Saturday 25 November 2017

North gets green light for Scarlets' Munster mission

David Kelly

David Kelly

Powerful Welsh international winger George North has been given the green light for Scarlets' attempts to rescue their Heineken Cup hopes from the ashes at Thomond Park on Sunday.

North missed last Saturday's narrow 14-17 defeat in west Wales which caused Scarlets to radically alter their three-quarters line-up. The teenage World Cup sensation's return will allow Liam Williams to revert to his favoured full-back berth, with Dan Newton dropping out.

Blindside flanker Aaron Shingler, scorer of the Scarlets' opening try at Parc y Scarlets, will face a late fitness test on a toe injury this weekend along with tighthead prop Rhys Thomas.

North's return means that Rhys Priestland is likely to continue in the out-half role despite losing out in his personal battle with veteran Munster counterpart Ronan O'Gara.

Priestland was removed to full-back as Scarlets' naive attempts to play top-of-the-ground rugby were undone by Munster's canny cup rugby approach, but one of his former mentors has backed him to bounce back this weekend.

Phil Davies, currently forwards coach with Premiership outfit Worcester Warriors, led the west Wales outfit to their only Heineken Cup success against Munster in the 2007 Heineken Cup quarter-final at the old Stradey Park.

And he believes that the Scarlets should seek to 'do a Munster' on the two-time champions when they seek to rekindle their qualification hopes in the lunchtime kick-off.

"Europe is all about momentum, whether that is from game to game, or even within games," said Davies, whose Simon Easterby-led side beat Declan Kidney's Munster 24-15.

"And it's all about taking your opportunities. When we beat Munster in 2007, we had the momentum from the group stages where we were unbeaten. And we took our chances early on in that game to go through.

"It's important for Scarlets to control the ball and keep field position in the opening 20-25 minutes and I'd back Rhys to do that. He's an outstanding tactical kicker with an uncanny understanding of when to kick and when not to kick. And with the scrum and line-out still decent options for us, that could be key."

Capped 46 times, Davies was a teak-tough forward during a grim era for Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s; unfairly, he is still remembered most vividly for having his cheekbone smashed by Wade Dooley in the infamous clash with England in 1987.

Davies arrived at Stradey Park in the summer of 2006 as successor to Wales-bound Gareth Jenkins after taking Leeds from the lower reaches of English rugby to the Premiership, winning the domestic cup and securing a place in the Heineken Cup.

Despite that stunning 2007 Heineken Cup campaign, which included three wins against Irish provinces, Scarlets lost all six of their pool games the following season and Davies paid the price with his job.

However, that was not before he bequeathed a glorious legacy which is still being witnessed today in Welsh rugby, as a number of his former charges, both with Scarlets and during his stint as national U-20 coach, backbone a national and regional revival.

Jonathan Davies, Lou Reed, Jonathan Edwards, Rob McCusker, Josh Turnbull, Simon Gardiner, Morgan Stoddart, Daniel Evans and Dominic Day all went through Davies' hands at Scarlets.

While at Wales U-20s, Davies ushered through such talents as Justin Tipuric, Ashley Beck, Kristian Phillips, Scott Andrews, Lloyd Williams, Jason Tovey, Toby Faletau, Scott Williams and Tavis Knoyle.

"It's great to see these young players coming through and I really do believe that the Scarlets could be on the brink of another golden age," said Davies, whose Worcester side are currently embroiled in a two-way Challenge Cup qualification duel with Michael Cheika's Stade Francais.

"Scarlets and Llanelli rugby is an institution like Munster rugby and it is important for them to ensure that there is always a conveyor belt of quality young players coming through.

"I gave a lot of those guys their first provincial contracts and you can see how that has already filtered through to the international set-up.

"I'd always love to head back there again as a coach in the future because the club is part of my blood. I'm delighted to see them doing well at the moment.

"But if they are to make me smile this weekend, they have to play a Munster-type game and build the pressure. It's easy to say their tactics were probably wrong on Saturday, but I'm not in the camp.

"However, it was strange to see Stephen Jones refuse the opportunity to take a drop-goal with eight minutes left. That would have left it 17-17 and with a lot of momentum for Scarlets.

"When you have momentum against such an experienced team like Munster, you have to make it count."

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