By Graham Thomas
Phil Bennett believes the Scarlets will prove themselves as good as any team ever to come out of Llanelli if they successfully defend their Guinness Pro14 title in Dublin on Saturday.
The former Wales and Lions captain, these days the region’s president, considers a victory over Leinster at the Aviva Stadium – where the Scarlets were crushed by the same opposition last month – would mean the current side rank on a par with anything that has gone before, pre-regional rugby or after.
Bennett was part of the great Llanelli team of the 1970s that won four successive Welsh Cup finals between 1973 and 1976 and appeared in a fifth final the year before in 1972.
He watched the Gareth Jenkins coached team of the early 1990s win three successive finals and also twice reach the semi-finals of the European Cup in 2000 and 2002.
Then, there was the team that won the Celtic League in 2004 and again reached the last four in Europe in 2007.
But Bennett, who still attends every game and even often watches training under current coach Wayne Pivac, says: “There have been some very good Scarlets teams over the last few decades – the 1970s side that won the Cup so many times and beat the All Blacks, the 1990s team that beat Australia, and the side that twice reached the semi-finals of the European Cup.
“Sometimes, though, they have just come up short at the very last hurdle.
“This team now, though, has the capacity to win back-to-back Pro 14 titles and that’s a huge achievement and tribute to Wayne Pivac. I’m a big admirer of his and I enjoy watching their training sessions.
“He’s a humble man, who has got to know Llanelli and the people who live there. He’s also a shrewd and exceptional coach.
“The move from Stradey Park was a major upheaval and it took a while for Parc Y Scarlets to get going. But for the game against La Rochelle, that was a night of real emotion. It was the night Parc Y Scarlets was truly born as the home of the Scarlets.
“So, for both the on-field accomplishments, and bringing about that proper identity and spirit of belonging, I have to tip my hat to this current team and to the coaches who’ve made it happen.
“If they were to win on Saturday, then it would easily put them up there alongside any of the Scarlets teams who have gone before. – right back through the decades.
“And the exciting thing is that it’s still a young side – with boys like Rob Evans, Steff Evans and Patchell – who have the capability of getting even better and becoming champions of Europe.”
Just a month ago, the first game between Saturday’s finalists was not even close. The defending Pro14 champions were beaten 38-16 in the semi-final of the European Champions Cup before Leinster again went on to become European champions.
But Bennett insists Pivac’s side will have learned a lot from that defeat and he is backing them to turn things around against a Leinster side who have since had two tight games against Racing 92 and Munster.
He adds: “Leinster were desperate to win that European Champions Cup semi-final. They hadn’t forgiven the Scarlets for their semi-final Pro12 defeat last season.
“But they have since had two massive matches against Racing and Munster. Are they still on top of their game? Is Johnny Sexton fit? I hear he might be carrying a groin injury.
“I just feel if this Scarlets side can get themselves mentally right, if Leigh Halfpenny makes the squad, it will be a much tighter game than last month.
“The Scarlets will be more aggressive this time, I’m sure. They will be feeling they didn’t do themselves justice the last time, regardless of how outstanding a team Leinster are.
“They will be determined to make up for that loss.
“My real concern is that the season goes on for so long nowadays, we flog these kids for too many months, and that it could be a game too far.
“Leinster should be the favourites because they are in their own back yard and they are a hell of a side. But if the Scarlets make sure they are not bullied at the breakdown as they were before, then it could be a different story.
“It’s a big blow to the Scarlets to lose John Barclay, but that’s what squad rugby is all about.
“I just have this feeling the Scarlets will be determined to show how good they can be, that they can stand up to Leinster’s physicality and their line speed in defence, and I think they have the attacking game to win it.”