The Scarlets kick-off the new rugby season with a journey to Northern Italy to face Magners League new-comers Benetton Treviso on Saturday evening (kick-off 7.05pm local time) with a Scarlets team eager to get off to a good start by securing their first league points away from home.
A tough assignment awaits the Scarlets in Treviso, with an Italian team who will be physical, organised and strong up front and equally focused on making an impression as new arrivals in the Magners competition.
And as excitement builds for the start of the new season, the Scarlets are boosted by the news that two of their key backs have passed late fitness tests yesterday (Thurs) afternoon and will start on Saturday night (kick-off 7.05pm local time).
Scarlets outside half, Rhys Priestland who has been the outstanding performer of the pre-season friendlies is passed fit after a knock on the shoulder last weekend against Exeter Chiefs as has the regions powerful and attacking full-back Morgan Stoddart who is making a strong impression already after returning to play following last seasons injury.
And the highly-rated Wales international back row, Rob McCusker, who won his first caps over the summer, is handed the captains armband as a indication of the strength in depth building at Parc y Scarlets and pace of development that is being made by focusing on investment in home-grown Welsh rugby talent.
McCusker, billed as a leader of the future has shown huge promise and maturity in the past 18 months both for the Scarlets and Wales and steps in as skipper to replace Scarlets no8 stalwart David Lyons. Lyons is rested after pulling-up in training with a minor hamstring injury this week. He is expected to return next weekend for the Scarlets the first home game of the season at Parc y Scarlets against Connacht next Saturday afternoon (September 11th, kick-off 3pm). Prop Rhys Thomas has also been left out of the side travelling to Treviso as a precaution following a hamstring pull during the Exeter game last weekend.
And the Scarlets have opted for a high impact bench in support of the starting XV with international-class forwards and backs ready in the wings including new signing Samoan international back row Jonny Faamatuainu, and three of Wales rising stars including hooker Ken Owens, scrum-half Tavis Knoyle and centre Jonathan Davies.
The Scarlets coaching team say they are pleased to see more competition building for places within the regions starting XV and have selected a team based on form and quality shown in the summer campaign, with players who have been fully immersed in the pre-season preparations and training, as well as keeping an eye on planning and managing squad rotation for key fixtures that lie ahead.
Scarlets starting XV against Treviso: Morgan Stoddart, George North, Gareth Maule, Regan King, Andy Fenby, Rhys Priestland, Martin Roberts, Iestyn Thomas, Emyr Phillips, Deacon Manu, Lou Reed, Damian Welch, Josh Turnbull, Johnathan Edwards, Rob McCusker (capt).
Replacements: Ken Owens, Phil John, Peter Edwards, Vernon Cooper, Jonny Faamatuainu, Tavis Knoyle, Daniel Evans, Jon Davies.
Head Coach Nigel Davies said: We have clear plans for our most senior internationals throughout what is a long and competitive season and we have to make sure we get the very most out of them when they do play and at key times.
Added to that we are now starting to see real strength in depth in this squad. I am really comfortable with the mix of players we now have and believe its the strongest since I came here. With a number of very good established senior players, backed up by a core of players that have been developed and performed at the highest level last season, plus a new crop of young Scarlets coming through there is a good blend and genuine competition for places in most positions.
You know a squad is coming together when selection starts to get more difficult. Its a healthy position because everyone has to push the bar, training becomes a very competitive environment and it has a knock-on effect throughout.
Its very positive environment at Parc y Scarlets at the moment – we have a long way to go and a lot to do ahead of us but I sense there is some great potential developing with this current squad.
On the Italian opposition tomorrow night, Davies said: We are after a good start in Treviso. The first game is always a tough one, everyone says how much they are up for it, but so are we. It will be a hugely competitive game and the players know its going to be tough.
Our discipline is going to be key and I felt the run out last Friday was good for us as Exeter play a similar style of rugby to the Italians; big up front and very organised, and we were tested in these key areas which was good preparation for us.
The Scarlets team for Treviso is one that I firmly believe is the best selection that we can make at this time and will hopefully bear out our faith as a coaching team in the great promise that a number of our players have shown already this summer and importantly, the collective progress that this group has made over during pre-season.
We will also have a strong bench to draw from and that will be able to make a significant impact on this game at key times.
The Italian clubs have big budgets to work with so I think it will be a hugely competitive season ahead in the Magners League and bringing them in adds value and colour to what is already a very high quality league.