Round 13 comes hot on the heels of Round 12 and brings with it more Welsh derbies, including an intriguing clash between Scarlets and Dragons in west Wales.
Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets are in excellent form but Dragons will provide plenty of muscle in this contest having performed well in their past two derbies, despite losses to Ospreys and Cardiff Blues.
What’s at stake? Champions Scarlets entertain Dragons having shown some serious grit in the previous derby games with Ospreys and Cardiff Blues to stay on top of Conference B. Scarlets are just two points ahead of second-placed Leinster and will not want to take their eye off the ball in this one. Dragons, meanwhile, are sixth in Conference B and will be keen to close the gap to fifth-placed Benetton Rugby.
Team news (Scarlets): Tighthead prop Samson Lee returns to action on Friday – Lee’s last appearance came in the European Rugby Champions Cup clash against Bath Rugby in October and is one of eleven personnel changes to the Scarlets side that secured victory over Cardiff Blues. Lee is one-third of a fresh front row for the derby clash, with Rob Evans and Ken Owens also making a return to the starting XV.
Team news (Dragons): Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman has made six changes to his starting team that travel to west Wales, but just one in the backs as wing Pat Howard replaces Ashton Hewitt. The front row is all change as loosehead prop Luke Garrett gets the nod alongside hooker Liam Belcher and tighthead prop Nicky Thomas also comes in.
Talking points: Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac said: “These derbies have been tight affairs. We’ll be focusing on ourselves. It’s another derby and we’ve seen over the last two matches how tight they can be. That game will no doubt be another exciting game.
“We’ve done the double over the Ospreys and the Blues – the Dragons are the last Welsh team for us to play and it’ll be the first time we play them this season.”
Looking ahead to the Scarlets clash, Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman commented: “Scarlets are just so confident at the moment, they just find a way to win. I haven’t seen their game against the Blues but I have seen the result and they just seem to be able to win those tight games.
“They are a team which is high in confidence and we have to freshen up and go there and be prepared to fend for our lives.”
Key battle: Nicky Thomas v Rob Evans
Dragons tighthead Nicky Thomas is currently on loan from Scarlets and comes up against his parent club on Friday night. He’ll pack down against the experienced Rob Evans as they battle for scrum dominance. At 25, Evans is two years older and can boast 20 Wales caps to his name, but the game gives perfect motivation to Thomas, who will be out to prove a point.
Key stat: Scarlets have won their last 16 home games in the Championship since Munster beat them at Parc y Scarlets in September 2016.
Did you know? Scarlets only loss since round three of the Guinness PRO14 was 28-21 to Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on 2 December.
Scarlets: Rhys Patchell, Tom Prydie, Steff Hughes, Hadleigh Parkes, Ioan Nicholas, Dan Jones, Aled Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens (capt), Samson Lee, Steve Cummins, David Bulbring, Aaron Shingler, James Davies, John Barclay
Replacements; Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones, Simon Gardiner, Lewis Rawlins, Will Boyde, Jonathan Evans, Rhys Jones, Morgan Williams
Dragons: Carl Meyer, Pat Howard, Sam Beard, Jack Dixon, Jared Rosser, Arwel Robson, Dan Babos; Luke Garrett, Liam Belcher, Nicky Thomas, Joe Davies, Cory Hill (capt), Aaron Wainwright, Taine Basham, James Benjamin
Replacements; Ellis Shipp, Thomas Davies, Lloyd Fairbrother, Rynard Landman, Robson Blake, Sarel Pretorius, Angus O’Brien, Jarryd Sage
Match officials – Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)
AR1: Andrea Piardi (FIR) AR2: Wayne Davies (WRU)
TMO: Alan Falzone
TV: BBC Cymru (KO – 7.35pm)
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
Rhys Patchell was at the heart of everything the Scarlets did as the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions put in a blistering seven–try showing to dispatch Welsh rivals the Dragons in style.
The Scarlets have now won 17 consecutive home games in the Championship since Munster beat them at Parc y Scarlets in September 2016 and after a cagey opening, they simply blew their Friday-night opponents away, with Patchell pulling the strings from full-back in the 47-13 triumph.
James Davies, Tom Prydie and Dan Jones put the hosts in control by half-time and after Aled Davies wrapped up the four-try bonus point early in the second period, further scored from Aaron Shingler, Will Boyde and Rhys Jones added the gloss.
Sarel Pretorius did go over for a consolation try late on for the Dragons but the convincing victory ensures the Scarlets have still only lost one Guinness PRO14 match since round three.
Scarlets made 11 personnel changes from the side that had beaten Cardiff Blues last time out and the much-altered backline didn’t look as slick as normal in the early stages, sloppy handling being the hallmark of the first ten minutes.
They did dominate possession but it was the Dragons who got the first points on the board as Arwel Robson nailed a 48-metre offside penalty on 13 minutes.
But that sparked the hosts into life and they scored three tries in 15 first-half minutes soon after.
Firstly, an attacking lineout led to an inexorable driving maul down the left touchline and James Davies fell over the line for the simple score.
Steff Hughes was the architect of try number two, stabbing a pinpoint grubber kick through the Dragons defence for Prydie to run on to and touch down before hooker Ken Owens was the unlikely inspiration for the third try.
The Wales international produced a beautiful show-and-go to dart through a gap in the defence, offloaded to Davies and the flanker then fed the supporting Dan Jones to run in under the posts – the fly-half converting his own try, as he had done with his team’s first score, for a 19-3 lead.
The Dragons added a second penalty before half-time through the boot of Carl Meyer but ten minutes after the break, Aled Davies sealed the bonus point as Steve Cummins offloaded out of the tackle to Patchell, who fed Davies perfectly for the simple score.
Patchell then got the whole Scarlets line-up moving from inside his own half as he switched the play from one side of the field to the other and eventually Shingler produced a little dummy to canter over for try number five.
Patchell then took on kicking duties and duly converted his sides final two tries – the first coming as another unstoppable driving maul was pushed over the line, Boyde the beneficiary this time.
Their seventh and final try came on 66 minutes as the brilliant Patchell charged through the helpless Dragons defence once more, produced a one-handed offload out of the tackle and a couple of passes later, Jonathan Evans fed Rhys Jones for the dot down.
Pretorius did burrow over from close-range for a consolation try at the death but it was the Scarlets’ evening as they extended their lead atop Conference B.