Priestland's return set to give Scarlets boost ahead of new campaign
IT'S been a long road back, but Rhys Priestland's return to fitness tonight provides the Scarlets with a timely boost on the eve of the new campaign.
The Wales fly-half has been named among the replacements for the region's final pre-season friendly against Nigel Davies's Gloucester in Kingsholm.
And if the 26-year-old does come through unscathed, a starting berth awaits for the RaboDirect Pro12 opener against defending champions Leinster in Llanelli a week today.
Priestland has spent the summer recovering from the latest setback to the Achilles injury he suffered in a Heineken Cup tie against Exeter Chiefs last December.
He did defy the original six-month prognosis to return for two replacement appearances at the end of last season, but minutes before the play-off semi-final against Ulster in Belfast he aggravated the problem in the warm-up.
That setback saw Priestland withdraw from Wales's two-Test tour of Japan and focus on his rehab.
And as head coach Simon Easterby admitted this week, it appears to have been a blessing in disguise.
Priestland recently revealed he feels in the best shape he has been for three years and the sight of a player who was lauded as one of the leading fly-halves at the 2011 World Cup pulling the strings at fly-half will be a welcome one for Scarlets fans.
With Easterby selecting a near full-strength line-up for this Kingsholm clash, it is clear the former Ireland flanker is keen to make the most of a fixture list that sees his side at home on the opening two league weekends.
Ken Owens, skipper Rob McCusker and Liam Williams make their first appearances of the summer, while fellow internationals Scott Williams and Josh Turnbull are again included after coming through their return from shoulder surgery against London Welsh last weekend.
With Priestland likely to come off the bench in the second period, Steve Shingler starts in the No. 10 jersey.
Back in Llanelli after his two years in the Premiership with London Irish, Shingler will be aiming to build on an encouraging start against Exeter a fortnight ago, as will his half-back partner Gareth Davies. Davies appears to have stolen a march on scrum-half rivals Rhodri Williams and Aled Davies in the battle to start against Leinster.
Williams, one of the stars of Wales's Junior World Championship campaign this summer, is named on the bench, while Aled Davies will play for Llanelli RFC in a British & Irish Cup qualifier against Carmarthen Quins on Sunday afternoon.
There will be a familiar face wearing the cherry and white No. 9 of Gloucester with Tavis Knoyle having made a favourable impression at Kingsholm following his move from Parc y Scarlets.
Knoyle had little rugby in the second half of last season and while the popular Wales international isn't one to make brash pre-match statements, he will want to prove a couple of points to the Scarlets management this evening.
Elsewhere, Scarlets fans will be hoping for signs of encouragement out wide following the departure of last year's top try-scorers George North and Andy Fenby.
Both have left significant voids in the back-three, with Liam Williams and Kristian Phillips named on the flanks and Gareth Owen at full-back.
McCusker will also be keen to allay fears surrounding the No. 8 position — a spot the Scarlets have been actively trying to fill this summer.
"Putting out a strong side against Gloucester will set us up nicely for the home match against Leinster," said Easterby.
"The Pro12 demands consistency throughout the season and that is the challenge for us this year.
"It was a bit of an issue for us last season. We had disruptions with call-ups and injuries, we lacked consistency and had a bit of a dip in form in the middle of the year.
"Those experiences will help — if they don't there will be something wrong."
Gloucester: R. Cook; C. Sharples, H. Trinder, B. Twelvetrees, J. Simpson-Daniel; F. Burns, T. Knoyle; N. Wood, D. Dawidiuk, R. Harden; T. Savage (capt), J. Hudson, S. Kalamafoni, B. Morgan, M. Kvesic. Reps: K. Britton, D. Murphy, Y. Thomas, L. Lokotui, A. Qera, D. Robson, B. Burns, M. Tindall, S. Reynolds.
Scarlets: G. Owen; L. Williams, G. Maule, S. Williams, K. Phillips; S. Shingler, G. Davies; P. John, K. Owens, S. Lee, G. Earle, J. Snyman, A. Shingler, R. McCusker (capt), J. Turnbull. Reps: R. Evans, E. Phillips, J. Adriaanse, J. Ball, R. Kelly, S. Timani, C. Price, R. Williams, R. Priestland, A. Warren, J. Williams.