Without silverware since 2004, Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets face Munster in the Guinness PRO12 final this afternoon with the aim of not only ending a 13-year wait for a trophy, but also giving Welsh regional rugby a much-needed shot in the arm.
A victory for the Parc y Scarlets outfit — who go into this game as underdogs — would be hard to measure in terms of the impact it would have on the game in Wales.
Simply put, challenging the Irish giants for domestic title glory has looked a long way off for Welsh sides in recent seasons, with only Ospreys and Scarlets looking anywhere near capable of ruffling some feathers at the summit.
Against the odds, that’s changed almost out of nowhere.
Scarlets have played some impressive rugby this season, especially since Christmas, and their 27-15 semi-final win over Leinster showed they have what it takes to win in the toughest of circumstances. Munster might be firm favourites, but the men from west Wales have their own motivation for victory.
“I don’t want to count my eggs before they’ve hatched, but to lift the trophy would mean the world to me,” said Scarlets wing Liam Williams, who plays his last game for the club in the final prior to joining European champions Saracens for next season.
“I’ve been here for six years and the final is going to be huge. When we beat the Ospreys to seal our place in the top four, I said to the boys we need to focus because now we’ve got two more big games. If we actually go out there and win the PRO12, it couldn’t get any better for me. Six years is a long, long time and I’m excited for the game.
“I’m sure the whole of the squad is as well. We’re looking forward to the challenge ahead.”
Williams and the Scarlets carry the flag for Wales in today’s final and the manner of their victory over Leinster should give them cause for confidence. Munster — aiming to lift the title as a fitting memory to Anthony Foley — have their own motivation, but they’ll be wary of the opposition who lie in wait.
Pivac’s men cut Leinster to ribbons at times in their semi-final, becoming the first team to win an away tie in the last four in the competition’s history in the process. In Jonathan and James Davies, John Barclay, Tadgh Beirne and Steffan Evans, they have players in fine form. Then there is Williams.
The 26-year-old former scaffolder was playing amateur rugby with Waunarlwydd and Llanelli before making his professional breakthrough in 2011.
In the years since, he has gone on to establish himself as a cult hero in Wales, securing a regular starting spot at international level and earning selection for the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand next month.
The All Blacks can wait for now, because Williams’ only focus is on making sure his last game for the Scarlets — where he is loved by his team’s supporters — is one to remember.
“In the past couple of weeks we have beaten Ospreys at home and we’ve just been to Leinster and beaten them as well,” he said.
“Last weekend against Leinster every single part of our game was outstanding. We’ve been back in this week and the energy is up. The mood is really good and all the boys are enjoying a laugh and a joke. I think it will be a great atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium. There is nothing better than having the crowd being really loud. It spurs us on. I just can’t wait to get out there now and stuff up Munster.
“They have a really big pack and a couple of sharp backs, but as long as we get our own house in order we are really looking forward to the challenge. I’m going to go out there on Saturday and give it my all and we’ll see where we are after the game. Hopefully I can end on a high.”
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be well aware of Scarlets’ enterprising brand of rugby. His team were beaten 30-21 by the Welsh outfit at Thomond Park in February, a reminder the final is no foregone conclusion. Williams forms part of a dangerous Welsh back line.
Evans — who is free to play after his red card in the semi-final was rescinded — joins him and Johnny McNicholl in the back three, while centres Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams form an experienced midfield pairing.
Lions ace Davies wants victory for his team to help send Liam Williams off on a high.
“Just look how influential Liam has been in our performances,” he said. “He’s up there with some of the best players in the world — he can do it all. Defensively he is outstanding. In the contact area he has turned the ball over on our line on numerous occasions to get the ball back. In attack he is just as good.
“He will be a massive loss to the region when he joins Saracens. We wish him well for the future and hopefully we can give him a good send off by putting a bit of silverware on the table.”
Williams’ talent even extends to goal kicking and his two late penalties sealed victory over Leinster. So, what odds of one of the Scarlets’ most popular ever players signing off with a winning kick to seal title glory? Given his impressive ability to perform when it matters most, you wouldn’t bet against it. What a way to end that would be.
“Liam is part of a pretty exciting back line we’ve got at the club,” said Scottish back-row forward Barclay, who will captain the Scarlets with Ken Owens and Jake Ball out injured.
“We know we’ve got to get the ball to them. Liam has done a lot of work on his kicking in training. He probably wasn’t expecting to be the back-up kicker in a semi-final and final.
“But he is one of those guys who doesn’t let anything bother him. He probably knew how important those kicks were last weekend, but he felt no pressure. He is one of those big game players.”
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