Champions collide in Llanelli when two-time Guinness PRO14 winners Scarlets host the 2016 title-holders Connacht Rugby as both sides look to get their respective campaigns off to a flyer on Saturday.
Brad Mooar takes charge of his first Guinness PRO14 game for a Scarlets side looking to improve on a disappointing campaign last time out as they failed to qualify for the Champions Cup for the first time since the inception of regional rugby in 2003.
They host a Connacht side which fared slightly better last year, qualifying for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series for the first time since 2016, but came out on the losing side in the quarter-finals to provincial rivals Ulster 21-13 in a thrilling encounter.
Scarlets may have disintegrated at the end of last season, winning only one of their final five Guinness PRO14 fixtures, but the omens bode well for Saturday as they have won 20 of their 30 encounters with Connacht.
In addition, Mooar’s team have lost just twice at home to Irish provinces in the Championship since December 2012, although they were both Round 1 matches – against Leinster in 2013 and Munster in 2016.
Kick-off: Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli |17:15 (UK), Saturday 28 September
How to watch: Live on S4C, Premier Sports, TG4 and DAZN
Players to watch out for: Corey Baldwin (Scarlets), Matt Healy (Connacht)
With Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes and Kieron Fonotia all away at the World Cup, 20-year-old Baldwin has a huge chance to make a name for himself at centre.
After an injury-hit campaign in 2018/19, the former Wales Under-20 man will be hoping to return with a bang off the bench against Connacht by utilising his pace and strength combination to great effect.
Connacht’s all-time leading try scorer Healy, one of a number of the Galway-based outfit’s Ireland internationals who were excluded from the national side’s World Cup squad, just keeps on going from strength to strength for his province with every passing year and his experience will be key in Wales.
Key stat: Scarlets have lost just twice at Parc y Scarlets in the Championship since the opening weekend of the 2016/17 season, to Cardiff Blues in December 2018 and to Edinburgh in April.
Scarlets: Johnny McNicholl, Ryan Conbeer, Steff Hughes, Paul Asquith, Steff Evans, Dan Jones, Kieran Hardy, Rob Evans, Marc Jones, Samson Lee, Steve Cummins, Lewis Rawlins, Tom Phillips, Josh Macleod, Uzair Cassiem.
Replacements: Taylor Davies, Phil Price, Werner Kruger, Josh Helps, Dan Davis, Dane Blacker, Angus O’Brien, Corey Baldwin.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Stephen Fitzgerald, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade, Paddy McAllister, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Eoin McKeon, Kieran Marmion, Peter Robb, Darragh Leader.
Steff Evans and Paul Asquith scored first-half tries as Scarlets saw off a spirited Connacht in a tight and tense encounter at Parc y Scarlets.
This contest might have lacked the drama seen elsewhere across the Guinness PRO14 on opening weekend but new head coach Brad Mooar and his squad won’t care a jot after seeing off a Conference B rival.
Indeed, they showed patience to overcome a stubborn opponent, who boast one of the stronger defences in the Guinness PRO14 as both Evans and Asquith took their tries well, while Dan Jones kicked two penalties to seal the deal.
Following a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, where they finished fourth in Conference B and missed the Guinness PRO14 Finals Series, the onus was on Scarlets to race out of the traps.
But Connacht are a street-wise team and they frustrated Scarlets in the early stages, kicking regularly and controlling territory.
However, any side boasting the likes of Rob Evans, Samson Lee and Steff Evans, is going to come good eventually and they broke through mid-way through the first half.
A flat pass from Steffan Hughes released Ryan Conbeer down the right and he was brought down just shy of the five-metre line.
The Welsh side remained patient, moving from right to left cross eight phases before Steff Evans burrowed over from close range.
Connacht struggled to keep the ball in Scarlets territory throughout the first half and they were punished for their lethargy shortly before the break when Dan Jones threw a neat dummy ten metres out and slipped a pass to Asquith to score.
Things got worse for Connacht in the second half when replacement Eoin McKeon limped off with a knee injury and centre Tom Daly was sent to the sin-bin.
However, they bounced back by scoring their first try just shy of the hour-mark as Eoghan Masterson plucked the ball from the back of a ruck, kept his body low and powered over the line from a metre out.
Dan Jones eased Scarlets’ nerves with a penalty and as the weather worsened and the rain hammered down, Connacht’s hopes of a comeback were washed away.
In matches of fine margins, top players make the difference. Steff Evans was that man for Scarlets here, and his try showed his repertoire is wider than most wings in the Guinness PRO14.
Evans can consider himself unlucky not to be in Japan at the World Cup but he has started the season on fire, taking his try in style by picking up from the back of a ruck and piling over.
In a match where substance ruled style, there were few examples of the thrill and skill we have been accustomed to from Scarlets in recent years.
But fly-half Dan Jones ensured there was one piece of magic. The No.10 received the ball ten metres out from the Connacht line on the left-hand side and feigned a cross-field kick to the right.
The Connacht rush defence fell for it, overcommitting and leaving space for Jones to jink back inside and slip in Asquith to score.
Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!
General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.