The Scarlets ready for life after George North
THE Scarlets hope their training stint at an RAF camp will help them achieve another flying start to the Pro12 season.
Their opening last term proved crucial to the region securing their first-ever place in the play-offs.
In their first three games, they piled up 14 tries and managed a hat-trick of victories, two of them bonus-point affairs, including a 45-20 laceration of Leinster.
The key to that surge out of the blocks? Hard work, according to head coach Simon Easterby.
He believes that while the Scarlets have a tradition for playing opening rugby, the formula that stands most chance of yielding success remains the age-old one of inspiration married to perspiration.
With that in mind he took his players to the Ministry of Defence base in St Athan, where they spent three days being put through their paces, with the activities including assault-course training, parachute drills, work with special-forces combat trainers and leadership and team-building exercises.
Ahead of tomorrow's friendly against Exeter Chiefs in Llanelli (3), Easterby said: "How you start in the Pro12 is based significantly on what you do in pre-season and the hard work that goes in.
"We've taken stock and tried to understand not just what was successful last year but how we can better ourselves.
"We've worked hard on that in pre-season, looking at some of how we operate under pressure. Discipline was an issue for us last term – we had a high penalty count and we will be looking to address that. We've also looked at our decision-making under pressure, leadership and team work.
"The RAF training camp was good in that we were able to bring something different to those few days away and take the players out of their comfort zone.
"Now what's important is that we bring that back into our rugby environment, starting from this week as we head into our first pre-season game."
The challenge for the Scarlets in the campaign ahead will be to cope without George North, Andrew Fenby and Owen Williams, a significant loss of firepower behind the scrum.
Rhys Priestland's return to fitness will be akin to having a new player back, with the Wales international having worked assiduously this summer, but the Scarlets look light on experienced wings and have also yet to find the high-class No. 8 they have been searching for since Ben Morgan left the region last season.
Rob McCusker has figured for Wales in the middle of the back row but he is better suited to blindside, the role that Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull also favour.
Presumably, the search will go on for someone to fill the Morgan void because the Scarlets need a ball-carrier to take them across the gain-line.
The headline signing of the summer is John Barclay, a top-notch openside who will excel if he has a platform to work off.
Ken Owens will have more on his shoulders after the departure of Matthew Rees, but Owens had a fine season last term and should prove up to the job, with new Wales cap Emyr Phillips also in the mix at hooker.
Europe is likely to prove a massive challenge, with Easterby's team having ended up in a pool containing Harlequins, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne, the kind of fate even their worst enemies wouldn't have wished on them.
So it is going to have to be all about the Pro12 once again. Last year's play-off place was encouraging, but Easterby was annoyed at the way the Scarlets faded in their final two games of the campaign and believes his side can do better in the term ahead, maybe even securing a place in the final for the first time.
He said: "By giving our players the best opportunities and having had the taste of top four in the Pro12 at the end of last season – that will be our collective goal again and maybe we will fulfil a bit more of our potential this year and improve on our position."
The date with the Chiefs will offer pointers as to how the Scarlets have come through the summer.
Let life after George begin.