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Red can spell danger if Scarlets' fire is ignored by Ulster at Kingspan

By Michael Sadlier

Their league form is nothing to write home about and, currently, finding themselves situated in seventh is really not a great place to be when it comes to fulfilling the Scarlets' ambitions on both domestic and European fronts.

Making the PRO12 play-offs - even though they have only managed it once in five previous times of asking - was still considered a relatively realistic ambition at the start of the season as was finishing in a decent enough place to make the following season's entry level for the European Champions Cup.

Right now, neither situation is looking particularly healthy and with them currently eight points adrift of the fourth-placed Ulster, you could be forgiven for reckoning that the Scarlets will be now be putting everything into trying to revive their domestic campaign at the expense of matters European.

Indeed, coach Wayne Pivac - parachuted into the head coach role from being an assistant after Joe Schmidt's poaching of Simon Easterby - will doubtless try to learn much from these back-to-back Champions Cup clashes with Ulster ahead of coming to the Kingspan Stadium in February for their PRO12 meeting and, incidentally, fourth time of playing each other this season.

True enough, but in actual fact the Scarlets still do have something to play for in Europe and are currently second in Pool Three, though they are on equal points with Leicester Tigers who they overcame in the last round of games when the sides met at Parc y Scarlets.

Some form of return from today's tricky visit to Belfast and then a victory over Ulster at their West Wales home a week on Sunday - indeed, at Parc y Scarlets, they are undefeated this season in five league games and in that solitary European outing - could actually see the Scarlets in a reasonably decent position going into the last two rounds, especially if Toulon and Leicester cancel each other out in their back-to-back encounters.

Toulon will certainly not be relishing the prospect of having to come to Llanelli in January for the final round of pool games needing maximum points for their efforts, especially with the memory of just about having enough to see off the Scarlets in their opening European game at Stade Mayol in October when the champions, widely expected to demolish Pivac's men, eventually triumphed 28-18 and failed to take a much expected bonus point.

The following week, though, the Scarlets followed up their determined effort against Toulon by taking the Tigers' scalp - 15-3 in front of their home support - and all seemed set fair for a run of form in the league but November was mixed for them with home wins against Zebre and Glasgow Warriors but then came last week's disappointing showing at Connacht where they were turned over 14-8 and were fortunate to get a losing bonus point.

Of course, the autumn internationals had a significant impact with Jake Ball, Samson Lee, Rhys Priestland, Liam and Scott Williams, Emyr Phillips and Rhodri Jones all either away or dropping back in for club duty at short notice.

And that's the rub of it really for the Welsh side. They have struggled for consistency with the problem being most marked away from home where they have failed to win in four league games, never mind the European trip to Toulon which was never likely to yield a favourable result.

Something akin to the high-scoring 32-32 draw when the sides met on the season's first weekend, when the sun shone, is highly unlikely today but the Scarlets can give this a real rattle if they can get their big players back out on the park. So what can they be expected to bring?

Beef and dynamism in the front line

Tight-head prop Samson Lee shone for Wales in their just completed autumn series and his scrummaging power can be used as a springboard from which the Scarlets can build their game plan.

Decent tight-head props are more than useful assets to any side, really good ones are pure gold dust.

Second row Jake Ball is another key component in the Scarlets' forward make-up and, like Lee, has emerged as a vital cog in Warren Gatland's plans at national level as well.

He is powerful and dynamic and will be the focal point for the Scarlets in taking the game to Ulster should he be passed fit after undergoing concussion protocols this week in the wake of picking up a knock in the win against South Africa last weekend.

With Ball and Lee given the go-ahead for tonight's clash, Scarlets will have some decent weaponry to call upon up front.

And their back row has a pretty good look to it as well though the impressive John Barclay's participation seemed somewhat in doubt mid-week after he picked up a thigh problem in last weekend's defeat to Connacht.

His potential loss would be a blow to the Welsh side, especially if the hard grafter was unable to combine again with the useful James Davies whose European stats after two rounds are impressive with five turnovers to the 24-year-old's name which puts him just once place behind the tournament's leading exponent of this art who happens to be Steffon Armitage with the Toulon player having been registered with seven.

With Ulster's issues at openside flanker, Davies might just bring an all-important edge in this area.

Backline presence

The Scarlets certainly don't come close if you compare their resources to those of Toulon - but then who does? - yet they are not without considerable talent and ability in this area.

Rhys Priestland had a torrid enough time for Wales this autumn, but he is still the pivotal presence for his region and the go-to man when it comes to game-management and place-kicking though Steve Shingler has had much better returns in his accuracy recently.

Veteran centre Regan King is also a massive influence on how the Scarlets backline operates and he manages the playmaker role in midfield, using his huge experience - this the Kiwi's second stint at the Scarlets after featuring prominently at Clermont - though the 34-year-old has been battling injury this season and played in Galway last weekend.

