The new Guinness Pro 14 season begins on Friday night and once again the Scarlets are the Welsh region most likely to challenge for the title. Having looked at the Dragons, the Ospreys and the Cardiff Blues, the Dai Sport spotlight now falls on the Scarlets as Steffan Thomas finds reason for optimism once more down west.
When Wayne Pivac was appointed Scarlets coach in 2014 nobody could have predicted the influence the former copper would have on the rugby landscape in west Wales.
The name Pivac wouldn’t have rung many bells in the northern hemisphere but the Aucklander heads into his fifth season as the longest serving coach in the Guinness Pro 14.
After a bumpy first couple of seasons, the former Fiji coach has transformed the Scarlets into a force to be reckoned with.
A championship winning season in 2016/17 backed up by a grand final last term would have contributed towards his elevation to the Wales job.
But the foremost reason for the 56-year-old’s appointment is his success rate at improving players and turning them into well-rounded footballers.
Some would see that as the minimum requirement for any coach but look around the professional game and you’ll see players who have the same weaknesses now as they had five years ago.
But not Pivac’s Scarlets. The Wales coach-elect demands all his players have a wide array of skills in order to play as high tempo a game as possible.
The Champions Cup semi-finalists may have lost key performers in Tadhg Beirne, Scott Williams and John Barclay but they signed more than able replacements.
In former Junior All Black Blade Thomson the Scarlets have a player perfectly capable of slotting straight into their all-action style of play. The 27-year-old brings plenty of X factor and is a highly skilled individual who isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty.
The loss of Barclay has been highlighted by many as a potential area of weakness but the signing of former Springboks No.8 Uzair Cassiem is a smart bit of business by Pivac.
Cassiem may not be a carrier in the Scott Quinnell mould but has no problems getting over the gain line and is extremely good at manipulating opposition defences.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne may prove to be one of the signings of the summer with the Scotland scrum-half in the right environment to reignite his international career.
Scarlets legend Phil Bennett, now club president, believes the way Pivac has handled the departures with thoughtful recruiting simply underlines how the New Zealander has become adept at shaping and re-shaping his squad.
“The Scarlets have got so much talent there and Wayne is a very shrewd man,” said Bennett.
“He’s signed a few South Africans, a New Zealander, and a Scottish scrum-half because he knows 14 or 15 of his players will be lost to the international teams during the autumn internationals and the Six Nations.
“That is when Championships are won, that is when you end up topping your group and securing your place in Europe.
“I think it’s going to be a very good season, the talent is still there, and to get Jonathan Davies back is just amazing. To lose him for a whole season was huge.
“He was man of the series with the Lions, he’s a wonderful player, and to have him back is a big boost.
“I think the Scarlets will want to improve on last season. Everybody’s aim is to beat Leinster. I was in Dublin for the two matches they lost to them,” Bennett said.
“I must admit they are a magnificent side. Leinster have got the players they’ve wanted in and they’ve made Johnny Sexton captain which will make them even harder to beat.
“The Scarlets did beat them a couple of seasons ago, but it will be harder for them this year because all the other teams now know full well the style they play and the freedom they play with.”
Pivac’s side can be unplayable when at their very best but the real sign of their progression is how they’ve been able to grind out wins without playing particularly well as was evident last season against the Ospreys and the Cardiff Blues.
The former champions have the strongest squad they’ve had in the professional era with at least three quality options in each position.
Importantly, they have a set piece which can stand up to the very best of sides while their backline is as deadly as ever.
The bookmakers have the Scarlets as second favourites to lift the title behind European champions Leinster.
And they are likely to be correct with the Scarlets competing at the business end of the season again.
Pivac’s Scarlets will take their game to new heights this season but can they improve enough to wrestle the crown back from Leinster?
Time will tell.
The post Wayne Pivac’s Powers Make The Scarlets The Welsh Region To Beat Once More appeared first on Dai Sport.