Ulster fans will make our opening Pro14 test tough, says Scarlets coach
If the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt really does contain some truth, then Ulster and Scarlets may well be the best of enemies come Christmas.
Starting with Saturday's PRO14 curtain raiser at Kingspan Stadium (5.15pm kick-off), the pair will meet each other four times before the end of December, twice in the league and twice in the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages.
The last time the northern province faced opponents with such frequency was, ironically, also a quartet of contests with Scarlets back in 2014/15.
They met in the opening weekend that year too - a 32-32 draw at Parc y Scarlets - and split the European double-header, a sign of how close the contests have traditionally been between the sides even if Ulster ultimately secured the season series with a league win in Belfast.
"First up, it's a great challenge and will let us know where we're at," said Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac, who will take over the Wales job from Warren Gatland after next year's World Cup.
"It's always a tough ask going to the Kingspan, we've only won there once in my tenure. It's never easy. They have great support and they love to play at home. Psychologically, it's a great one to have first if you get the win.
"We've got them four times before Christmas, we should know each other quite well by the end of that. But generally speaking, we know a lot about each other anyway. It doesn't change much, it's about getting better at what we do. Whether that be discipline or looking after the ball in the contact area or whatever.
"Most teams know how we play and at this stage, we've got a pretty good idea of how teams are going to attack us. In the modern game, there are no excuses whether you play someone four times before Christmas or two times spread out over the course of the season."
Last season naturally failed to live up to the high of 2017's title-winning campaign for the region but, when Pivac reflects, his side suffered from a problem that Ulster know well - running into Leinster when stakes were high.
While the year ended without silverware, it could have been a different story had they not been drawn against the all-conquering province in the semi-final of Europe as well as the PRO14 decider.
"Well, we did get the fair play award, so who's the real winner?" joked Pivac.
"We thought we raised the bar in 2017 then Leinster went away and did their homework, came back and they had a fantastic season. They were the best team in Europe and they were the stumbling block for us.
"We had a pretty good season aside from the lessons learned against them.
"They certainly did their homework after 2017 and we've talked about how they came back and recovered from that disappointment. We've had two tough losses against them and now we have to turn that around."
Scarlets have, however, lost some key figures in the off-season. Tadhg Beirne has switched to Munster and already been rewarded with an Ireland cap, while John Barclay has also been lured back home to Scotland. With Scott Williams having made the short trip to Ospreys, even with some smart signings coming in, there is a feeling that their starting XV will be weaker this year.
They can still expect to have a decided advantage over Ulster in one regard this weekend, the presence of their international stars.
The likes of captain Ken Owens Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny all played in the heavy defeat by Bath on Friday night and are free to do so on Saturday, although Wales prop Samson Lee and new number eight Uzair Cassiem both went off injured. Ulster, meanwhile, are still without the likes of Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson.
While the PRO14, as well as England's newly named Gallagher Premiership start this weekend, France's Top 14 has already begun with plenty of Irish interest.
Former Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson made his debut for newly promoted Perpignan but, despite scoring a try, couldn't prevent his new side from a 46-15 thumping at the hands of Stade Francais, the Parisians who have added Paul O'Connell to their coaching staff this summer.
Racing 92, who Ulster will play in this season's Champions Cup, gave a debut to former Munster wing Simon Zebo in their impressive win away to Toulon, while Ruan Pienaar's Montpellier fell 25-20 at home to Castres.