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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 22 February, 2019

Must-win territory for Scarlets, but Welford Road an unhappy hunting ground

The 2017 Pro12 champs staged an unlikely comeback to reach the semis last season, but they need to hit their straps today to keep knockout hopes alive.

 Halfpenny checks the wind,
Halfpenny checks the wind,
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

THEY FELL SHORT at the semi-final stage last season. And after losing at home in round one, Scarlets can ill afford defeat in Leicester tonight (kickoff 19.45, BT Sport).

True enough, Wayne Pivac’s side managed the unlikely feat of qualifying for last season’s knockout stage despite losing their opening two pool matches.

In that campaign, they lost narrowly in Toulon before Bath mined all four points in Parc y Scarlets. Fortunately, Benetton provided them a foothold in the December back-to-backs and by the time the latter stages of the pool came around, the 2017 Pro12 champions were humming again. In-form, the Welsh club emphatically reversed results against Bath and Toulon.

After losing to Racing 92 on home turf last weekend, battling back against all odds looks  much tougher second time around.

Aside from the lack of Italian opposition in Pool 4, Pivac has lost key personnel and Scarlets’ breakdown threat has been blunted with Tadhg Beirne now showing his value in a different shade of red while James Davies is on the treatment table.

Pivac has long stated his wish to make a real mark on European competition in west Wales, but his appointment as Warren Gatland’s successor as Wales head coach means the clock is ticking fast.

Today’s venue is far from ideal then. Scarlets have lost on all four of their European trips to Welford Road and total just two wins from 10 against the Tigers.

It’s a venue with considerable European muscle memory, and the hosts will be hell-bent  on victory after losing to Ulster on the opening weekend.

Geordan Murphy will have a stronger side available this week too. Flying international wing Jonny May is back from a shoulder complaint and Will Spencer has completed his suspension in time to slot in at lock.

“Both sides probably haven’t hit their straps for various reasons,” says Pivac.

Nick Timoney with Manu Tuilagi Manu Tuilagi gets a tackle on Ulster's Nick Timoney. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Certainly for us it’s a little bit disruptive due to injuries. They’ve obviously got a mixed bag going on at their end aswell. Playing at home I expect them to be a tougher opposition than they seemed to be for Ulster last weekend.”

“We know it’s a tough place to go on a personal experience. It’s a fresh opportunity for us, we want to get straight back out there and turn around some of the disappointment from last Saturday.

“Hopefully we’ll get some good conditions. We want to get out there play some rugby and put them under some pressure.”

Should the Tigers succumb to that pressure, the season could easily become another transitional effort.

The Scarlets may have ambitions to cement a place among Europe’s elite. But lose today and it may feel as though it’s all crumbling down again as it is conceivable that they may find themselves eight points back from the pool front-runners by the end of the weekend.

They are better than that. And now the competition needs them to prove it.

Leicester Tigers: 15. Jonah Holmes, 14. Jonny May, 13. Manu Tuilagi, 12. Kyle Eastmond, 11. Jordan Olowofela, 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs, 1. Greg Bateman, 2. Tom Youngs (c), 3. Dan Cole, 4. Harry Wells, 5. Will Spencer, 6. Mike Williams, 7. Guy Thompson, 8. Sione Kalafamoni.

Replacements: 16. Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17. Facundo Gigena, 18. Joe Heyes, 19. Graham Kitchener, 20. Tommy Reffell, 21. Sam Harrison, 22. Matt To’omua, 23. Adam Thompstone.

Scarlets: 15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Ioan Nicholas, 13. Jonathan Davies, 12. Hadleigh Parkes, 11. Steff Evans, 10. Dan Jones, 9. Gareth Davies, 1. Wyn Jones, 2. Ken Owens (c), 3. Samson Lee, 4. Tom Price, 5. David Bulbring, 6. Blade Thomson, 7. Joshua Macleod, 8. Will Boyde.

Replacements: 16. Ryan Elias, 17. Phil Price, 18. Werner Kruger, 19. Joshua Helps, 20. Uzair Cassiem, 21. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22. Steff Hughes, 23. Paul Asquith.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud


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Sean Farrell

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