A year ago to the day, the Scarlets travelled to Belfast on the hunt for the first points in the campaign after suffering losses against both Munster and Edinburgh in the opening rounds of the Pro12. Narrowly missing out on a losing bonus point, they notched up their third successive defeat and back then even the most die-hard supporter would have found it difficult to imagine the fairy tale ending to the season.
Fast forward a year and things are very different as Wayne Pivac’s men again prepare to travel to Kingspan to face Ulster with a full house of 10 league points in the bag after successive wins in the two opening rounds, played in very different conditions. “We talked about getting off to a better start than last year and we expect to as a group” explained Pivac “We’ve been together a lot longer but there’s still plenty to work on.”
The good news for the Scarlets is that both the previously absent Lions, Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies will be available for selection in the matchday 23, along with Leigh Halfpenny and Jake Ball. Another positive is that the shoulder injury to John Barclay has been confirmed as just bruising putting him in contention also. “Competition for places is good,” continued Pivac “We want everyone to be keen to play and disappointed if they’re not selected.”
Unfortunately, the Scarlets announced last week that James Davies has undergone shoulder surgery to rectify an existing injury that was aggravated during the opening game against the Kings. Elder brother, Jon revealed that he is currently back home recuperating, being well looked after and well fed by their Mum! Despite this being a massive blow, it is part and parcel of professional sport and will test the strength in depth with Wil Boyde playing well last weekend. “It’s a great opportunity for Wil’ added Pivac, “He’s tough, good over the ball and solid in defence.”
Friday’s match will be a step up against an Ulster team that commands the utmost respect, with both teams currently unbeaten in the League this season. Pivac revealed “It’s what the players want. They want to come up against World-class players. You want to challenge yourself against the best.”
Obviously, this fixture now has an extra sub-plot added into the mix with the rivalry between coaches Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel. “It’s like a Rocky Movie,” joked Pivac “The banter has already started! It adds a bit of spice for the management!”
As one of the returning Lions, Captain, Ken Owens has enjoyed an extended period off over the summer following his return from New Zealand but revealed that rather than having time to chill out, things have been pretty hectic, leaving him little time to reflect on what has probably been the most successful year in his rugby career thus far.
Despite raring to get back out on the pitch Ken confirmed it was important to be smart “I can’t wait! As a rugby player that’s what you want to be doing – playing. I came back after a week of pre-season last year and struggled towards Christmas time with some niggles. It’s about being smart, getting a good few weeks conditioning, weight training in. Now, I’m good to go and looking forward to getting going.”
Ken added “Friday night is going to be tough, but it’s what we thrive on. We need to put performances in and win big games. For us it’s about making a statement. If we want to win the League and go back to back, its games like this we’ve got to target to win.”
He may have been named as Player of the Series during the Lions tour, but Jonathan ‘Foxy’ Davies made his return to the Scarlets last week with a sharp reality check. “I don’t bring up what happened in the summer,” he revealed “I have got to make sure I come in and I perform. It’s about making sure I perform for the Scarlets and I have to earn that spot in the starting team.”
The group work together and support each other during the week, but competition for places is high and Davies revealed that on his return he wasn’t even selected for what has been nicknamed the ‘Tesco Team.’
In training sessions during the week, the team that is selected to act as opposition to the match squad has been given this name, though Pivac hinted that as champions a more up-market shop has been suggested. “I wasn’t even picked for the Tesco Team last week!” joked Davies. “So, I had to go and do fitness with the academy boys! They were trying to say it was a first for me, but I did my time there when I was younger!”
Despite having a joke about it, the way the ‘Tesco Team’ helps with the match day preparations is massive and goes to show just how much of a squad effort goes in to each game. It isn’t all just about the selected twenty-three.
The difference in the Scarlets from a year ago is mirrored in Davies. Having re-joined from Clermont Auvergne at the start of last season, he struggled to find his form. “I was really disappointed with my start to last season, but I feel in a much better place physically and mentally,” he insisted. However, he admitted “I am more than likely going to be rusty on Friday, but for me it is about making sure I do the basics well, don’t try and force the issue and trust in the hard work I have done to eventually put me in a good place.”
With confidence in the group riding high, Davies concluded “We are comfortable in our game. We don’t have to fear anything. We give Ulster respect, but we will relish the opportunity of going to a great place like Kinsgspan, put on a show and hopefully get a result.”
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