George North will feature in an Ospreys matchday squad for the first time in 371 days when he lines up against his old region the Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship encounter at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday (5.15pm).
North is set to blast off the blocks some time during the Loughor Bridge derby as he launches his playing return from the knee injury he suffered against Cardiff more than a year ago.
Doubtless, Wales head coach Wayne Pivac will be an interested observer with the national team’s summer tour of South Africa in mind. A fit and firing North would make for a more than useful addition to Pivac’s squad after Welsh traumas during the Six Nations.
But the Ospreys are looking no further than this weekend, with Toby Booth insisting that thoughts about North touring with Wales two months down the line should be pushed back until after he starts his comeback.
“We’ll see what happens after this weekend,” said the Ospreys head coach. “We’ll see how he pulls up for the following game. We’re not all the way up a ladder, but we certainly have our feet on it this time and that’s encouraging for us.”
North’s return will pep the competition for places at the Ospreys. Booth makes just one change from the side that defeated Cardiff last weekend, with Mat Protheroe coming in at full-back for the injured Max Nagy.
It’s an opportunity for Protheoe to stake a claim. North rejoining the fray means the wing spots at the Swansea-based region will be more keenly contested, but there could be an opening at No. 15 and a bright display from the quick and adventurous Protheroe would do his cause no harm at all. You can read more about the Ospreys’ back-three man here.
The match has a lot on it, with both sides vying to top the Welsh Shield and qualify for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. The Scarlets head that particular table and are hot favourites to make Europe’s top tier once again, but an Ospreys success would leave the west Walians looking over their shoulder.
Dwayne Peel makes three changes from the team that defeated the Dragons 38-19 in Newport. The in-form Liam Williams has recovered from a hamstring problem to take his place at full-back, with Ryan Conbeer returning on the left wing and Sam Costelow reclaiming the No. 10 shirt.
Rhys Patchell and Steff Evans feature on the bench.
The Scarlets have 15 players sidelined by injuries but they are a side in form, spurred by their outstanding overseas imports Sam Lousi and Sione Kalamafoni, and will also pose a significant threat to the Ospreys’ defence, having been the sharpest attacking side of the Welsh regions by some distance this season.
A win for Peel’s team would secure them the inaugural Welsh Shield.
“It’s obviously a big game with a lot at stake,” said the Scarlets coach. “It’s perfect, both sides with something to play for. The Ospreys have been going well. They have been physical and we are expecting exactly that.”
Ospreys: M. Protheroe; A. Cuthbert, M. Collins, O. Watkin, K. Giles; G. Anscombe, Rhys Webb (capt); G. Thomas, D. Lake, T. Francis, A. Beard, A. W. Jones, W. Griffiths, J. Morgan, M. Morris.
Replacements: S. Parry, N. Smith, T. Botha, R. Davies, E. Roots, R. Morgan-Williams, S. Myler, G. North.
Scarlets : L. Williams; C. Baldwin, J. Davies (capt), J. Williams, R. Conbeer; S. Costelow, G. Davies; S. Thomas, R. Elias, J. Sebastian, S. Lousi, J. Price, J. Macleod, T. Lezana, S. Kalamafoni.
Replacements: D. Hughes, R. Evans, W. John, M. Jones, A. Shingler, K. Hardy, R. Patchell, S. Evans.