The Scarlets are the best funded of the Welsh regions and in recent years, the most successful, with a Pro12 title banked in 2017 and a raft of Welsh and British & Irish Lions that pepper their side. After announcing 17 contract extensions, if you pull together, arguably, their strongest side you have 14 full internationals, and a raft of Test players who can only make the bench. So what is their best XV and have signings strengthened Glenn Delaney’s hand? It’s a question that is set to be debated at length when the side returns to action against the Cardiff Blues on the 22 August.
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1. Rob Evans
There will be a battle-royal between the Welsh looseheads Rob Evans and Wyn Jones for the No 1 jersey this season and that can only be good news for the Scarlets. Jones, a farmer from Llandovery, is deemed to be the stronger scrummager, while Evans is a livewire in the loose and has the offloadings skills of an outside back. Expect the No 1 shirt to switch between the two with regularity.
2. Ken Owens
Okay, so Sean Fitzpatrick is just out of contention, but even so, he’d have a battle on his hands with ‘the Sheriff’. Owens may be 33, but there are no signs he is slowing down. A leader of men, the Carmarthen-born hooker is an emotional barometer for the West Walians and his commitment to the cause, exemplified by his willingness to play at No 8 for the Scarlets during an injury crisis, is something which only increases his value to the team. Not that complacency would ever set in but he has the hard-running Ryan Elias waiting to add ballast from the bench.
3. Samson Lee
Samson Lee has 38 Welsh caps and is still only 27, however it’s been a challenging 18 months for the tighthead who has lost his Welsh squad place but his value to the Scarlets remains undimmed. Several long-term injuries, especially to his Achilles, has seen his star wane on the Test stage but he’s still a canny operator at the coal face. If Lee is out, Werner Kruger, the veteran 19st tighthead will hold his end up.
4. Jake Ball
Brick walls and Jake Ball are on first-name terms as the 6ft 7in, 19st Welsh lock routinely smashes into opposition defences to soften up defenders. Ball runs hard, hits rucks and generally does the unflashy work to allow others to shine. Understated and underrated, the former fast bowler is a key component of Delaney’s pack.
5. Sam Lousi
The fiery Tongan has to battle it out with Tevita Ratuva and Lewis Rawlins for a place alongside Ball and the former Hurricanes lock just about edges a place in the starting XV. Like Ball, he is a hard carrier and does the basics well, with good offloading skills.
6. Aaron Shingler
Shingler travelled to Japan as an auxiliary lock for Wales, and at 6ft 5in, he has the height and athleticism to play in the engine room but his best position is blindside flanker, where his pace and interlinking skills around the fringes can come to the fore. A former cricketer, Shingler gives precious balance to the Scarlets backrow.
The Scarlets will hope they can welcome their passionate fans back to Parc y Scarlets soon Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)
7. James Davies
Cubbyboi, as he’s known down West, is one of the best turnover specialists in Europe. An Olympic Silver medal winner in Sevens, the 29-year-old has appreciation of space on the field, soft hands and genuine pace that has seen him play out on the wing in emergency. Out with a long-term injury since the World Cup, he is back in training an expected to be back for the start of the season. He will have to remain at the top of his game with the likes of hard-hitting Josh McLeod and young Dan Davis performing with aplomb when call upon last season.
8. Sione Kalamafoni
Kalamafoni has been signed from Leicester to add real grunt to the pack. Indeed, the former Tiger made more carries than any other player in the Premiership since joining them in 2017 while only four players had made more tackles than him in the entire league. He will battle it out with fan favourite Uzair Cassiem for a place at the back of the scrum and at 32 will hope to emulate Nick Williams’ impact at the Cardiff Blues.
9. Gareth Davies
Gareth Davies has been mentioned is dispatches for a Lions spot next summer so the onus will be on him to maintain a certain level of performance this term. A brilliant broken-field runner and interception expert, ‘Cawdor’ had a dip in form after the World Cup, with his game management and kicking out of hand criticised but with 51 Wales caps, he remains a scrum-half of the highest calibre. Vying with Davies for a No 9 berth is Kieran Hardy who enjoyed something of a breakthrough season with the Scarlets pre-lockdown with eight tries.
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After winning the shoot-out between himself and Jarrod Evans for a World Cup place, Patchell did not play a single minute for the Scarlets in the 2019-20 season before lockdown. A shoulder injury deprived the squad of a gifted running fly-half who had the game intelligence and execution to lead the Scarlets to the Pro12 final in 2016-17. Able to play at full-back, the former Cardiff Blue has Dan Jones, Angus O’Brien and the emerging Sam Costelow to keep him honest.
11. Liam Williams
The Scarlets recruitment team deserve some credit for luring the highly sought-after Williams back to Parc y Scarlets after a two-year sojourn with Saracens in which he picked up Premiership and Champions Cup titles. The self-professed bomb-defuser’s talents are well-documented. Graceful in the air, brave in the tackle and electrifying in broken play, the British & Irish Lion is versatile enough to switch from full-back to wing in a heartbeat, something he’s sure to do on occasion. The fleet-footed Steff Evans is an international-class replacement when ‘Sanjay’ is on international duty.
Williams has a North Walian father so qualifies for Wales and it’s not hard to see why the West Walians fought for his signature. At 6ft 3in and over 16st, the former London Irish and Newcastle player has long-levers for offloading in the tackle and the power-running game to be an able replacement for the much-loved Hadleigh Parkes. At just 23, he has overcome testicular cancer and with a sharp rugby brain and all the physical assets of a top-class player, he could be the perfect foil for Jonathan Davies. Williams can’t expect a walk-in with the versatile Steff Hughes a model of consistency last term in midfield.
? Hear the thoughts of Johnny Williams & Sione Kalamafoni and what Glenn Delaney has to say about the pair as we we finish another week of training at the Parc #returntorugby
There was a collective sigh of relief when Jonathan Davies was pictured out of the ‘injured group’ and back into full-training in recent days, with a return expect in the next month or two. Already a Welsh great, Davies has 81 Welsh caps and six Lions Test appearances, and at 32 is entering his vintage years. A brilliant defensive reader of the game with a hammer-fend and cultured left-boot, the Whitland-born 13 will be wanted for club and country this coming year, which means Tyler Morgan and Hughes will be covering the 13 channel.
14. Johnny McNicholl
The competition for places in the Scarlets back-three is white hot. McNicoll completes an all-international back three and despite only qualifying for residency back in October, has already forced his way into Wayne Pivac’s Wales squad. An elegant runner with deft offloading skills and an acrobatic finisher in the corner, he loves to instigate counter-attacks from deep. McNicholl’s able deputy will be Ryan Conbeer, who at 21 has his best years ahead of him, while the jet-heeled Tomi Lewis, who has a Sevens background, is also highly-rated.
15. Leigh Halfpenny
For a rugby superstar – remember Halfpenny was the 2013 Player of the Series – who has won Grand Slams and Champions Cups, the Gorseinon-born full-back is remarkably low-profile. A sweeper in the backfield, while his electric pace from his early years is gone, he is a clever reader of the game, a fearless defender and a peerless kicker. The consummate team man, Halfpenny never draws attention to himself but is missed when he’s not on the field. He enjoyed a very strong 2019-20 campaign.
16. Werner Kruger 17. Ryan Elias 18. Wyn Jones 19. Blade Thompson, 20. Uzair Cassiem 21. Kieran Hardy 22. Dan Jones 23. Steff Evans