Scarlets coach Mark Jones: It's great to have Rhys Priestland back
THE Scarlets have applauded Rhys Priestland as he moves within sight of his eagerly awaited return to rugby, with attack coach Mark Jones declaring: "It's great to have him back."
The 22-cap Wales fly-half has yet to start a game in 2013 after persistent problems with the Achilles tendon injury he sustained playing against Exeter last December.
But Priestland recently said he felt better than he had felt at any point over the past three seasons, and the Scarlets believe he could be a revitalised performer when the season opens next month.
"Rhys obviously wouldn't have wanted his injury, but it has given him a chance to reflect," said Jones.
"There was a stage when he was carrying a knee ligament injury, a shoulder injury, his back was playing up and his calf was tight.
"When you are a professional player, you fight through those things and put them to the back of your mind.
"Now Rhys has had a chance to get over his problems he is probably feeling he has a new body. It's great to have him back."
The Scarlets will look to Priestland to help them push on after last season's appearance in the Pro12 semi-finals.
The 2012-13 campaign may have ended with the region losing momentum after some fine performances earlier in the term, but the West Walians are going into the new campaign with optimism.
"I have grown up with the Scarlets as a supporter, player and a coach and I only want to play open, attractive rugby," said Jones.
"Yes, defence has improved within the game over the years and kicking has become more of a focus, but when you look at the tries we scored last year, around 80 per cent were scored by backs, with Andy Fenby and George North up there among the top try scorers in the Pro12.
"Rugby is changing all the time and becoming a counter-attacking, turnover game, with the sources of possession becoming different from years gone by.
"It means we have to adjust accordingly.
"But I do want to play a very attractive brand of rugby — 15-man rugby. I want us to be positive with the ball."
With Priestland, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Jordan Williams and three sharp young scrum-halves at their disposal, the Scarlets do have the basis of a sharp backline despite the loss of North and Fenby.
And supporters will no doubt welcome Jones's pledge for his side to play with their heads up. Tradition matters a lot out west and if there is anything that will swell attendances at Parc y Scarlets, it is Simon Easterby's team playing the type of game for which Llanelli rugby has long been renowned.
Asked did he have a message for fans who stayed away last term, Jones said: "I can't say anything to them.
"It's my job to make sure the product is right on the pitch and the team are successful.
"If I can do that it's the best message I can send to any supporter within the region.
"I'm just hugely grateful for the numbers that turned up here last season, getting behind the team. If we have that, whether it's 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 people — if we have that committed support it makes a huge difference to the players."
That said, expansive rugby isn't possible without a firm platform, something the Scarlets are acutely conscious of as they search for a hard-driving forward to lead the charge up front.
"We are looking for a No. 8 who will fit the Scarlets' brand of rugby in terms of his skill set," said Jones.
"He will need to not only get the ball away from the base of the scrum but also dominate tactics and we also want him to be an aggressive ball-carrier who can take us over the advantage line.
"Most teams are looking for a similar kind of player at No. 8.
"We just want the right fit for the Scarlets, based around the age profile of our squad and the quality of the individual."
Jones continued: "There are different types of ball-carriers.
"You can have an aggressive ball-carrier who runs over the top of people, and you can have a ball-carrier who has great footwork and beats people one-on-one like Dave Lyons.
"Scott Quinnell used to just trample all over people.
"It's just about finding out who's available and try to make sure he gels with the group.
"The type of individual is important.
"Whether it's a wing, prop, hooker or a No. 8 who comes in, he needs to have a good personality to fit with the culture of the group.
"The person is as important as the player."