The second season of the revised format of the Guinness Pro-14 starts on Friday with a new media partner in www.premiersports.com The conferences are staying the same as last season. While alteration of the conferences would only have been minimal, with only a couple of the Welsh and Irish teams switching, I agree with the premise of keeping them the same. This allows for a complete cycle of fixtures to be completed and every team having played the same fixtures against their non-national rivals before any alterations take place. At the end of the season, a rejig of conferences would be acceptable as it would be done from a level playing field.
As for this season:
Of the two conferences, Conference A is the harder of the two conferences to call. This is down to a key variable that is not as evident in Conference B. The variable is the high turnover in coaching staff. There are two new coaches and two who took over midway through last season in Conference A compared to Conference B. Conference B has only one new coach, which is at Ulster. The other aspect that makes Conference A harder to call is that while Conference B is stronger at the top end, they also had the two weakest teams in Southern Kings and Dragons.
In Conference A, the top 3 have the best consistency, with only Munster’s Johann van Graan having been in place for less than a year. Though he only took the reigns in November he will have been involved in the planning for the new season, and will be building on solid foundations, having reached the semi-finals of both the league and European Champions Cup. The Cheetahs and Glasgow have their existing coaches and the clubs below, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys ad Connacht have coaches starting their first full season.
Glasgow Warriors (Last Season 1st and SF)
The second season for Dave Rennie will be of interest to many. Having started the season with win after win, they then stumbled over the line after their performances went downhill following their first league defeat of the season at Murrayfield at the end of the year. The loss or Finn Russell will be felt, though the emergence of Adam Hastings, who made his Scotland debut on tour this summer may make the loss less felt. Glasgpw won’t benefit from the other top teams missing their internationals for as long this year with no Lions tour hangover. I would expect them to still be successful and with the change of coaches elsewhere in the conference, it’ll be close with them and Cheetahs for the runners up position,
Munster (LS 2nd and SF)
There is not much change for Munster this year, showing the benefit of a coach that has been there during the previous season. Having lost Simon Zebo to Racing 92, it will be strange to watch Munster with their star winger. Last season’s Players Player of the year Tadg Beirne will be a key player for Munster, having returned to Ireland from the Scarlets. The addition of Leinster’s Joey Carberry will mitigate the loss of Zebo, as he can play full back as well fly half. This will allow them to compete to the business end of all competitions again this year. Not much change, so I can see another strong season for Munster and I expect them to win Conference A this year.
Cheetahs (LS 3rd and QF)
The Cheetahs made the transition to Pro-14 much better than their compatriots. They have an extended squad to allow competition in the Currie Cup. This may be advantageous as they will have strength in depth especially in the new year when the Currie Cup in finished. The player to watch will be the US Eagles scrum half Ruben de Haas. They will hope to make visiting South Africa a fear for all teams, and if they do they may finish second, but I think that may be just out of their reach this season:
Cardiff (LS 4th)
This is a season of transition for Cardiff with Sam Warburton retiring and a new coaching team in place. Despite having success last season in the Challenge Cup. The weakness of Cardiff last season was up front, but they hope they have addressed this with the signing of Dmitri Arhip from Ospreys. The key for Cardiff will be the form of Jarred Jones. If he can build on the form of last year (Fly Half), which was his breakthrough year, the 22 year old has the potential to pull the strings. If he does have a dip they have the experience of Gareth Ainscombe to deputise. To improve this year, Cardiff need to do better against the top end teams. They only beat three teams that finished with more points than them. I think this will be a difficult season for them.
Ospreys (LS 5th)
After a season of turmoil for the Ospreys and the removal of Steve Tandy midway through the season, the off season has seen good recruitment on and off the field. The promotion of Allen Clarke from Interim to permanent will see improvement but it may take another year before they start turning round their consistency of form. The biggest negative is the departure of first choice half backs, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb. Bringing in Aled Davies from the Scarlets and combining him with Sam Davies is a shrewd move, but it may take them time to develop a telepathic understanding, which may impact them on the early stages of the season. The big signing of the Summer was that of George North from Northampton, who they hope has put his injury and concussion issues of the last two years behind him, could be key if they are get into the play-offs. A main issue similar to the Scarlets may be the resting of international players, especially with the World Cup coming up in 2019.
Connacht (LS 6th)
Last year was shock to most at Connacht, having finally emerged from the shadows of the other Irish provinces, they had built up their own pedigree with a PRO victory and regular Champions Cup rugby, with many notable scalps on the way. The loss of Pat Lam at the end of season 2016-17 was a key to this. With a new coaching team in place, coupled with the loss of John Muldoon, I think Connacht will be looking for a season of progress, rather than a challenge for honours. Andy Friend arrives with a good CV in England and Super Rugby, and he has brought in players with southern hemisphere experience. I think it will take more than this season to develop into challengers again, and I see them fighting Zebre for 6th place
Zebre (LS 7th)
Zebre are the weakest Italian team, though they did manage 7 wins and would have finished 5th if they were in Conference B. They have the stability of coach with Michael Bradley (ex Connacht and Edinburgh) in his second full season. They doubled their points from last season’s total, and similar to the Italian national side they are a continual work in progress, so will have some good results but also be on the end of some large defeats (especially away from home). They have recruited primarily from Italian clubs, with a sprinkling of New Zealand NPC and South African players, which will bring more streetwise to the team. However I can’t see them finishing outside the bottom two.
