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Williams column: Scarlets will be PRO14 title contenders

Scarlets full-back Tom Prydie

After what must surely have been the shortest pre-season in rugby history we are ready to get back into action in the PRO14. It was a disappointing campaign in 2019/20 for the Welsh regions and there is uncertainty surrounding the format for the new season to add into the mix moving forward.

Will we see the top four South African sides entering the fray in the New Year in some form or other? Or will it end up with a traditional fight between the three Celtic Nations and the Italians? Regardless of what the format is there will still be a significant title to aim at.

From the heady days of five titles by Welsh teams in a nine-year period, we have only seen the Scarlets win once in the past eight years. None of the regions reached the semi-finals last season and there is a lot of work for all of them to do if that situation is going to change in the new campaign.

The Scarlets have been head and shoulders above everyone else in Wales in recent seasons and have a squad that is capable of not only pushing for the PRO14 title, but also making significant headway in Europe.

They have the greatest strength in depth of all four regions, but will also be hit by the biggest number of international call-ups.

With a potential back line of Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Johnny Williams, Steff Evans, Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies they have plenty of firepower. Up front they also have the ingredients in their front and second rows to mix it with the biggest teams.

In the glory days of the Ospreys we used to have two international front rows. What that meant was when you swapped a player, nothing changed in terms of impact. And what it meant in training was drive, determination and intensity in the fight to get a start.

The Scarlets’ pack were terrific in the set-pieces in Toulon in their Challenge Cup quarter-final and it was great to see tighthead Samson Lee fighting fit again. The two Islanders, Sam Lousi and Sione Kalamafoni, have added some real beef to the forwards and having James Davies and Blade Thomson back fully fit from the start of the season is like having two new players.

They could and probably should have beaten Toulon away from home twice in Europe last season, but just fell short. That was as much down to a lack of self-belief as anything else. If head coach Glenn Delaney can work on that then they could be right up there, especially with Jonathan Davies now back to match fitness.

They have been streets ahead of everyone else in Wales in recent seasons and I can’t see that changing. What I’m hoping is that my old team, the Ospreys, can get their act together under Toby Booth and make some much needed progress.

When you have two such shining examples as Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones to follow it shouldn’t be difficult to make an improvement. There were times last season when I saw some players jogging to the breakdown and not matching the workload of the big two.

That can’t happen anymore and I know that Toby Booth won’t stand for that. He is looking to raise standards all round, develop the local talent and build a team that is far more competitive than it has been in recent years.

Missing Gareth Anscombe is huge, but hopefully he can come back into the fold from his knee injury at some stage. He has been out for more than a year now and has yet to make his Ospreys debut. Cruel luck for the player and the region.

The biggest problem that the Ospreys face is their strength in depth. If you put out a team that boasts George North, Scott Williams, Owen Watkin, Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones then you have a world class nucleus around which to build a team.

But when they are taken away from you for international duty then leaders and class players become a lot thinner on the ground.

I think it is going to have to be another year of being patient for the Ospreys fans, but I still believe they can be the second best of the regions if they rally behind their new head coach and follow the lead of their talisman.

The Dean Ryan impact on the Dragons has already been massive. Move on another season and I think it can be even bigger. I know they got kicked in the pants in Bristol in their own European Challenge Cup quarter-final, but there is a great mix of youth and experience in their squad now.

Ryan inherited a squad with some great young forwards – Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Lennon Greggains, Aaron Wainwright, Taine Basham and Harrison Keddie – and the introduction of Jonah Holmes, Nick Tompkins and Jamie Roberts to the back division will help to bring on players like Ashton Hewitt, Jack Dixon and Aneurin Owen.

For ten minutes they looked like world beaters at Ashton Gate and good value for their ten-point lead. But as soon as they conceded a try you could see the confidence and self-belief flood out of them almost in an instant.

Physically they are up to it, but maybe now it is as much a mental breakthrough that’s needed as anything else. They will be even more competitive in the PRO14 this season and I hope they take the right attitude into their Heineken Champions Cup campaign and learn from every outing.

The Dragons were a handful on occasions last season and will be more so this. Then we come to Cardiff Blues – the perennial underachievers of the four regions.

When you look at their firepower behind the scrum is it any wonder that they are a team that can be very easy on the eye when they get the ball. But therein lies the problem – how often do they get enough ball?

I would be so frustrated if I was in Josh Adams’ shoes playing on the wing and not getting enough quality possession. If the Blues can  find a way to reduce the number of penalties they give away in the front row, and beef up their ball winning capacity all round, then they could really make strides.

Losing srcum-half Tomos Williams is a major blow, although Lloyd Williams is a great replacement. Jarrod Evans needs to get back to his best, free-flowing form at No.10 and then anything is possible. Even so, I’ve got them at the bottom of my pecking order for the new season – hoping they can prove me wrong!

SHANE WILLIAMS

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