Sizzling Scarlets return to top
NO-ONE can accuse Simon Easterby of playing it safe during the opening few weeks of his Scarlets tenure.
Heading to a ground that has seen the Scarlets defeated on their last three visits, the former Ireland international could have been forgiven for going with the same trusted formula that had already brought two morale-boosting victories this season.
Instead, Easterby opted to make eight changes and throw an 18-year-old debutant into the Sportsground swirl, with it leaving out a player who had won successive man-of-the-match awards.
At half-time with the West Walians trailing 8-0 having had the benefit of a typically strong Galway wind, Easterby's gamble appeared to backfiring.
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But in 11 sparkling minutes after the restart, the Scarlets touched down three times and were heading back to the top of the RaboDirect Pro12 table. Two of those came from full-back Jordan Williams, handed the full-back jersey and a league debut in place of namesake Liam.
Williams's first owed much to the pace and power of the outstanding George North, who burst through Connacht's midfield defence before sending Williams haring down the touchline.
The second was a touch of individual genius, the kind of dazzling footwork that Llanelli RFC fans have been accustomed to seeing in the Welsh Premiership over the last 12 months.
Of course, Williams remains a raw talent, but the fact he is a prolific goal-kicker and can also slot in at wing or fly-half, suggests the Scarlets have unearthed another gem from their academy ranks.
"There's some real competition building and I was impressed with Jordan," said Easterby afterwards.
"He was under pressure from the performances Liam has put in this season and it was also his first competitive game at a difficult ground and challenging conditions.
"We have rotated the squad so far and given all players across the group game time.
"And I thought all our bench came on and each of them made an important impression on the game.
"With a few tired legs, it was good to have experienced players like Gareth Maule to draw on and it was good to see that given we made quite a few changes, the standard and performance was still up there."
Yet at half-time, the Scarlets looked like they might struggle to leave the west coast of Ireland with a losing bonus, let alone the four-try one that eventually sealed the victory.
Struggling to get their game moving, they were forced into kicking away possession and struggled at the contact area where they often fell foul of referee Neil Paterson.
After Rhys Priestland had missed an early penalty, opposite number Miah Nikora opened the scoring after prop Samson Lee — another making his first league start — was penalised at scrum time.
Both sides had their opportunities; a stray pass failed to find home skipper Gavin Duffy with the line beckoning, while scrum-half Gareth Davies was hauled down after a breakout from flanker Josh Turnbull.
Connacht, though, finished the half the stronger with some fine off-loading from the forwards setting up an opportunity for centre Eoin Griffen to dive in at the corner.
Easterby's half-time time team talk must have been worth bottling because the Scarlets looked a different side after the break, turning the game on its head in the space of a stunning 11-minute attacking masterclass.
With only 46 seconds on the second-half clock, Williams was touching down with Priestland adding the conversion.
Then a smart step and off-load from the full-back fed North, who burst inside Duffy before racing unopposed to the whitewash.
Williams's second made it 17-8 and suddenly the Scarlets had a firm grip on proceedings, which they never released.
Nikora did pull a three-pointer back to bring Connacht within a converted try of victory, but as the home side tried desperately to breach the Scarlets defence in the dying minutes, skipper Jonathan Davies plucked out a Nikora miss pass and coasted 70 metres to the posts to claim the bonus-point score.
That made it 14 tries in three games and 14 points from a possible 15 as the Scarlets set the pace at the head of the Pro12 standings ahead of Friday's derby date with the winless Ospreys.
"In the first half I think we were expecting the conditions to do the job for us," admitted Easterby.
"But after scoring that first try at the start of the second half, things really started to happen.
"We made good decisions and because we were not relying on the elements to help us, we played more rugby, the opportunities came and the boys finished off their chances again with some good individual flair.
"It's been a good start for us and we're on target, but there's a very long way to go yet and plenty ahead of us including a big game for us to prepare for this Friday — so our feet are very much on the ground."
Keeping a lid on expectation will be one task on Easterby's hands this week — another will be nailing down his selection. Does he reward Jordan Williams with another appearance or bring back the in-form Liam Williams and Andy Fenby?
Does he go with Matthew Rees or Ken Owens at hooker? And what of the back-row, with the rested Aaron Shingler set to return?
One thing is sure, the Scarlets will head into the match in the unfamiliar position of overwhelming favourites following their rivals' troubled start to the defence of their Celtic title.
After a summer of uncertainly in Llanelli, the Scarlets have been in champagne form in the opening weeks.
The Ospreys will have a big task on their hands to burst the bubble.