Inside Track: A look at where game will be won and lost
Scarlets v Ulster Champions Cup Pool Three Parc y Scarlets (Sun 5.15pm)
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in tomorrow’s massive European tussle.
Emyr Phillips v Rory Best
Rory Best once again came through for his side at a crucial juncture last week as Ulster’s captain delivered the all-important fourth try.
While his play in the loose and scrum was exemplary, the Irish international hooker will have spent some time this week fretting about his side’s performance in the lineout.
Ulster were insecure on their own ball and, while it was ultimately rendered a moot point, Best will know that he and his pack can ill-afford any repeat of such struggles tomorrow.
He will also be expected to get through a huge amount of work at the breakdown, where Ulster were turned over too readily last week. Injury to Ken Owens has left Scarlets without their first choice hooker and Emyr Phillips will once again fill in.
Capped three times by Wales, but all in 2013, he was a fringe player for Warren Gatland during the autumn. A hard worker in both the tight and loose, the 27-year-old has had to be patient throughout his career but is now reaping the rewards.
Rhodri Williams v Ruan Pienaar
The much anticipated return of Ruan Pienaar to action after three months out with a knee injury provided Ulster with a big boost before last week's game and the scrum-half did not disappoint.
While scoring the team’s second try will have pleased the 30-year-old, his presence at the base of the scrum really seemed to settle Ulster’s backline and they put together one of their more fluid performances of the season.
The knee injury suffered by Gareth Davies in September continues to rule out the usual scrum-half but Scarlets have plenty of young and talented options.
While Aled Davies started in last week’s loss, he is rotated out of the side and replaced by Rhodri Williams for tomorrow. A Welsh international in his own right, Williams featured in last season’s Six Nations and is one of the players it is reported that Warren Gatland wants tied down to a central contract.
Liam Williams v Louis Ludik
While his other more prominent backline colleagues took much of the credit during last week’s win, Louis Ludik was quietly effective when returned to his favoured fullback position.
His strong defence gave his side a strong base to build from and, while Scarlets do like to throw the ball around, given the wintery conditions expected he will once again be relied upon to be solid underneath the high ball.
More than just a reliable defender, the South African is more than capable of coming into the line and was a try-scorer when these sides met at the Parc y Scarlets back in September. Opposing fullback Liam Williams is a real danger but will certainly feel he is due a performance against Ulster. Sent off in September, the Welsh regular was binned last week for a perceived tip tackle. Williams is hugely committed to the Scarlets’ cause.
The main threats
European double-headers often highlight the unpredictable nature of top level rugby and Ulster must be aware that tomorrow may bear little resemblance to their bonus point win at the Kingspan Stadium last week.
The Scarlets are a formidable side on their home ground and only Northampton and Racing Metro have won at the Parc y Scarlets during 2014, so Ulster cannot expect to be granted the freedom to run they were given last week.
While the control of possession gave them little opportunity to show it, this is still a talented backline that will ask serious questions and the pack will be hurting after they were bested by the Ulster scrum.
Neil Doak’s men had a much more fluent look about them last week and Wayne Pivac will have spent much of this week thinking of ways to combat a set of backs who ran in the first three tries.
The 32-32 draw between these sides that opened the Pro12 campaign was statistically one of Ulster’s quickest of the campaign, and displayed the way they would both ideally like to play their rugby but, as is so often at this time of year, the conditions will play a big part.
Neil Doak’s men did manage to utilise a strong running game off first phase ball last week but they were no doubt aided by their opponents playing 20 minutes of the contest with a man short.
While Ulster’s scrum was strong, albeit with different personnel, the lineout looked distinctly shaky and, while Scarlets don’t concede much off the maul, the visitors will look to be much more secure off their own ball.
Wayne Pivac’s side will look to take advantage of Ulster’s openside conundrum and hope their talented backline can make the most of any turnover ball.
Stat attack: Of the 60 double-headers played in Europe’s top competition over the last five years, teams have won both games on 33 separate occasions.
A bit of previous
Ulster’s last six results:
Ulster 24 Scarlets 9*
Munster 21 Ulster 20**
Ulster 25 Ospreys 16**
Ulster 23 Newport Gwent
Ulster 13 Toulon 23*
Leicester 25 Ulster 18*
scarlets’ last six results:
Ulster 24 Scarlets 9*
Connacht 14 Scarlets 8**
Scarlets 19 Glasgow 9**
Cardiff Blues 19 Scarlets 13***
Scarlets 7 Northampton 24***
Scarlets 28 Zebre 13**