Restless Scarlets can't wait for big kick-off
IF the season started any later than tomorrow, the Scarlets may have done themselves some serious damage.
That's according to their backs coach Mark Jones, who has seen the region's players crashing into each other with real force during pre-season training.
It seems the summer has made the Scarlets restless. Another week of working among themselves and the players could have left each other in tatters.
But they will be unleashed tomorrow night, when they begin their RaboDirect Pro12 campaign at home against Heineken Cup champions Leinster.
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And having watched his players become increasingly physical in training, Jones reckons the Scarlets will be raring to go against the Irish giants.
"The guys are smashing each other in training with a bit of vigour," he says. "So when that happens you know it's time to start smashing someone else.
"I think they're ready for a competitive game, there's no doubt about that.
"There's no better game to focus the mind than the European champions coming to your home crowd.
"They're a top outfit. They're the sort of side everyone's trying to emulate, in terms of how they're trying to structure their rugby on the field and off it.
"They're very professional and there's no doubt (their head coach) Joe Schmidt has a very well-oiled machine there.
"It's going to be a tough, tough match but hopefully it will be a match-up which throws up some attractive rugby and, fingers crossed, we'll come out on top."
Leinster started their league campaign in Wales last season as well, as they faced the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.
With a host of players from both sides away at the World Cup, a battle between predominantly fringe players saw the home side power to a convincing 27-3 victory.
There could be a similar list of absentees at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow, with Leinster having to rest all their Ireland players following their summer tour of New Zealand.
It may present the West Walians with a chance of causing an upset but, as Jones knows, any Leinster side is a team to be feared.
"There's no doubt they'll not be as strong as when they have their full side out," he says.
"But they have got some very good deputies who step into those roles when it is Six Nations and the early part of the season.
"Both sides will be missing some key international players because their respective unions want to rest them after a very hard 2011-12 season.
"They came down similarly to us last season with a supposed under-strength side and went away with the points, so we don't underestimate Leinster. We never have done and never will.
"We're under no illusions. It's a very difficult task for us.
"All we can do is focus on ourselves and bring a level of performance which will be good enough to keep us in with a shout."
With international absentees in mind, the Scarlets have been busy adding to their squad over the summer.
Four locks have arrived in the shape of George Earle, Tomas Vallejos, Jake Ball and Richard Kelly, while prop Jacobie Adriaanse has also been signed and is due in October.
The Scarlets struggled to compete up front last season and, as they prepared for the new campaign, Jones admits the pack was an area they were keen to improve.
"It was a conscious effort for us to beef up the pack," he says.
"The new signings have come in at different stages but they've been doing well.
"George Earle was the first to arrive and he's settled in really well. His wife is over with him and she seems settled, which is a bonus for an overseas player.
"George seems really happy with training and he's performed well in the limited time we've given him. We're conscious he's come off the back of the Super 15, so we're trying to keep him fresh for the season.
"Jake Ball had a small knee operation before he came to us so he's been rehabilitating before getting back into training.
"He's looking like he could be up for a game next weekend, so that's great news. He looks very fit and strong — I'm keen to see him playing European rugby.
"Tomas Vallejos is away with Argentina at the Rugby Championship, so we'll have to integrate him when he comes back.
"And we've got Jacobie the prop, who we're hoping to see in October."
With utility back Gareth Owen also joining the Scarlets from the Ospreys, there will be a number of new faces in the West Walians' squad this term.
And, although there have also been changes in the coaching set-up, those stood on the sidelines at Parc y Scarlets will be familiar to all.
Former head coach Nigel Davies has left to take charge at Gloucester, and he has been replaced by Scarlets stalwart Simon Easterby, who first moved to Llanelli as a back-rower in 1999.
In ex-Wales winger and current Scarlets backs coach Jones, Easterby has another of the region's favourite sons by his side. And having worked together during Davies's reign, Jones is eager to mark Easterby's first season at the helm with a trophy.
"It's been good," he says. "For the two seasons we've been coaching, we've been predominantly pitch based.
"Nigel was very good at overseeing it all and making sure everything was running smoothly, playing a kind of director of rugby role.
"He was happy to let me and Simon get our tracksuits on and do the coaching on the field.
"Simon and I have got on particularly well for the last two seasons. We're sharing the workload and he's done a marvellous job so far. It's been a pleasure working with him.
"It worked well when Nigel was here. He's moved on to pastures new and he's helped to bring us through.
"Hopefully now we can start to drive things further and take that next step, which will be getting into the play-offs and winning things."