Pat Lam keeps faith with regulars as Connacht look to regain form
Scarlets prepared for visitors’ cutting edge despite poor record against Welsh sides
Connacht’s Ultan Dillane attempts to go past Ulster’s Luke Marshall: Dillane is back in Connacht’s starting line-up for clash with Scarlets. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Although Scarlets are on top of the league table, both sides have lost their last three matches and are in danger of falling into a losing streak scenario.
Connacht are hoping to recover from their defeat to Leinster last week, Ulster the week before and Newcastle before Christmas, with Scarlets coming off narrow losses to Cardiff, Ospreys and Glasgow.
The Welsh, however, secured a bonus point in each defeat, which keeps them above second-placed Leinster.
Head coach Pat Lam has belief in the Connacht team that faced Leinster, perhaps the ghost of Josh van der Flier’s late try still haunting him. He believes the starting team did enough to warrant a crack at one of the top sides this season.
One changeUltan DillaneAly Muldowney
Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion are retained at half-back while Niyi Adeolokun, try scorer at Parc y Scarlets last season, starts on the right wing with Matt Healy on the left.
John Muldoon, now well into legend status, recently signed for his 14th season and will captain the side, while Kiwi Jake Heenan, who made his season debut last week after nearly 10 months injured, will start at openside flanker.
That is the area in which Scarlets have struggled recently but welcome back the imposing John Barclay in full expectation he will steady the backrow and give it more bite.
The Welsh side have been forced into other changes, with All Black centre Regan King returning as Gareth Owen is unavailable due to injury. Gareth Davies is ill which gives Aled Davies the scrum-half jersey, while Rhodri Williams features for the first time since the third round of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
“While we were disappointed with the outcome last week against Leinster, there were a lot of positives we could take from the performance,” said Lam.
There is no doubting that. Connacht have shown this season they are worthy competitors and Stephen Jones, former Wales and Lions outhalf and Scarlets backs coach, knows it.
He’s aware of Connacht’s expansive style and added edge that has thrilled the Sportsground and given them seven wins from 11 league matches.
But Jones may also be aware of Connacht’s poor record around the valleys. They have not beaten Scarlets on their own soil since a trip to the old Stradey Park in October 2004.
“They’re a very good side. Statistically they’re very good. They want to play open expansive rugby. We’re looking forward to it. It will be a great challenge,” said Jones.
Connacht will ensure that is the case, although Lam will be looking for sharper finishing with just one try in three games. Connacht lost 32-14 in the corresponding fixture last season.
SCARLETS: M Collins; Evans, R King, H Parkes, DTH van der Merwe; A Thomas, A Davies; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee, T Price, L Rawlins, A Shingler, J Barclay, M Allen. Replacements: R Elias, P John, R Jones, M Paulino, R Pitman, R Williams, S Shingler, S Hughes.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokum; B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Harty, K Marmion; F Bealham, T McCartney, N White, U Dillane, A Browne, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan, E Masterson. Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, R Ah You, A Muldowney, S O’Brien, I Porter, AJ MacGinty, R Parata.
Referee: M Mitrea (FIR)
Verdict: Home win