Celtic Rugby is on a high. Ireland are Grand Slam winners and series winners in Australia, Wales have taken two wide margin victories from their summer tour with Cardiff winning the Challenge Cup and Scotland have done the same. So impressive was their rise that no English side made the semi-finals of the Champions Cup last season, and there’s going to be no underestimating anyone from the Pro 14 this season.
VERDICT: Leinster took all before them in dominating the title last season but they are perilously short at 6/4 with bookmakers wise to Europe’s outstanding team and retaining a domestic title, less a domestic and European title, is extremely tough. The last great Leinster side was the last side to retain it in 2013/14 and it’s possible that they prioritise retaining their European title over domestic success. Munster, who went down by a point to Leinster last season in the semi-finals, Scarlets, the winners the season before, and Glasgow, who went out at the semi-final stage last year, look sure to be involved in the playoff races once again and could be value.
Advice: 2 pts Scarlets to win Pro14 Grand Final (11/2 Boylesports, Betfair, Paddy Power), 2 pts Glasgow to win Pro14 Grand Final (13/2 Unibet, 6/1 general)
Glasgow and Dave Rennie combined for some sensational rugby on their way to topping the Conference last year by seven points, although they found Scarlets too strong in the semi-finals at Scotscoun afterwards. The squad is already built into the Dave Rennie philosophy – not surprisingly given that they’d played under Gregor Townsend for years – so we ought to see more all court rugby in the Scottish Capital.
There have been few changes for them however, but one of them is a huge one. Finn Russell was very much the heartbeat of the side and the Scotland flyhalf showed what they’d be missing with two tries to steer Racing to victory against Toulon on his French debut and replacing him is the number one issue for Rennie. Adam Hastings started at 10 for their pre-season game against Northampton although George Horne can play 10 with Nick Frisby an excellent addition at scrumhalf to add depth with Niko Matawalu. DTH Van Der Merwe was also a smart capture from Newcastle.
Russell’s absence will be a blow but they have been used to playing without their talisman for large parts of the season and apart from his nature for the
Munster came so near yet so far last season, making it to the semi-finals of both this competition and also the Champions Cup. There was disappointment in losing both games but no shame in the performances against better sides and Johan Van Grann did a fine job to replace Rassie Eurasmus after he went to South Africa.
Munster’s gamechanger this season is Joey Carberry, the top quality flyhalf the province has been looking for. His arrival from Leinster was inevitable given the dominance of Sexton there and the continued usage of Ross Bryne in his place, and he gives an already strong side an X-factor. Unfortunately for them, Conor Murray’s neck injury will keep him out for much of the autumn and perhaps longer, although his fitness at the business end of the season is much more important than his fitness now.
Alby Mathewson was a fine replacement at short notice considering the gap between Murray and others in terms of quality and Munster’s backline last season had yet another year of progress. Simon Zebo’s absence is a loss but Mike Haley is a calm and experienced operator who should fill in nicely without the explosiveness and Darren Sweetnam, Sam Anold, Rory Scannell and Keith Earls all have a familiarity that greatly helps their attacking play. The arrival of Tadhg Berine at lock is a real star addition to what is a fantastic pack with an A-list backrow including Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and also CJ Stander.
Ospreys have made some fascinating changes over the summer as they bid to leave behind a truly disappointing season. Steve Tandy is gone, replaced by forward coach Allen Clarke, and on the pitch there has been a dramatic shakeup. Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are gone, and in come Scott Williams, George North and Aled Davies. That is a dynamite trio if all clicks, but Sam Davies has the potential to step forward in a big way this season based on his best form.
The Cheetahs brought a new and exciting dimension to the tournament last year and have now had a full season to acclaimatise to the Northern Hemisphere schedules they’ll be playing through. They took an impressive array of scalps at the Free State Stadium last season and will expect to do so again, although Fancois Venter’s loss to Worcester is a blow whilst it was always known that Johan Goosen would be going to Montpellier.
Apart from that they have not had a real exodus over the summer and the playoffs look to be a realistic aim for the South African side.
Cardiff Blues won precious silverware in fantastic style with their Challenge Cup win and now the task of John Mulvihill is to take his squad to the playoffs. There is certainly enough ability in there to take on, and beat, the best sides in the division but they must do so away from Arms Park. The addition of Gareth Anscombe, one of Wales’ star players over the past 12 months, gives them a flyhalf and a fullback who can also kick and was one of the signings of the summer, although in the long-term other squad could prove deeper.
Connacht are blessed to have star players in the shape of Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion, who this season will be joined by Colby Fainga’a and Kyle Godwin to put together a potentially explosive backline. It’s worth remembering that they managed to win the whole competition just two seasons ago and they shouldn’t find themselves under pressure to live upto those high standards again, but they could be a watching brief as they attempt to get back into the playoffs.
Zebre had their best campaign last season with Michael Bradley managing to inspire the side to double their win tally. The advances made in Italian rugby are clear and in the shape of Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Castelli, Giovanbattista Venditti, and Carlo Canna Zebre have four players capable of creating real chances. Michael Bradley’s coaching has already brought on the squad and they will ensure there’s no easy games in Conference A.
