Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Simon Easterby cannot rely on Scarlets' European form

Scarlets' Adam Warren takes on Johann Muller
Scarlets' Adam Warren takes on Johann Muller

Just when they presumably thought that things might have started to go well again, the Scarlets suddenly found themselves plunged into deep gloom and introspection after visiting Zebre of all places.

Last weekend's draw against the PRO12's weakest but now not bottom side – indeed, the Scarlets only escaped with a share of the points thanks to Rhys Priestland's late penalty which made it 16-16 – might as well have been a defeat, such was the impact it had on the west Wales side.

The shock result was particularly painful as it had also managed to pretty much tear up everything that the Scarlets had managed to achieve in the previous two weeks of European action.

Indeed, they had just come out of Europe sitting top of Pool Four after winning away at Harlequins and then notably drawing at Parc y Scarlets when the mighty Racing Metro were the visitors. Yes, very much a case of go figure.

Head coach Simon Easterby was left to rue to the ever-changing fortunes the game can throw up with these two consecutively drawn games. The high of holding Jonny Sexton et al in west Wales and then the dreadful low of seeing his charges just manage to end level with Zebre.

This week has been about trying to put this result behind them while focusing on producing a performance worthy of the scarlet shirt, a desire which is especially required this evening against an Ulster side they have struggled to get the better of in recent times.

"It's not acceptable to get ourselves up for certain games and then come to places like Zebre and not put a performance in," Easterby said, while also pointing out that the Scarlets had not deserved escape defeat.

"You just can't accept that," is how the former Ireland international summed things up before directly addressing tonight by saying, "the players will be looking to settle the record books."

Mind you, leaving Europe aside, their league form has been poor anyway with only two victories from six games with the wins coming against Treviso and Edinburgh.

And with only one victory to show from their three outings at Parc y Scarlets, it's not as if their home resembles anything like the fortress that all sides try to build.

So, the Scarlets can hardly be too surprised to find themselves down in seventh in the PRO12 table, a mere two points ahead of Cardiff Blues – the only side Zebre have ever beaten – and looking a long way off replicating last season's surge which saw Easterby's squad secure a semi-final spot, only to be comfortably turned over by Ulster at Ravenhill.

Easterby was less than pleased that night but now in light of his latest troubles – Europe will have only temporarily staved off the pressure on him – his squad just have to come out all guns blazing.

And, of course, the coach is without seven of his international players meaning that the Scarlets are also putting out a side with some notably unfamiliar names and new combinations.

In midfield, Gareth Maule and Adam Warren are lining out instead of front-liners Jon Davies and Scott Williams, while Steve Shingler continues at out half except without the safety net of having Priestland around to potentially save the day.

Their backline is further disrupted without Liam and Rhodri Williams who are also with Warren Gatland's squad, while up front hooker Kirby Mihill gets a start with Ken Owens and Emyr Philips also away with Wales.

The Scarlets, and their coach, need to find some league form – and fast.

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