Scarlets fly-half Aled Thomas savouring Heineken Cup spotlight against Leinster
SCARLETS fly-half Aled Thomas insists nobody is shying away from the scale of the challenge that awaits the West Walians in Dublin on Saturday evening.
The Scarlets are in the midst of an horrendous run of form and struggling to cover an extensive casualty list.
And with two resounding Pro12 defeats at the hands of the Ospreys and Ulster still fresh in the memory, it is hardly the recipe for heading across the Irish Sea to face the defending European champions at their RDS stronghold.
With Leinster making no secret of their desire to rack up a bonus-point win to maintain their outside hopes of making it out of Pool 5 and into the knockout stages, the round-five clash presents a major test of character for Simon Easterby's men.
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But Thomas, the man who has stepped into the No. 10 jersey following the unfortunate Achilles injury to Rhys Priestland, is adamant Saturday night will not just be about damage limitation.
"Obviously, we have been disappointed with aspects of our game in the last couple of matches, but there have been moments and periods when we have been pretty positive," said the 28-year-old Carmarthen product.
"We want to get back on track as a team and give us some momentum going into a big block of games for us after the Heineken Cup.
"During the first half hour in Ulster we were on top and potentially should have been a few scores ahead. We are trying to concentrate on things like that rather than too many negatives.
"Yes, we are in the middle of a tough run of games, but we can't shy away from it, there is no getting away from it.
"We are working really hard as a squad and individuals to produce some performances.
"It is definitely not through a lack of effort, it is just the odd thing or decision going against us which is costing us, and when you play against big teams and top international players they make the most of it."
Thomas will line up against one of those top international players on Saturday, a player who in many people's eyes is favourite to wear the British Lions Test jersey in Australia this summer — Ireland's pivot Jonathan Sexton.
The Dubliner has developed into a fine operator for his province and country, forming a potent midfield triangle alongside Leinster's evergreen centre pairing of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.
Sexton has also been a key figure in Leinster's domination of European rugby over the last three years, winning the man-of-the-match award thanks to a sensational second-half display against Northampton in Cardiff two years ago.
"He is a fantastic player who is playing at the top of his game and potentially could be number one with the Lions. It is a great opportunity for me to put myself up against one of the leading outside-halves in European rugby," was the Thomas take on his opponent this weekend.
"It is a challenge I am looking forward to.
"There will be a big crowd again, like there was against Ulster and the Ospreys, but that's great. For us it is about focusing on our performance and trying to get a big result."
Thomas will carry plenty of responsibility on his shoulders in the Irish capital as the Scarlets look to rediscover some of their early-season confidence.
In recent weeks they have struggled to find the right balance in their game, not aided by set-piece frailties that have allowed opposition packs and half-backs to assert control.
The last month since Priestland was stretchered off against Exeter has proved a steep learning curve for Thomas, who was playing Championship rugby for London Welsh just a couple of seasons ago.
The departure of Stephen Jones to London Wasps and Priestland's long-term injury have suddenly pressed him firmly into the big-game spotlight.
But the glare of European rugby is one he is savouring.
"You never want opportunities to come because of injury, but it has worked out that way," he added.
"I learned a lot last year from Rhys and Steve and I know there have been some big names who have worn the jersey before me, but I am not shying away from that.
"I am always working hard and hopefully I can make a difference to the team."