Scarlets coach Simon Easterby: We're in better shape this year
SCARLETS head coach Simon Easterby insists his side are in a better position than 12 months ago ahead of their RaboDirect Pro12 opener against defending champions Leinster.
Easterby has been pleased with what he has seen so far in pre-season. The West Wales region, missing the majority of their Wales internationals, were edged out 23-15 by a full-strength Exeter Chiefs at Parc y Scarlets in their first match, then a youthful squad fought back to claim a 16-16 draw at London Welsh.
The bar will be raised when they face Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday night with Easterby planning to take a near full-strength squad to the West Country. Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland is set to make his latest comeback from an Achilles problem, while hooker Ken Owens, full-back Liam Williams and skipper Rob McCusker are also set for their first appearances of the summer.
"We'll pick as strong a side as we can, which will hopefully set us up nicely for the Leinster game," said Easterby, speaking at yesterday's official launch of the 2013-14 Pro12 season in Belfast. "I think we're in a far better position going into the new season than we were at the same stage last season and I'm happy with the progress that we've made throughout the pre-season. Hopefully, we can produce a good performance against Gloucester on Friday night.
"Wales's loss is our gain in the sense that a number of guys including Rhys, Scott (Williams), Josh (Turnbull) and Ken didn't tour.
"They have had a good pre-season, which they don't get that often any more. It's been an opportunity for them to get niggles seen to and build themselves ready for the new season.
"I've also felt far more comfortable that we have had our players in earlier. It was difficult for us last year because the South Africans came in late with little or no time to bed in.
"What we've had now is some continuity and less disruption. We've had a chance to build some continuity and strong team work."
Easterby will be hoping his side can again hit the ground running.
The Scarlets led the way last September, winning their first three matches, including a 45-20 hammering of Leinster on the opening weekend.
However, after reaching the end-of-season play-offs, Easterby believes his side didn't do themselves justice with the Scarlets slumping to a 28-17 semi-final defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill.
"We have to have higher expectations of ourselves and look to our goals and work hard to achieve more this season," he added.
"Our challenge is to improve on what we did last year, if we do that we have a good chance of making top four again this season and going one step further."