Leinster (Last Season: 1st and Winners)
They are the team to beat, having done the league and European Champions Cup double last year. While they haven’t recruited widely, the retirement of Jamie Heaslip and Isa Nacewa and the move to Ulster by Jordi Murphy may have an impact. However, as Leinster always do, they will have been aware of these losses, and will feel that they have the players in the squad (and through the academy) to limit the effect of these losses. The one thing Leinster have always done, is have future planning at the forefront of their development. It wouldn’t surprise me if the loss of the payers do not have an impact on their performance. They also have the experience of fighting on two fronts, and with the added experience of losing key players to International games and camps, they will have the players in the squad that will rise to the challenge. I can’t see passed them to win the Conference and reach the final at Celtic Park in May.
Scarlets (LS: 2nd and Finalist)
The Scarlets enter the season in a strange situation, knowing that their coach will be leaving of his own accord at the end of the season to replace Warren Gatland in charge of Wales. They have also lost two of their big game players to rivals. Tadhg Beirne going to Munster and John Barclay to Edinburgh (though he will miss the start of the season through the injury he had in the SF last season). Also losing Welsh Internationals Aled Davies and Scott Williams to the Ospreys will be felt. They have not replaced them with the calibre that have departed, but similar to Leinster, they will have wider squad players that will fill in the gaps, as they bring many quality academy players through. Will this be a final hurrah for Wayne Pivac, or will it be an anti-climax? I think it will have a detrimental effect on the Scarlets so will struggle for a home QF this year.
Edinburgh (LS: 3rd and QF)
Normally I would have thought a play-off place would be the target for Edinburgh, but with the perceived weakening of the Scarlets, and the strengthening of the Edinburgh backline, I feel that Edinburgh will improve a place this year. Richard Cockerill is fully aware of the second season syndrome, and has warned that they need to improve further and not rest of their laurels this season. Recruitment has been good, with their strong scrum being consolidated with John Barclay and Luke Hamilton. The backs have two new first 5/8s alongside Scottish international Henry Pyrgos. This may be their Achilles. Despite strengthening their backs, a new pairing at half backs may take time to gel. Overall the squad is stronger, and I see them swapping places with the Scarlets.
Ulster (LS: 4th)
Similar to the Ospreys, Ulster had a season to forget last year. They have replaced their head coach, but he has only taken up tenancy this week, having been freed from his Scottish Rugby Union contract early. I am sure there will have been coordination between Dwayne Peel and Simon Easterby with Dan McParland. Now that the Paddy Jackson saga is finished, more stability should be around Ravenhill, they will be hoping to build solid foundations to develop on. The squad looks weaker than last season, but the signing of Jordi Murphy from Leinster, they will hope to spur them on. Ulster are another team in transition and the late arrival of McParland will have an effect on their performances. With the play-off victory to get in the Champions Cup, I feel they will struggle for consistency so won’t improve on last years placing.
Benetton (LS: 5th)
If results had gone their way in the last few weeks, Benetton may have made it into the Champions Cup Play-off match at the end of last season. They had much success with their largest win percentage and winning more games than the previous three seasons combined. They had some notable victories including Leinster and Edinburgh away. They have consistency in coach with Kieran Crowley (ex New Zealand, and coach to Canada) still at the reigns. They will be looking for a solid link between half backs with ex Perpignan scrum half teaming up with Tomaso Allan. If they can spark, they should be able to battle for mid table again.
Dragons (LS: 6th)
Last season was an annus horribilis as they say, for the Dragons. Always seen as the poor relations of the Welsh regions, they only managed two victories. This was not the ideal start for Bernard Jackman. Last season he started changing the mindset and culture in Newport, from being the weakest Region, without much success. He has made wholesale changes, bringing in five internationals throughout the squad. Bringing in Richard Hibbard and Ross Moriarty will add grunt to their pack and they will hope for more go forward ball to allow the backs to express themselves. I think they will struggle to finish above 6th, as they are playing lots of catch up on the other teams and they have a lot of gelling themselves.
Southern Kings (LS: 7th)
They can only get better can’t they. One win (against the Dragons) and only 11 points. They were never prepared for entering the competition. Flitting in and out of the Super Rugby championship has not help and they lost key players prior to last season, as they didn’t want to play PRO-14 rugby, and most of their players were loaned. They are a young team who will hopefully build over the season. The recruits have been predominant from Currie Cup teams, so the step up will be interesting. If they get a couple of wins on the board early on and get the defence sorted so they are not on the wrong end of high scoring matches, that will be seen as progress.