The Scarlets travel to Italy on Friday night to take on Zebre for the first of five crucial games in their bid to gain a play-off place in the top four of the RaboDirect PRO12.
Zebre have lost all 23 matches they have played this season in all competitions, eight by seven points or less. Scarlets only defeat in the last four rounds of RaboDirect PRO12 play was 5-32 to Leinster in Dublin on 23 February.
The West Wales region have slipped up in Italy this season, going down 20-22 at Treviso on 29 September however the Scarlets won 22-13 when the two sides met in round 8 of this season’s RaboDirect PRO12.
After a two-week break in regional fixture action, the Scarlets have combined a few days break for players to refresh minds with training days at Parc y Scarlets to stay sharp and ensure the momentum built before the break wasn’t derailed.
And it’s been a healthy break from match action for the Scarlets squad, according to their Head Coach Simon Easterby, who said that this week’s full training sessions had showed that some time off had re-energised his team.
Back into the Scarlets starting line-up come three Welsh internationals, with Liam Williams moving to the wing as Gareth Owen returns from injury to take up the full-back spot after an impressive run of games earlier this year; Aaron Shingler starts in the back row alongside experienced colleagues Johnathan Edwards and captain Rob McCusker and Matthew Rees starts at hooker with another set of experienced Scarlets campaigners in the front row – props Phil John and Deacon Manu.
Wales international centre Scott Williams is on the Scarlets bench for some added strike power and Aled Davies get the number nine jersey to start with Owen Williams at outside half and impressive Wales 20 scrum-half talent Rhodri Williams on the bench.
Simon Easterby said: “We needed to finish the last block of rugby with a win which we secured against Edinburgh and the boys have benefitted from the chance to rest a few tired, bruised and battered bodies as well as the opportunity to clear their heads a little.
“It’s been a very positive week back in full training at Parc y Scarlets, with the boost of the international players coming back energised by their victory in the Six Nations and we are now clearly focused as a group on these next five games which we have to win to retain our control on a top four finish.
“During the international window, the players who remained at Parc y Scarlets shown real commitment and we have kept us in a good position. We have to respect all the teams we play now and that includes how we approach our challenge against Zebre on Friday night.
“Zebre may have lost a lot of games this year but have come very close to teams at nearly every point – so we have to be really focused on our job in hand as players and as coaches. They will be very competitive and we will not be going out there underestimating what we need to do to get a result.
“The Italian players will be very upbeat after Italy’s finish to the Six Nations and with that they will post a real threat to us and our ability to retain our control on our play-off ambitions.
“They’re well-coached and we are going to have to be really up for this and need a strong performance to get the result we need.
“We’ve hopefully managed time off with some good rugby preparation as well with our players – we will see the response to that on Friday night.”
“A play-off place is still in our control and that’s up to us to follow through with that now with results.”
Easterby said an exciting finish to the season was really building: “There is plenty to go in terms of the fixtures left, we have to play Glasgow and a lot of the top placed sides still have to play each other – so it’s going to be about points taken from taken from sides as well as the ones you win. We are in the mix and it’s great that there is still so much to play for in the short amount of games left; we have potentially a really good run in.”
Scarlets Team v Zebre Friday March 22nd 2013 kick off 7pm at Stadio XXV Aprile; 15 Gareth Owen 14 Liam Williams, 13 Gareth Maule, 12 Adam Warren, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Aled Davies, 1 Phil John, 2 Matthew Rees, 3 Deacon Manu, 4 George Earle, 5 Johan Synman, 6 Aaron Shingler, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Rob McCusker (capt)
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Sione Timani, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Aled Thomas, 23 Scott Williams.
Wales internationals Ken Owens, Jon Davies and George North are rested following their intense campaigns during the Six Nations. The Scarlets internationals are expected to return for the big Double Header Welsh regions fixture ‘Judgment Day’ at the Millennium Stadium next Saturday March 30th (kick off 2.30pm Dragons v Scarlets & 5.15pm Blues v Ospreys).
Injured Scarlets players not available for selection include: Rhys Priestland (Achilles), Josh Turnbull (shoulder), Tavis Knoyle (wrist), Samson Lee (back), Jordan Williams (pectoral), Richard Kelly (hand).