The Pro 14 is here! This season sees the Gaelic league take on a very interesting new turn as the Cheetahs and Kings, axed from Super Rugby by, will join the existing 12 teams for a round robin format that copies the Super Rugby season.
This means that the league will be played in two conferences of seven teams, with the top three in each conference progressing to a playoff. Those two top seeds go straight to the semis and face the winners of two quarter-finals for a place in the Grand Final in Dublin on May 26.
Teams play each other in their own conference twice, home and away, as usual, but there are also nine conference clashes. the Italian, Scottish and South African outfits play each other three times and the home country Derbies are standard home and away fixtures. Got it? Excellent. Here we go…
Munster’s response to the passing of the legendary Axel Foley was magnificent and whilst they fell short in both sets of play-offs last season, they were the most in form side in Europe for a good period of the winter well into the spring, eventually topping the table.
Their thrashing at the hands of Scarlets in the final did not represent the excellent work that they had put in through the whole of last season, especially from November right through to April, and their biggest obstacle this season will be dealing with the incoming departure Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber both returning home to South Africa in December.
The pair of them had found a winning approach last season, grinding down teams through heavy carrying and brilliant tactical kicking, led mainly by Tyler Blyendaal and Conor Murray at halfback. Many young players stopped up last season but Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway had arguably their best seasons at club level for many years and it was only Saracens who could really match the power of the redmen in the pack. Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander made for a terrifying unit through most of last season and they ought to be able to absorb the departure of Donnacha Ryan to France with a front row that contains Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan as props.
Getting over the line in the playoffs might be a step too far for them but they look to be worthy favourites for Conference A – they finished nine points clear of third when topping the overall table last season and they should have a stronger start to proceedings this season rather than last year.
Glasgow have pulled off a huge coup in bringing in Dave Rennie from the Chiefs, and they should be aiming to stop a regression in the table over the last two seasons. Making the knockouts of the European Cup was a big step for them, although their thrashing at the hands of Saracens was a disappointing result that did knock them back a bit.
Nevertheless, they have a young core of players and a unique cohesion given that they make up three-quarters of the same Scottish national team that is now ranked sixth in the World having beaten Australia down under over the summer. Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Alex Dunbar are just three standout names but they have also bought well with Huw Jones and Niko Matawalu two exciting sings that should add ballast, along with Samuela Vunisa and Ruaridh Jackson, and they should present a much sterner challenge this time round, although appeal for their prospects of topping the table are tempered a lot by the international periods which will take away the spine of their team.
Ospreys have had an eye-catching window. Unable to cope with the power of Munster in the semi-final last year, they have traded Sam Underhill for Guy Mercer and made potentially shrewd additions in Cory Allen (able to cover wing and centre) and James Hook (able to cover several positions). Sam Davies’s brilliant form at 10 has been the catalyst for so much of their best attacking form which gives them a huge amount of depth given that the other Welsh flyhalf Dan Biggar is the person battling him for the club and national spot at 10.
They were unable to carry on their 13-match unbeaten run between November and February into the post season as Leinster, Munster, and Scarlets beat them but there is no shame in that and they should be respected as their multitude of young outside backs are ideally placed to kick on.
It will be fascinating to see how South African extension works and the Cheetahs did make the playoffs in the last Super Rugby season. However, they have just 13 wins over the past three seasons and this first season for the Cheetahs may well be a dry run for further success. There is also the significant issue of defending their Currie Cup title, which means that they now must have two sets of squads for the weekends where the fixtures overlap.
The mood is very good around Cardiff Blues this season and a strong pre-season leading into their opening fixture tonight. If Danny Wilson can get the best out of a settled squad then he does have the tools to push strongly for a playoff position with the likes of Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi, Matthew Morgan and Alex Cuthbert.
The return of Outside centre Rey Lee-Lo to the fold is a boost for their chances and they do field 10 internationals in their starting XV tonight, but they were still only seventh last season and have a lot of ground to make up if they are going to push for top honours in the conference.
Connacht proved that the Sportsground was still an incredibly difficult place to go with victories over Wasps and Toulouse in Europe but they couldn’t repeat their consistency of two seasons ago when they were Champions and it is difficult to see them doing the same once against his year with a huge amount of player turnover under new coach Kieran Keane.
There’s still an awful lot of talent there – fullback Tiernan O’Halloran and scrum-half Kieran Marmion have both impressed a lot for Ireland this year and they start Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane in their front five for their opener tomorrow; But it could take time for this new unit to gel without Pat Lam.
Zebre struggled last season and will most likely do so once again despite the new coaching staff led by Michael Bradley.
2 pts Munster (7/4 Boylesports)
Leinster fell at the semi-final hurdle last season both in the Pro 12 and the European Champions Cup but that was a fantastic effort for a young side and with that experience under their belts they should be aiming to go one better this season.