In fact, Pivac has an embarrassment of riches at centre as not only is Scott Williams back from Wales but this week's arrival of New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes from Auckland further bolsters the region's options.

And with Liam Williams - who can feature at either full-back or wing - also back in harness it gives the West Wales side good cutting edge with winger Harry Robinson also a threat.

Should they finally manage to overcome their away day issues, well, the Scarlets might yet turn things around.

 

A little bit of previous...

Up to this evening, these two familiar adversaries have played each other six times in Europe and the record is weighed rather heavily towards the side from West Wales.

Indeed, the Scarlets - then called Llanelli - were victorious the first four times the sides met winning both at home, at the then called Stradey Park, and in Belfast, at the then called Ravenhill, without really being in an awful lot of trouble while getting these results.

But then, things were different back in the 1999-2000 season when Ulster were simply awful as they attempted to defend their title and were beaten in every group game. Matters were not a whole lot better in 2006-07, though the province did at least win two pool games but not the ones against the Scarlets who in both campaigns with Ulster had ended up being beaten semi-finalists.

By the time the 2008-09 season came round, though, the tables had somewhat turned against the Welsh side who were finding Europe much more of a struggle and Ulster managed to bag their first win in the competition over them at Ravenhill before then drawing the following week at Parc y Scarlets.

This time, they will want to make sure they bag a first clean sweep against their PRO12 counterparts.

Ulster 6 Llanelli 29 (December 10, 1999, Ravenhill): It was in that difficult season after Ulster had lifted the trophy that the sides first encountered one another in Europe and the holders had already lost their two opening games - against Bourgoin and London Wasps - when they came up against their back-to-back meetings with the Welsh team. And it didn't go well with Llanelli pushing on rapidly after leading 12-6 at half-time. The Scarlets ended up winning pretty handsomely with tries from Salesi Finau and Chris Wyatt while a certain Stephen Jones kicked both conversions five penalties. Ulster's only reply came from a brace of Simon Mason penalties.

Llanelli 20 Ulster 3 (December 18, 1999, Stradey Park: Things didn't get much better eight days later as Ulster succumbed again though this time they did at least manage to keep the score down though without making any real impression themselves as Simon Mason kicked just one penalty on this occasion. After leading 10-3 following the opening half, the home side began to pull away with second row Chris Wyatt scoring a try for the second week running while John Davies got the other one for the Welsh. Stephen Jones made up the remainder with two conversions and two penalties as Ulster fell to a fourth straight defeat.

Llanelli Scarlets 21 Ulster 15 (October 27, 2006, Stradey Park): This was a lot more competitive as the sides crossed swords again in round two and Ulster might even have stolen it at the end only for them to botch a try scoring chance. Stephen Jones kicked 11 of the final total from three penalties and a conversion while the Scarlets scored tries from Regan King and Mark Jones. Ulster's only scorer was David Humphreys who managed to land five penalties and would have had a conversion to win the game had Isaac Boss and Neil Best not collided with each other after the visitors, near the end, had driven right up to the Scarlets line.

Ulster 11 Llanelli Scarlets 35, January 13, 2007, Ravenhill): Oh dear, from an Ulster point of view this was as grim as the weather which accompanied the occasion. The five-try thumping of the home side took the powerful Scarlets into the quarter-finals and to compound Ulster's misery they were unable to score a single point in the second half after leading 11-7. Regan King was again on the scoresheet and he crossed the Ulster line along with Morgan Stoddart, Dwayne Peel, Gavin Thomas and Alix Popham with Stephen Jones kicking all five conversions. As for Ulster, they managed a Tommy Bowe try and a penalty apiece from Paddy Wallace and Paul Steinmetz.

Ulster 26 Scarlets 16 (December 5, 2008, Ravenhill): At last something to celebrate with this campaign's back-to-back opponents and Ulster ran up a pretty convincing win despite the 10-point margin in the finishing scoreline. They outscored the Scarlets by three tries to one with Darren Cave and Simon Danielli scoring in the first half which saw Ulster return to the changing rooms a pretty convincing looking 18-6 in front. Ian Humphreys then landed his third penalty in the second half to go along with his conversion of Cave's try and all that remained was an impressive run from flanker David Pollock to ensure that there would be no possibility of the Scarlets turning it around.

Scarlets 16 Ulster 16 (December 12, 2008, Parc y Scarlets): It looked as if Ulster were going to run-up back-to-back victories until Stephen Jones - well, who else? - stepped up to land a late penalty to tie the scores and save the Scarlets from the ignominy of a fourth straight European defeat for this season. Ulster led 13-3 at the break thanks to a pair of tries from Paddy Wallace and Ian Humphreys, though the latter had already opened the visitors' scoring with an early drop goal. The home side then rallied to battled back to level things at 13-13 until Humphreys kicked a 71st minute penalty which looked as if it could be enough until Jones's late, late shot.

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