Second-placed Scarlets turn their attention back to their Magners League campaign this weekend with a challenging trip to Connacht on Saturday evening (kick-off 7.35pm) at the Sportground.
The Scarlets travel to Galway with a strengthened team from the side that lost out at last weekend’s fixture against the Newport Gwent Dragons. Returning back from injury are star centre Regan King, Lou Reed in the second row, with back row forwards Johnathan Edwards and no 8 Ben Morgan also adding to a powerful and dynamic Scarlets pack.
Back row forward Rob McCusker is released back to his region from international duty with Wales and the Scarlets’ young Pembrokeshire Prop Simon Gardiner (20) is back from injury to the bench. Gardiner returns after an impressive show in the Heineken Cup and Magners League, stepping up to cover after an unprecedented trio of injuries hit the Scarlets front row with three tighthead Props (Deacon Manu, Rhys Thomas, Peter Edwards) all sustaining broken limbs.
A core group of key players that have been rested, including experienced Prop Iestyn Thomas (captain) and in-form centre Gareth Maule, are back in the starting line-up, for first of three crucial fixtures for the Scarlets as they look to keep a hold on a top four position in the Magners League.
The Scarlets currently have 9 senior squad players on international duty, a group of Scarlets academy and development players with Wales U20 and U18s, two with Wales Sevens (Richie Pugh and Lees Rees) and 12 unavailable through injury.
The Scarlets know they have to push for a win as only 5 points, or one win, separate the teams lying in second to fifth place in the table.
Scarlets starting XV v Connacht 12/02/11, The Sportsground kick-off 1935: Daniel Evans, Darren Daniel, Regan King, Scott Williams, Gareth Maule, Dan Newton, Martin Roberts, Iestyn Thomas (capt), Emyr Phillips, Rhys Thomas, Vernon Cooper, Lou Reed, Rob McCusker, Johnathan Edwards, Ben Morgan.
Replacements: Rhys Lawrence, Simon Gardiner, Owen Evans, Jonny Fa’amatuainu, Nick Cudd, Gareth Davies, Owen Williams, Nick Reynolds.
Scarlets Head Coach Nigel Davies said: “It’s good to see some key players coming back from injury for us and we are happy with the quality of the side we’ve been able to put together for this weekend given the number of injuries we’re carrying and those on international duty both at senior and age-grade levels – we’ve only had one player released back to us this weekend from Wales.
“This is a critical period in our season now, we’ve done well to get to where we have got to in second spot and that’s where we want to stay. The next three games – Connacht away this weekend and then our two home games (Ulster and Edinburgh) are absolutely critical for our ambitions this year.
“We know we need to build momentum in Connacht and then keep that going into the home games. It’s not going to be an easy place to go to – it’s dirty, its muddy and we have to bring the right tough mental attitude. Our forwards are going to have to play a big part in this performance against them, but they are more than capable of doing that.
“We have to flip the mentality that it’s a tough place to go and get this team to look forward to going there and the challenge it will present – knowing that for the first time in a number of years, we are second in the league and we have everything to play for. They may be at the bottom of the league, but we know that they will be very competitive, committed and will want to get an upset.
“We’re pleased with our Magners League form – we’ve only lost one of our last five games in the League and that includes going away and winning against the Dragons at Rodney Parade, the Blues and recently up in Edinburgh, and Connacht must be no different for us.
“If we do that, then it will put us in a good position for the next two matches. As I’ve said, it’s a huge month for us, if we can get some results now in these next three games, it will go a long way to deciding whether we are in with a chance of a play-off place.”
Last time out, Connacht ran in a record breaking 83-7 win over Italian side Cavalieri Prato and will be looking to make it three wins in a row when the Scarlets visit and with it the chance to overturn their defeat at the hands of the Scarlets in September. Connacht have not won in the Magners League since round three.
The Scarlets have only been defeated once in their last five Magners League games. The Welshmen have lost on their last eight visits to Ireland since beating Connacht in Galway 17-14 on 9 January 2009. Connacht have won just one of their last five encounters with Scarlets: 16-10 at the Sportsground on 30 October 2009.