The Scarlets kick-off their RaboDirect PRO12 season by hosting Leinster at Parc y Scarlets with many of their leading players back in the mix for Saturday evening’s match (K0 6.30pm).
The opening game at heart and soul rugby country couldn’t be more exciting or challenging for the Scarlets, as they look to convert a series of close encounters with Europe’s leading team into a victory for the West Wales team at home.
The Scarlets have started their round one fixtures with conviction in recent years with victories in three of last four opening games of the season. And the West Wales region concluded last season with a strong finish of just one defeat in their last seven matches.
And the history books show that since the Celtic tournament began, surprisingly Leinster have only won in round one just once back in 2007 against Edinburgh. The Scarlets haven’t beaten Leinster in their last seven encounters in all competitions, but know they have come close with just a few points in it every time.
The Scarlets’ last victory was a memorable and poignant one as they opened their 2009/10 season with a 18-16 victory against Leinster – fittingly on the same day they paid tribute to one of their greatest Scarlets Ray Gravell as the region unveiled an iconic new bronze sculpture of the West Walian legend outside the entrance to Parc y Scarlets.
With a big home fixture to start their campaign, the Scarlets are showing their intent with a strong team and plenty of experience and power to call on from the bench on Saturday evening.
There will be plenty to excite the home supporters in the backs with Wales internationals Liam Williams, George North and Scott Williams on hand – backed by experienced league campaigners Andy Fenby, Gareth Maule and Aled Thomas at outside half – all of whom put in strong performances against London Welsh last weekend.
Aaron Shingler returns to the back row alongside Josh Turnbull and new skipper Rob McCusker at no8, with new South African signing George Earle and former Osprey Richard Kelly in the second row after the Scarlets produced a strong line-out performance last weekend.
With internationals Matthew Rees, Rhys Priestland and Jon Davies on the bench, the Scarlets have plenty of experience and flair to draw on for their challenge against Leinster.
Scarlets team v Leinster Saturday 1st September 2012, Parc y Scarlets kick off 18.30:
15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Gareth Maule, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Andy Fenby
10 Aled Thomas, 9 Tavis Knoyle, 1 Rhodri Jones, 2 Ken Owens, 3 Deacon Manu, 4 George Earle, 5 Richard Kelly, 6 Aaron Shingler, 7 Josh Turnbull, 8 Rob McCusker (capt)
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Phil John, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Kieran Murphy, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Jonanthan Davies.
Scarlets Head Coach Simon Easterby said: “We know that Leinster are without a number of their internationals and key players but we will never underestimate the quality that they bring at any time. They have real depth, with strong players throughout their squad and their ability to get results in both the league and Europe sets them apart as a team. They have a tough mental edge, lots of belief and we know that we’re up for a big challenge on Saturday evening.
“However, we’re pleased with our preparations and we want to get off to a strong start and set a standard for ourselves this season – particularly at our home ground with Parc y Scarlets becoming an increasingly difficult place to come and win.
“We want success the same as every other club in this league and with top five finishes in the last two season and just a few points off both times – we know we can get there. We were three points off a semi-final place in the RaboDirect PRO12 last season and knew we should have been there – and that frustration coupled with our ambition is a real driver for all of us now.
“Facing Leinster four times this season, both sides will be looking to get the upper hand early in the season so there’s a lot riding on this game but the boys have been really focused this week and it’s been a very positive week’s training.
“We’ve worked the lads really hard this summer to get them in the best shape possible and to give them the best platform to go out and perform – and we know they’ll take that forward with determination and spirit on Saturday night.
“While we were frustrated with elements of our game last week and we’ll need to keep our shape with the ball, but there was plenty in our performance against London Welsh that showed our character and ability as a group. And the boys are just eager to get our season underway and put everything into this big opening game at our home.”
After 13 years as a highly-respected Scarlets player, captain and then coach, Simon Easterby leads his first competitive fixture as Head Coach of the West Wales region on Saturday at Parc y Scarlets and says the occasion couldn’t be bigger or more motivating for him.
The former Irish international flanker, captained the Scarlets for five consecutive seasons, and concluded a distinguished rugby career, having played more than 50 European games, 201 games (19 tries) for Llanelli and the Scarlets with 65 caps for Ireland plus the honour of two British and Irish Lions caps.
Easterby, who made his debut for Ireland in the 2000 Six Nations and retired from Test match rugby after the 2008 tournament, lived and breathed rugby at the top level for more than a decade before taking that experience into his career as a coach.
Easterby says leading the Scarlets is one of the biggest responsibilities and most exciting challenges of his rugby career to date: “This rugby region and being a Scarlet has such a hold on you as a person and player. Coming into my first game as Head Coach of the Scarlets and on our home soil is just a very exciting time for me. If someone told me as a player 13 years ago, I’d be here and doing this job, I may have laughed.
“It’s such a big honour and privilege for me to be in this position and all I can say is that I will give it my all. I’ve had lots of individual challenges in my life and this will be one of the biggest of my career, but I have always pushed myself hard and set myself high standards.
“We want to be competing at the top now as we move from our development phase into a performance era. We need to be in the mix for winning things and have a firm belief in our ability to achieve that as a squad.
“It’s been a busy couple of months in the new role, but I am really enjoying it, feel very comfortable and confident about what we can achieve and it’s great to have so much support and backing from the coaches, players and the business – so we’re all in a really good place.”