Scarlets eye chance for revenge for derby hidings
THE Scarlets have waited a long time to hand the Ospreys payback for the indignities that were heaped upon them during the era of multiple stars at the Liberty Stadium.
For a day shy of three years, the West Walians were starved of bragging rights by sides from over the Loughor Bridge, teams that boasted a glittering array of talent.
In the 2009-10 game in Swansea, the Ospreys fielded Jerry Collins, Ryan Jones and Marty Holah in their back row. For good measure, Filo Tiatia was sent on in the second half.
Also coming off the bench that day were Alun Wyn Jones, Huw Bennett and Shane Williams, further bolstering a side that had started with Mike Phillips, Tommy Bowe, James Hook, Paul James, Adam Jones and Lee Byrne.
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You were tempted to say it wasn't fair.
Then there was the Boxing Day encounter the following season, when the Ospreys wheeled out a matchday squad that included 20 internationals. Carnage ensued, with the Scarlets ending up on the wrong end of a 60-17 hiding.
Trek back further to Christmas 2006 and the 50-24 stuffing at the Liberty, a beating that still hasn't properly been avenged all these years later.
But as the football manager Gerard Houllier once said, the beauty of sport is that nothing lasts forever. Powerful teams break up, finances ebb and flow, empires crumble.
The question this weekend is whether we are starting to see a shift in the balance of regional power in Wales.
Just months ago, with the salary cap coming in, the Ospreys looked to have got it right by keeping together a core of international forwards, players capable of dominating matches.
But a few early-term injuries have upset the region's plans and sent them into a tailspin. Three defeats have resulted, leaving them above only Zebre in the table.
As starts go it has been little short of calamitous and it is fair to ask whether all the departures from the Liberty in recent years have caught up with the champions.
It would certainly be a surprise if they didn't feel the loss of players such as Bowe, Williams, Nikki Walker, James and Bennett, five who departed in the summer.
It is also beyond doubt that Welsh rugby's tectonic plates have been shifting, with the days of big spending over and the emphasis now firmly on teams nurturing their own players.
That being the case, the Scarlets believe they boast a development edge over all their Welsh rivals, as financial pressures forced them to start digging deeper and more ferociously for playing gems far earlier than the rest.
"We had to take a look at where we were going as a club in terms of our recruitment and our development policy, probably three or four years ago," Simon Easterby told the BBC.
"And I think we are seeing the rewards now.
"So, yeah, we are ahead of the other regions in that sense."
George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland, Tavis Knoyle, Ken Owens, Josh Turnbull, Aaron Shingler and Rob McCusker underline how fruitful have been the Scarlets' development labours.
And the conveyor belt continues to roll, with Liam Williams, Jordan Williams, Samson Lee, Gareth Davies and Rhodri Jones all set to make serious progress in the years ahead.
Indeed, if there is a club or region in British rugby that has seen more talent come through in recent seasons, we really ought to be told about it.
You would hope that the Scarlets would be able to hold onto such players.
But given the financial corset Welsh rugby finds itself in, there is every chance that some will be tempted by lucrative offers elsewhere.
The same goes for every region, of course, increasing the need to make the most of things when the development cycle is in their favour and they are blessed with a crop of outstanding players capable of winning silverware.
That could apply to the Scarlets this year, depending on how their overseas recruits gel and whether or not they are able to set a platform in place for the region's backs.
It is certainly overdue for them to do something significant in the league. In the eight years since they won the title, they have finished in the top four just once, a dismal return for a region that boasts such rugby traditions.
But they have shown signs of taking a significant leap forward this term, scoring more tries in their first three matches than all their Welsh rivals put together. They have mostly been easy on the eye, and if their forwards haven't boasted overwhelming superiority, their runners behind have been opening defences as effortlessly as a shopper might stride through automatic doors in a supermarket.
That isn't the same as saying we have definitely reached a tipping point in the power struggle over the Loughor.
The Ospreys backs may not have been great, but with everyone fit the region can still field an all-international pack boasting Duncan Jones, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Jonathan Thomas and Justin Tipuric, with Ryan Bevington, Scott Baldwin, Ian Gough, James King, George Stowers, Joe Bearman and Sam Lewis among the alternatives.
Not many rugby operations in Britain would say no to a group of forwards of that quality.
But they still look a player or two light behind the scrum, especially in the back three, where an injury to Richard Fussell would leave them dangerously short of experience.
The counter argument is that they are developing players and the only way to do that is to give them game-time.
But for one night only all these issues will be pushed to the margins as the two sides scrap to claim the bragging rights.
The Scarlets must long to dismantle their arch rivals.
But the motivation will never have been greater for the Ospreys.
Champions just four months ago, they have been written off this week, with talk of a 40-point thrashing awaiting them.
Form points to a Scarlets win. But if the Ospreys' pack rumble for the first time this season, their team may yet make a game of it.
It isn't just about the hosts wanting to kick the Ospreys when they are down. Both regions have statements to make.
It could be closer than many expect.