There is nothing definitive to say this will be the season one of the regions emulates Cardiff Blues in reaching group-stage escape velocity, but with two games remaining both of Wales’s Champions Cup representatives are still airborne.
While the Ospreys have their work cut out with both last season’s finalists to play in a torrid run-in, the Scarlets harbour more realistic aspirations of breaking out.
The Pro14 champions lie third in congested Pool 5, a point behind Bath and Toulon. But with both their rivals still to play – starting with the latest enactment of the ‘Rag Doll’ fixture at The Rec tonight – their fate remains in their hands and they look back near their free-flowing best after a crushing 47-13 win over the Dragons last weekend.
“I’m not sure of the exact mathematics but if we win the next two games we’re not going to be too far off,” said captain Ken Owens.
Their hopes have been hit by enforced reshuffle to the backline after injury struck Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny McNicholl. Rhys Patchell will play at full-back, with Paul Asquith on the wing and Hadleigh Parkes moving into centre. But their ambition is not dented.
“In my first season here, in 2006/7, we qualified, but that is a long time ago for a club with our history in Europe. We need to try to put that right now,” added Owens, a Lions tourist in the summer.
“We have two massive games over the next fortnight and it’s down to us as players to deliver the performances to take us into the quarter-finals.
“We had good back-to-back wins against Treviso and we’ve set ourselves up with an opportunity to qualify. It’s knockout rugby now so we’ve got to win on Friday night.
“Bath are going well in the competition but it’s pretty even in our group. We’re quietly confident that we can get a result.”
Top of their Pro14 Conference this season, the Scarlets are fighting hard on two fronts – a luxury they could not realistically contemplate until recently.
“Two or three years ago our focus wasn’t quite on Europe. We were looking to get ourselves into good shape in the league. We just didn’t have the squad depth to rest and rotate players – we had to do that in Europe to make sure we could compete in the league,” said Owens.
“We’re in a much better position now. We have a much deeper squad which allows us to compete in Europe and the league.”
They remain paupers compared to their two group rivals but their natural resources are bountiful. Few parts of these islands possess such a rich seam of rugby players. Of the team which starts tonight, half were born within 30 miles of Parc y Scarlets.
Carmarthen also spawned Bath stand-off Rhys Priestland, who kicked the Premiership side to an 18-13 victory when the two sides met in a monsoon in Llanelli in October.
“He showed that night how good his kicking game is. We gave away too many penalties in his kicking range which cost us,” said Owens.
“We need to put a bit of pressure on him and not give him the time and space that he had to control the long kicking game especially.”
That win gave Bath, who have England flanker Sam Underhill back after a nine-week concussion lay-off, control of the group but to close the deal they need to see off the Scarlets again. Their timing may be awry.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve been at the level we want to be at but you are going to have ups and downs in your season. We have a lot of individual quality but it’s very difficult to maintain the standard we want to throughout the season,” said Owens.
“We played some good stuff against the Dragons last week. Perhaps it wasn’t the hit-out we’d have liked going into Europe but it has allowed us to get a bit of confidence back in our attack.
“We’ll have to go up a level on Friday. To get points on the board against Bath we’ll have to be at our very best.”
Source : EXPRESS