The last few years have not been kind to Scarlets – a fact that should dismay anyone blessed with a beating rugby heart, for there is no more romantic corner of the union landscape than Llanelli.
Leaving aside one gloriously unexpected run to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup in 2007, the club that gave Phil Bennett, Ray Gravell and an entire artillery corps of Quinnells to the world has run out of pretty much everything: money, results, luck, you name it.
But something is stirring down there in Carmarthenshire. More than 12,000 tickets have been sold for tonight's Magners League derby with Ospreys, and if the Welsh rain stops falling Scarlets may even fill their 15,000-capacity stadium on the edge of town. And if they win well – no easy matter against the reigning champions, who have almost as many international players as Scarlets have season-ticket holders – they might even end the weekend on top of the log. Not bad for a side working on a budget the size of a pea.
Yesterday, you could almost smell the passion down Llanelli way. "This is one of the games people want to watch, and rightly so," said Nigel Davies, the one-time Wales centre who coaches Scarlets. "The intensity it generates is huge, as is the rivalry and the respect between the two clubs. Our meetings always have an extra edge. Form doesn't count for much. It will be about who turns up hungrier on the day and who gets the key moments right and takes their chances. Both sides understand that."
Scarlets have strung together a three-match winning streak, including last week's victory at Newport Gwent Dragons, their first league success on the road since they made the same trip last Christmas. While they have lost a couple of decent players to injury, they have the main body of their side together for this evening's game. Stephen Jones, a diamond of an outside-half, will be there, as will the Lions hooker Matthew Rees and the Wallaby No 8 David Lyons.
For their part, Ospreys have so many big names available to them they can leave Huw Bennett and Ryan Jones on the bench, while absorbing injuries affecting the Test lock Ian Evans and the highly-rated flanker Ben Lewis, and still field an all-international pack.
Among the more fascinating individual contests is the one at scrum-half, where Mike Phillips – Wales regular, Test Lion, self-confident as the day is long – squares up to the Scarlets' latest world-beater-in-waiting, Tavis Knoyle. The latter may have kissed his teenage years goodbye only recently, yet he already knows what it is to play international rugby against the All Blacks. There again, at 6ft 1in and the best part of 16st, he is not in obvious need of mollycoddling.
Munster, last season's beaten semi-finalists, could also go top tonight, but as localised conflicts with Leinster are just a little testing, especially when played in Dublin, they will not be counting too much in the way of poultry. With Heineken Cup business next on the agenda, both provinces have decided to play at strength.
Munster travel with a back division drawn largely from the southern hemisphere – Paul Warwick, Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi, Sam Tuitupou – while Leinster recall Cian Healy and Nathan Hines to their tight five. There is a question mark over the fitness of the outside-half Jonny Sexton, but elsewhere in midfield Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll will be present.
Meanwhile, the former Saracens wing Rodd Penney will make his debut for the new Italian "super-club" Aironi when they face Edinburgh in Viadana tonight. The New Zealander signed a few days ago and has an immediate chance to impress in a back division currently scoring tries at the rate of one every two games.
"I'm pretty excited to be here," Penney remarked. "I already knew Fabio Ongaro and Matias Aguero from our time together at Saracens and they are helping me. I'm very happy to have the opportunity to play some rugby." Not that the new recruit is under any illusions as to the scale of the task faced by Aironi in their first Magners campaign. "Italian teams are known for being very physical and starting games fast, but it's a matter of maintaining the rhythm for a full 80 minutes," he acknowledged.
Edinburgh, in better humour after ending their run of defeats with a high-scoring victory over Leinster last weekend, have made five changes to their starting combination. Jim Thompson makes a first appearance of the season at full-back, while Greig Laidlaw and Kyle Traynor take over from Mike Blair and Allen Jacobsen at scrum-half and loose-head prop respectively. In the back row, Frazer McKenzie and Alan MacDonald replace Scott Newlands and Ross Rennie on the flanks.Reuse content