Rhys Priestland hoping to help Scarlets upset the odds again
TWO years ago at Franklin's Gardens Rhys Priestland delivered the kind of fly-half masterclass that had the pundits purring.
What Scarlets fans would give for a repeat performance from the Wales No.10 at The Stoop tomorrow.
That night in Northampton, Priestland, on the back of a stunning World Cup, tortured a Saints back three with the kind of tactical kicking that might still have Chris Ashton and George Pisi waking up in a cold sweat.
It spearheaded a stunning Scarlets victory — one of their finest in recent memory — and underlined Priestland's standing as a fly-half of considerable calibre.
Two years on, Priestland returns to Heineken Cup action, again hoping to make his mark on the European stage after ten months rebuilding his career after a ruptured Achilles.
There have been glimpses of the Priestland of old this season, notably in a man-of-the-match display at Murrayfield a fortnight ago.
And if he can turn on the style against a Harlequins side known to show a bit of panache themselves, then the fly-half debate for Wales's autumn Test campaign may not be as clear cut as some have suggested.
"My form is all right," said Priestland ahead of tomorrow's Pool 4 clash. "It is probably the same as we have been as a squad, a couple of per cent off here and there. Hopefully, I can put that right on Saturday. I realise how fortunate I am to be playing rugby, I am just looking to enjoy it as much as I can."
Certainly, Priestland's outlook on rugby has been changed since that Achilles injury suffered against Exeter last December — a setback that ruled him out of this year's Six Nations and a potential British Lions tour.
"I have spoken a bit to Lee Thomas (former Blues player) when he was at Wasps," revealed the fly-half.
"He ruptured his Achilles a week before me and to be fair he was great. He messaged me on Facebook and asked me if I wanted any advice because he had spoken to different people.
"He has had to retire and seeing what has happened to him it does make me realise how fortunate I am with the injury I have had.
"He slipped coming out of the bath, I slipped going up the stairs, but I was fortunate I didn't re-rupture mine like he did.
"I do realise how fortunate I am and people say you can't take anything for granted, but after an injury like that I really do appreciate what I have got down here.
"I get to spend every day with a great group of men, I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else, it is great when we win and frustrating when we lose. Hopefully we can win on the weekend and enjoy the good times."
Another victory would certainly lift the frustration that has remained in the air at Parc y Scarlets since last weekend's home defeat to Pro12 leaders Glasgow.
It would also send out a message that the Scarlets, while not having anywhere near the same financial clout as their pool rivals, are still able to punch above their weight in European competition.
"We have had some good wins in the Heineken Cup in recent years, but at the end of the day we haven't backed those wins up, we have let ourselves down afterwards," added Priestland. "It is all very well going up to Northampton and winning, but we didn't qualify from the group so it counts for nothing at the end of the day.
"It is going to be tough to get anywhere near the top of this group, coming up against two French teams (Clermont and Racing Metro) with the budgets and players they have got and Harlequins who have been there and thereabouts in Europe and in the Premiership.
"But as a group we have got absolutely nothing to lose. Everyone has written us off, not given us a chance. We know within the squad the sort of players we have got and when we do click I am sure we can compete with most teams."
Priestland is likely to come up against Kiwi pivot Nick Evans, an All Black who was once saluted as the second best No. 10 in world rugby.
The problem for Evans is that a certain Dan Carter lay in his path at Test level — although Quins haven't been complaining.
"You look at New Zealand there are a few players who would have won 50, 60 or 70 caps with other countries, Nick Evans is one, Chris Masoe, who is now with Toulon, another," added Priestland.
"He has proved how good he is in the northern hemisphere, he has been one of the best No. 10s consistently over the last few years and I have a lot of respect for him and how he moves that Harlequins team around the field.
"Quins won the Premiership a couple of seasons ago, were Heineken Cup quarter-finals last year, I have a lot of respect for them and the way they play. They play a real attractive brand of rugby.
"Clermont will have to be clear favourites in the group, I haven't seen much of Racing, but I saw they lost at home last weekend and they probably feel a bit frustrated with their start.
"No-one has really hit their stride yet so it is going to be interesting.
"For us, it is about getting our house in order and putting in a performance we haven't put in this season.
"We have not come anywhere near our best yet, to be honest, but I am sure it is just around the corner."