Scarlets’ seven-game unbeaten streak in the Guinness PRO12 came to an abrupt end just after Christmas, but after returning to winning ways on New Year’s Day, another run could be on the cards if they have their way.
On Friday, they welcome Ulster Rugby to Parc y Scarlets, and with the Irish outfit having been victorious when the sides met in round three, we could be in for a tasty clash in Llanelli.
Ulster haven’t done the double over Scarlets since the 2012/13 season, but as they look to bounce back from a New Year’s Eve defeat to Leinster, the time could be nigh for that record to be broken.
What’s at stake?
Thanks to their New Year’s Day victory over Cardiff Blues, Scarlets are truly in the hunt for a top four finish, but with Glasgow Warriors hot on their heels in the Guinness PRO12 table, victory at Parc y Scarlets on Friday will been seen as a necessity for Wayne Pivac’s side.
But Ulster aren’t out of the chase either, and after suffering defeat at Leinster on the final day of 2016, they will be keen to turn their fortunes around.
Team news (Scarlets)
Head coach Pivac has made eleven changes to the side that beat the Blues as a result of their gruelling festive schedule, with captain Ken Owens returning to the field.
He is joined in the front row by Rob Evans and Werner Kruger, with Tom Price partnering Jake Ball in the second row as Lewis Rawlins moves out to blindside flank.
James Davies returns to Pivac’s side after his suspension as Dan Jones makes his first appearance of the season in the Guinness PRO12, with Liam Williams also returning to action.
Team news (Ulster)
Nine new faces enter the fray in Les Kiss’ side as their injury woes continue, with Ireland quartet Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall returning to the starting line-up.
Callum Black and Ross Kane, making his second senior start, will join Best in an all-new front row, while Chris Henry will start in the back row with Louis Ludik and Jacob Stockdale joining the back three.
Scarlets head coach Pivac is only too aware of the challenge Ulster will pose at Parc y Scarlets, and he insists his side must pull a fine performance out of the bag as they look to hold on to their top four spot.
He said: “Ulster are a good side. We expect a big game. If you look at the points table, ourselves, Glasgow and Ulster are probably at the moment fighting it out for the fourth position, unless there’s a change in form.
“It’s a massive game in the context of that push for top four; both teams will want a result from this one definitely.
“Our next two games in the PRO12 are Ulster and Glasgow, teams sitting in fourth, fifth and sixth all within a couple of points of each other. This game on Friday is a big match and so is the Glasgow one in terms of our campaign. The home games are vital and Friday is the first focus.”
And while Ulster may be plagued with injuries, head coach Neil Doak insists it provides the opportunity for the club’s younger players to prove their worth.
“You do need a big squad, and there is chopping and changing every week because there are bumps and bruises,” he said.
“But some of the young guys coming in have taken their chance, and other guys will get their opportunity come Friday, so we’re going to make sure we travel well and get some points.”
“There are still plenty of games to go. There is no panic from our point of view – we have a quality group of players.”
Key battle: James Davies returns from a three-game suspension for Scarlets, and faces an immediate tough battle against the Guinness PRO12’s top tackler when Ulster travel to Wales on Friday.
Sean Reidy has made 148 tackles this season so far and will be eager to make it a difficult return to action for his opposite number.
Key stat: Scarlets are unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions on home soil
Lions contenders: Lions head coach Warren Gatland will have plenty of players to keep his eye on this weekend, with Wales international Jake Ball playing in the second row.
Jonathan Davies – who made three Test appearances for the Lions in 2013 – is also one Gatland will be looking out for, with Tommy Bowe a contender from the Ulster line-up.
Did you know?
Ulster won 19-8 when the two sides met in Belfast in round 3 and have not achieved a season’s double over Scarlets since they won all three encounters that were played in 2012/13, coinciding with their most recent victory at Parc y Scarlets in December 2012.
Top points scorer: 91 – Rhys Patchell
Top try scorer: 5 – Jonathan Evans, Steffan Evans
Top points scorer: 57 – Paddy Jackson
Top try scorer: 3 – Rob Lyttle, Charles Piutau
TV: Live on BBC Wales and BBC Sport NI. Kick off: 7.35pm
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 28, Scarlets won 11, Ulster won 15 with 2 games drawn.
At Parc y Scarlets, 7.35pm Live on BBC Wales and BBC NI
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 60th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Elia Rizzo (FIR), Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Ray Wilton (WRU)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (FIR)
Scarlets returned to winning ways with a hard-fought victory over Ulster at Parc Y Scarlets with an excellent second-half comeback to consolidate their top four position.
The hosts were trailing 13-6 at the break due to Jacob Stockdale’s try for Ulster with Paddy Jackson adding the conversion and two penalties.
But Ulster were unable to add to their tally in the second half as a penalty try and a third penalty from Dan Jones gave the Scarlets all four points.
Jones, on his first Guinness PRO12 start of the season, nearly gave his side the perfect start after three minutes as he charged down a kick by his opposite number Paddy Jackson.
The Scarlet’s No. 10 hacked the ball towards the tryline but was just beaten to the ball by Jackson who managed to atone for his error and force a knock-on.
Jones did give his side the lead with 11 minutes played though as he scored his first penalty and another successful kick four minutes later made it 6-0 to the home side.
Jackson responded with a penalty of his own on 17 minutes with a 45 metre penalty and the visitors had the lead for the first time soon after.
Stuart McCloskey cut a great line from an Ulster rolling maul to puncture the Scarlets defence and when he offloaded to Jacob Stockdale, the winger was free to run in under the posts for his third try of the season.
Jackson added the extras to give the visitors a 10-6 lead.
The Ulster fly-half extended their advantage with another well-struck penalty at the end of the first-half to put his side 13-6 up at the break.
In the second half, Jones reduced the deficit with a penalty in the 53rd minute as Ulster were penalised for not releasing the tackler.
Aled Davies was then held up over the try line but Sean Reidy was shown a yellow card for a high tackle in his attempt to stop the replacement and Scarlets were awarded a penalty try.
A successful conversion from Jones put Scarlets 16-13 ahead and it was a narrow lead that they would not relinquish.
Scarlets second row Jake Ball was also sent from the field for ten minutes for a high tackle on 63 minutes but Ulster were forced to settle for a losing bonus point.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
05 Jan 2017
05 Jan 2017