Advice: 2 pts Munster (6/4 Black Type)
Leinster topped the conference and won the whole tournament last season, so odds on quotes are understandable for another success here. Leo Cullen’s men were peerless when it counted, taking the domestic and European double, and the sheer strength in depth they have should keep them at the very top.
Tonight they can name a back three with Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne and last season’s PRO14 top try scorer Barry Daly for their trip to Cardiff whilst new Australian centre Joe Tomeane also gets a crack at centre. Joey Carberry’s move to Munster was a loss but Ross Byrne had pushed him out of the 10 shirt anyway and many of the players who will make the team through a large amount of the season are still improving after just a couple of seasons playing first team rugby.
Scarlets actually finished on the same amount of points as Leinster did last season, going down only by points difference, and then proceeded to be beaten by them in both the Champions Cup and Pro 14. Frustrating as those defeats will prove, it was a season of huge progress from the men from Wales who have established themselves as the dominant region.
It’s no wonder that Wayne Pivac has been selected to be the Welsh coach after the World Cup finishes but the drive to leave with another trophy ought to be for right there.
Some might say they’re a little weaker this season after the exits of Scott Williams, Tadihg Beirne, John Barclay and also Aled Davies but in Blade Thompson they’ve brought a player with an all court game from the Hurricanes and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is no slouch at 9 to replace Davies.
Apart from that, 11 of the Welsh side that started their 6 Nations opener against Scotland are still there and they have been joined by Clayton Blommetjies, the flying fullback from the Cheeaths over the summer. There’s lots of depth to the Scarlets, who have Gareth Davies on the bench for the opening trip to Ulster tomorrow, and the 3/1 on them winning the conference makes some appeal.
Leinster are likely to focus much of their energies on retaining the Champions Cup this season and Scarlets have the more favourable fixture list this season with the round robin format giving them the Kings, Dragons, Zebre, Benetton and Cheetahs all at home.
There was a gap of just two points between the top two and Edinburgh last season, who thrived under the tutelage of Richard Cockerill, and the Scottish side are sure to be a huge threat once again.
Cockerill‘s no nonsense style was just perfect away from a Leicester side with plenty of issues and impressive transfer business suggests that there’s plenty more to come. The impressive performance of their pack fronted up last season but they have bolstered up theheir backline in impressive fashion.
Henry Pyrgos, Simon Hickey, Juan Pablo Socino and Matt Scott are four great additions for a side going back into the Champions Cup and the pack hasn’t been neglected either with Luke Hamilton, Pierre Schoeman, and John Barclay now arriving and Edinburgh should remain a nightmare trip for many.
The 4/7 on them finishing in the Top 3 of the Conference is a long term bet, but it does appear very fairly priced even if they have the pressure this season of Champions Cup rugby.
After the worst season in recent Memory, Ulster will be looking to reconsolidate and move on from the on and off field sagas. Billy Burns takes over the reins at flyhalf but the more interesting arrivals are arty Moore from Wasps and Jordi Murphy from Leinster. Henry Speight is less subtle as a runner than Chares Piatau but he brings tremendous power and if he we see the best of him then he ought to make a big impression in the division.
Dan McFarland has plenty of talent to work with in Belfast and 6 Nations leading tryscorer Jacob Stockdale’s star continues to rise whilst Ian Henderson and Rory Best are the experienced heads for the big games there. Having the Jackson and Olding trial finished should make the atmosphere around Ravenhill a much better place to play rugby and having some sort of fully fit team can also improve them, but one cannot expect Ulster to suddenly return straight to former glories as they begin to refind their feet.
The reainassance of Italian domestic rugby was one of the highlights of last season and Benetton’s fifth place with 11 wins was a standout season for Kieran Crowley. Their scalsp includes the Ospreys, Scarlets and Leinster in Dublin and there was just seven points between them and Ulster at the end of last season.
Maintain that progression and then pushing onto the playoffs will be tremendously difficult, with much responsibly resting on the shoulders of Tommaso Allen. He has runners to hit in the shape of Jayden Hayward, Tommaso Benvenuti, and Monty Ioane although the newer singings elsewhere in the division could end up leaving them a little further behind.
The Kings struggled badly to adapt where the Cheetahs thrived last season and this could be another struggle. The mass exodus of players who left when it was announced they’d be playing in the Pro 14 left them with a shell of a squad that conceded 40 points on 10 occasions and the arrival of flanker Henry Brown, Full-back Michael Botha and second-row Schalk Oelofse might not make a dent.
The Dragons had the worst season of any Welsh side and two wins from 21 games simply must be approved. Something had to change so Bernard Jackman has been on a transfer mission and come up trumps in the shape of ex-Gloucester pairing Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbard, with the former having the potential to take the league by storm on the form of two seasons ago.
There are a number of recruits from the Bristol Bears whilst Huw Tayor and Josh Lewis are eye-catching additions from England, but they are really starting from the bottom and this should be a season of marginal progress.
Advice: 3 pts Scarlets (3/1 general), 2 pts Edinburgh to finish in Top 3 (4/7 Paddy Power)