Scarlets coach Simon Easterby ready for defining period of the season
THE race for the Pro12 play-offs resumes tomorrow — the start of a four-week period Simon Easterby admits will define the Scarlets' season.
Having seen his side slip from second to sixth in the league standings, Easterby has targeted the next month as a golden opportunity to revitalise the region's top-four challenge.
Connacht are the visitors to Parc y Scarlets tomorrow evening (7.30), followed by Munster a week on Saturday; a testing trip to Dublin to face Leinster is next on the calendar before Edinburgh are the visitors to Llanelli on March 1.
Buoyed by Sunday's 40-19 LV= Cup victory over Leicester Tigers, the Scarlets will be bolstered by the return of skipper Rob McCusker, lock George Earle, props Samson Lee and Phil John and centre Gareth Maule.
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Wales back-rower Josh Turnbull is also set to be among a couple of players released from Six Nations duty, although scrum-half Tavis Knoyle is unlikely to feature because of injury.
"We still have a lot of players away, but we are fortunate injury-wise that we have been able to rest players like George Earle — who has had a shoulder problem — Samson, Phil John and Gareth Maule and they are all back this week.
"The mix and the strength in selection depth is really key for me and this next four weeks is hopefully going to be testament to that depth.
"Early-season form has put us in a relatively strong position, but we have to make sure these next four games deliver us as many points as we can get to take us get back into that top four."
One area where Easterby certainly isn't short of options is in the second-row boilerhouse.
Jake Ball and South African Joe Snyman were outstanding as part of an abrasive forward display against the Tigers, while Earle, Richard Kelly, Sione Timani and Tomas Vallejos are other options.
"With Joe, he came in this season a little bit later than planned," explained Easterby. "He has had a couple of niggles and is a player who needs game time. He will only get better the more games he plays.
"He has settled in well to that role of calling line-outs and being comfortable in his position. He is a big man as well and we need those players to step up during this period.
"As for Jake, he belies his age. He has been terrific, he is still developing and has a lot to learn. But he has been excellent, a real good find for us and we are delighted that he is going to be with us for the next two or three years.
"We will see a huge performance curve from him."
One player who has struggled to make an impact at the Scarlets is Pumas forward Vallejos, a summer signing from Harlequins.
The 28-year-old has started just two matches since arriving in October after being part of Argentina's debut campaign in the southern hemisphere Championship and wasn't included in the Scarlets match-day squad last week, despite so many absentees.
"Tomas is certainly in the mix," insisted Easterby.
"He hasn't played much rugby and we haven't given him many opportunities.
"It has been a bit disjointed with the time he has had away with Argentina, but he is another one to add to the selection mix."
Flanker Johnathan Edwards is also closing in on his return from a hamstring tear, while Jordan Williams is set to feature for Wales Under-20s against France in Clermont Ferrand on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Scarlets will head west next week for a training camp ahead of their Pro12 tie with Munster.
The squad will stay at Bluestone National Park Resort near Narberth.
"It's about challenging our players in new environments, keeping minds and bodies fresh after weeks of training without a break between games as well as going back to our roots in the community — linking with clubs, young players and our supporters," added Easterby.
"It's good to mix things up a bit sometimes and for the players to spend extended time together as a team away from home."