.
Two pre-season fixtures remain against London Welsh and Gloucester away from home and the Welsh region will be hoping to try out new combinations and ease players back in on their returns from injury. With a smaller squad to choose from this season player management is going to be crucial and individuals such as Phil John, who participated in every game last season, are going to be of the utmost importance when handling this young side through a long and strenuous season.
The Scarlets’ first full fixture of the season is at home on Friday September 6th against Leinster and they will be hoping to get off to as good a start in the Pro 12 as they did last year. With shrewd signings and a young side another year on in their development the Scarlets will be aiming for another semi-final spot in the league. However having been drawn in figurative ‘pool of death’ in the European competition they are faced with a huge challenge and will be aiming to create upsets along the way. With the players in their armoury and despite their underdog status if they can get their forwards working as a cohesive unit, they could well be capable of doing so.