Two sides looking to make up ground in the race for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series meet at Parc y Scarlets on Sunday as the eponymous Welsh outfit welcome Toyota Cheetahs to Llanelli.
With both teams each sitting on an identical 36 points from their 15 games at start of play, and season statistics suggesting two well-matched teams, this one looks to be on a knife-edge.
What’s at stake?
The similarities between the sides don’t stop at their accumulated points and eerie statistical resemblance; the fact that both are within touching distance of the top four loads this contest with significance.
Scarlets are fifth in Conference B, three points shy of Ulster in fourth and five behind Edinburgh Rugby and Benetton Rugby in second and third, while the Cheetahs are sixth in Conference A, two points behind Ospreys and Cardiff Blues ahead of them.
A win for either, therefore, could prove vital in their hunt for the knockouts, and see them catapult up their respective conference, with several of their rivals facing tough fixtures this weekend.
Team news (Scarlets)
Wayne Pivac’s side received a huge boost ahead of Round 16 when it was announced that influential full-back Leigh Halfpenny would make his first appearance for the team since October.
After recovering from a concussion sustained on international duty in the autumn, Halfpenny was named alongside Wales teammates Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Jake Ball and Rhys Patchell in the starting line-up.
Pivac makes four changes to the XV in all, with Johnny McNicholl shunted to wing and Steff Evans making way, while Jones and Elias come into the front row and Ball slots in behind them as captain.
Tom Phillips, Javan Sebastian and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne all feature among the replacements.
Team news (Toyota Cheetahs)
Franco Smith has made just two changes from Cheetahs’ 25-17 defeat at Connacht last time out, with Walt Steenkamp switching into the second row in place of Jasper Wiese.
The only other alteration sees a new-look centre pairing, as Dries Swanepoel and Benhard Janse van Rensburg link up.
Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac said: “It’s a must-win game for us. I am expecting a response this weekend. It is a home game and we have a proud record at home and we want that to continue.
“I am pretty sure the boys will be up for the game and fully motivated because a lot of them are disappointed with individual performances from last weekend.
“For us, it is about being disciplined; our defensive effort has to be better than it was against Benetton and we have to make sure we win those physical exchanges when we have ball in hand so we can unleash our backs who we believe are pretty potent.”
Cheetahs head coach Franco Smith said: “We expect a tough match on Sunday. Statistics show that the Scarlets score most of their points in the second half and we expect a big finish from them. It will be a hard fight for 80 minutes.
“It is important for us to follow up with a good performance this week. We did well last week and fell short against a very good team. This week we’ll have to go a step further and be more clinical in the execution of our plans, but I feel that we took a lot of confidence from our performance against Connacht.
“The players are more used to the circumstances and conditions in Europe and we are looking forward to improve on our performance.”
Key battle – Johnny McNicholl v Rabs Maxwane
Another statistical category that sees the two teams almost neck-and-neck is their points total for the season: Scarlets have 629 in total to the Cheetahs’ 615, and both have explosive wingers to thank.
The Cheetahs’ Rabs Maxwane is comfortably the Guinness PRO14’s top try-scorer; with 11 to his name he is three clear of closest competitor Duhan van der Merwe and he has been ruthlessly prolific throughout the campaign.
He matches up against New Zealander Johnny McNicholl, whose 115 metres gained in Round 15 saw him top the charts for the matchday and stay third overall for the season.
It could well be a case, therefore, of which of these two fliers has the better afternoon in Llanelli.
Key fact: The two sides have met just twice before with each team winning its respective home game. The only previous meeting at Parc y Scarlets was in last year’s play-offs where the home side ran out 43-8 victors.
Did you know? Scarlets solitary defeat at Parc y Scarlets in the Guinness PRO14 since the opening round of the 2016/17 campaign was 34-5 to Cardiff Blues on 29 December 2018.
Scarlets: Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, Kieron Fonotia, Paul Asquith, Ioan Nicholas; Dan Jones, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Werner Kruger, Jake Ball (capt), Josh Helps, Josh Macleod, Dan Davis, Uzair Cassiem
Replacements: Marc Jones, Phil Price, Javan Sebastian, Lewis Rawlins, Tom Phillips, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Rhys Patchell, Steff Hughes.
Toyota Cheetahs: Louis Fouche, William Small-Smith, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Dries Swanepoel, Rabz Maxwane, Tian Schoeman, Shaun Venter (c); Ox Nche, Marnus van der Merwe, Aranos Coetzee, Walt Steenkamp, JP du Preez, Abongile Nonkontwana, Junior Pokomela, Gerhard Olivier
Replacements: Jacques du Toit, Reinach Venter, Luan de Bruin, Sintu Manjezi, Jasper Wiese, Henco Venter, Rudy Paige, Tian Meyer
TV: At Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli, 1pm. Live on Premier Sports, Super Sport 1 and eir Sport 1.
Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (IRFU), Ian Kenny (SRU)
TMO: Colin Stanley (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: John Cole (IRFU)
Scarlets produced an incisive opening salvo as they beat Toyota Cheetahs 43-21 to continue their Guinness PRO14 playoff push.
The hosts crashed in four tries in the first 20 minutes of the match as they took control early in the Round 16 encounter at Parc Y Scarlets.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny had 11 points off the kicking tee, with five successful attempts from six, as he made his first appearance in more than three months following a spell out with concussion.
Uzair Cassiem gave the hosts a perfect start inside three minutes as he scored against his former side.
The Scarlets No.8 produced a pick-up off his toes to make the most of Werner Kruger’s offload from the floor to run in under the posts.
Johnny McNicholl grabbed the second for Wayne Pivac’s men as he made the most when the ball went wide to the right wing.
It was a third try just minutes later as Dan Jones’ grubber kick, off the back of a solid scrum for the hosts, was gathered by Kieron Fonotia to dive over under the posts.
Blindside flanker Josh Macleod secured the bonus point inside the opening quarter as he made the most of scrum-half Kieran Hardy’s searing break before the back-rower picked up metres short of the line to crash over.
The South African side came into the game late in the opening period, but Rabs Maxwane knocked on as he attempted to dart for the line from five metres out.
Minutes later Benhard Janse van Rensburg did get a first try for the visitors, as he ran a sharp line to break the defensive line and reach out to score.
Just before half-time there was a second with Maxwane touching down after an astonishing break down the left wing.
Junior Pokomela broke from inside his own half before his offload was kicked through by Abongile Nonkontwana with the outside of his heel to release the winger, who dabbed down for his 12th try in the competition.
Scarlets added another just after half-time through Wyn Jones, the replacement post driving over from close quarters, making it 35-14.
But Gerhardus Olivier struck back for the Cheetahs, as Tian Schoeman’s break and offload released the No.8 to touch down.
Halfpenny added a penalty to extend the Scarlets advantage, before centre Paul Asquith made the most of an error in the Cheetahs back line.
McNicholl grabbed a wayward pass before offloading to his teammate who ran in from 15 metres out to make it 43-21, with what would prove to be the final score.