The men in Blue have had a long period of transition after ruling the roost in Europe but this current crop burst onto the scene last season under the excellent guidance of Stuart Lancaster. Bringing the ex-England man into the fold looks to be a masterstroke and under his watch, Leo Cullen has now moulded a side that looks to be his own.
Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Ross Byrne, Joey Carberry, Rory O’Loughlin, and Adam Bryne all shone both at home and in Europe last season and with a full campaign and semi-final experience under their belt they ought to kick on once again this season.
There’s not been much needed for big name signings but the arrivals of Scott Fardy and James Lowe are top notch signings that ought to add edge to a side that already had Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner in the pack and the sky should be the limit for them if normal progress is made.
The presence of so many young players should mitigate heavy International duties and the 2018 return of Garry Ringrose should be a real pick up during the middle of the season, and they are worthy choices to top the conference.
The Scarlets didn’t get the credit they deserved for their sensational triumph last year and the way they ended the season appears to have gone unnoticed by several bookmakers, surprising considering that they became the first side to win a semi-final on the road at Leinster and then winning the final in Dublin against Munster, an incredible pair of back to back feats.
Their finish to the regular season of ten victories in 11 outings included away wins at Munster and Glasgow but given the nature of their attacking game they could really end up missing DTH van der Merwe, Gareth Owen and especially Liam Williams from their backline.
The return of Leigh Halfpenny to Wales gives them a super solid kicking option and defensive fullback, but they could miss that extra dynamism out wide which was so crucial to their triumph last season but on the other hand they have been treated kindly by a fixture list which gives them home and away fixtures against Leinster during the Six Nations amongst other neat concessions.
Ulster’s best new arrivals might well be in the coaching box with the axis of Less Kiss and Jono Gibbes as good a pairing as any in the league.
They were slight disappointments last season and haven’t threatened to take the title for a while but much of their transfer business is at least interesting and they did well to replace the outgoing Talisman Ruan Pienaar with Connacht’s John Cooney. They also did even better to bring in Christian Lealiifano as the long term replacement for Paddy Jackson whilst he deals with off field allegations and the Brumbies man ought to get better as the season progresses, having come back from leukaemia to start for the Brumbies in the Super Rugby quarter-finals.
Their backline is very exciting, with Charles Piutau, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Stuart McCloskey all available, although they have sometimes lost out in pack battles. It also does not help that they don’t get to play Zebre or Cardiff at Kingsholm.
The Kings have lost a lot of talent to other South African franchises although they at least have the benefit of not having to deal with the Currie Cup tournament. It remains to be seen if having only finished in July is a blessing in terms of early fitness or a curse as a long season catches up with them, but they were 11th in Super Rugby and they don’t look likely to be upto the required standard in terms of troubling the top of the table.
The arrival of Richard Cockerill at Edinburgh is a real fine coup, and there are higher expectations for them than last season’s ninth this time around. John Hardie is now back to full fitness and he ought to be a talisman for the team whilst staying at Myreside should make them an intimidating visit in the mould of Scotsoun for local rivals Glasgow and it will be interesting to see how they start under the former Leicester man.
Having a capped pair of halfbacks in the shape of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir is a good place to start and there is plenty of experience in the pack, especially in the front row with Stuart McInally and WP Nel, so they are not be underestimated.
The Dragons struggled badly last season and won just four games in what was a miserable campaign that will hopefully be quickly forgotten, Whilst the return of Hallam Amos and the arrival of Zane Kirchner is music to the ears of Barnard Jackman. Getting experience and creativity with Gavin Henson was also a smart move, but the strength in depth looks to be sorely lacking compared to the rest of the conference and it’s hard to see them doing much this season to trouble the bigger names.
Treviso actually had a pretty good time of things last season, winning five games including wins over Ospreys and Edinburgh and they will be aiming for something similar this time about.
3 pts Leinster (21/20 Boylesports)
VERDICT: Leinster’s defeat to Scarlets in their semi-final last season did not reflect their season’s work and they will have been disappointed to lose two semi-finals, but their young squad ought to progress for those experiences and their position as favourites is understandable. However, they make no appeal at 2/1 this far out to get over the line and they can be passed over on that basis. Munster, if able to take the loss of Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and defence coach Jacques Nienaber in stride, would make more appeal at the current odds although the physical toll of their additional gameplan may catch up with them given the huge amount of games that their Irish core (especially the Lions) have also played over the past season and a half.
Scarlets were truly terrific when not only becoming the first team to win an away semi-final last season, but also trashing Munster in Dublin, and whilst there has been a lot of change in the backline, they should find a way to make it into the playoffs once again. A squad which has been tried and tested, along with perhaps having less international pressures than the pair, is well placed to strike and the 11/2 on them repeating their Triumph appears to be a price that is actually likely to contract. Glasgow, who have done a superb job in bringing two time Super Rugby winner Dave Rennie to Scotsoun, are the others who make appeal.
Advice: 2 pts each/way Scarlets (11/2 general)