Scarlets boss Simon Easterby hopes RaboDirect Pro12 play-off bid can ease worries about George North's future
IT is more than a year since Nigel Davies warned that the "vultures are circling" around the Scarlets' prized Welsh talents, and it seems the predators are still lurking in Llanelli.
Speculation about George North's potential move to Northampton has created a sense of unease at Parc y Scarlets, amplifying the fear which has lingered since the 2011 World Cup — that their international stars are being stalked by European rugby's heavyweights.
So far, the Scarlets have managed to hold on to their most treasured assets, the likes of North, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Priestland, young and gifted and at the vanguard for region and country.
The Scarlets' resolve will be scrutinised this summer, however, with North's agent Christian Abt confirming that talks have taken place with Northampton about a possible move across the border.
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Scarlets head coach Simon Easterby is desperate to hold on to the gargantuan wing, warning that North's departure would be "a disaster for Welsh rugby".
But before the Scarlets can engage fully with their attempts to keep North, the region must concentrate on their five crucial remaining games of the season.
Easterby's men currently occupy the fourth and final play-off place in the RaboDirect Pro12, and they visit bottom side Zebre tonight looking to strengthen their hold on a top-four spot. This evening's match will allow the Scarlets to forget about the looming vultures for 80 minutes, and Easterby hopes a successful end to the season can ease the tension building in West Wales.
"I think it's huge to get in the top four," he says.
"It's important for the work the players and coaches have put in, and for the supporters as well.
"They're probably hearing these noises (about North's potential exit) and thinking 'what the hell is going on here'?
"It's not a nice time.
''The only thing we can do is perform and make sure we give people something to smile about. Hopefully we can do that over the next five matches and get ourselves in a strong position to challenge in the play-offs."
Where their most valuable players will end up next season may be out of the Scarlets' hands, but they will at least have control of their own destiny in the Pro12.
There are five games left this term, and the fixture list has been kind to Easterby and his squad.
After tonight's match in Italy, they face the Dragons at the Millennium Stadium before concluding their campaign with three successive home ties against Glasgow, the Blues and Treviso.
"It's in our control, so you can only ask for that. Then it's up to us to go and follow through with that," Easterby adds.
"We could be playing other sides in the top five or six, where we can take points away from them.
"We've only got Glasgow who are in the top four at the moment so, looking at it (the run-in) on paper, it looks okay.
"But you've still got to go out there and get the results. It might be a cliche, but we've got to take each game as it comes. It's still in our hands.
"I think we've put ourselves in a really good position.
"We've spoken about the respect we must give Zebre this weekend. They've lost a lot of games but they don't lose by many points. They've pushed sides close recently, so we have to be focused on our job in hand.
"As players and coaches, what goes on outside of that is not in our control.
"We can only control what goes on in our training and playing environment, and everyone is focused on keeping our position in the top four."
Tonight's match against Zebre will be the Scarlets' first match in three weeks after they missed out on a place in the LV= Cup semi-finals, and Easterby has urged his players to use the respite to their advantage.
"It's been disrupted the last couple of weeks because we've had the two-week break because of the LV= Cup, which we're not used to," he says.
"It's nice in one sense because the lads have had a little bit of down-time, both mentally and physically but also fully-prepared for Zebre and the Dragons.
"Then we have another mini-break where we have one week off, and then we have to prepare for our last three matches. Zebre, along with the Irish and Scottish sides, all have those LV= Cup weekends off, so they'll be slightly more used to those periods when they're not playing week in, week out.
"Hopefully we've managed that reasonably well and hopefully we'll see the response tonight."
The uncertainty surrounding North's future will subside temporarily this evening, as the winger is rested along with Wales colleagues Davies and Ken Owens.
Other Wales squad members such as Aaron Shingler and Matthew Rees will be involved and, following last weekend's exhilarating, Six Nations title-clinching demolition of England, Easterby hopes his international players can carry their momentum into the Scarlets' run-in.
"What's nice is that they've come in off the back of four great games in the Championship, but also they saw our boys working hard and putting us in a good position for their return," he says.
"It's healthy competition and they're coming into an environ- ment where there's a real possibility of getting into the play-offs and winning some- thing. They've had a few days to recover, put that Six Nations to bed and look forward to the rest of the season with us."