DUBLIN (VIA SAN DIEGO) — South Africa, the final frontier. These are the voyages…
Tomorrow the Guinness Pro14 makes its competitive debut in the world of dual-hemispheric rugby competitions. The inaugural match between Ulster and the Toyota Cheetahs in Belfast marks the start of a high stakes game for the Pro14 as it flies south to the South African rugby market in search of new life and increased financial parity with England’s Aviva Premiership and France’s Ligue National de Rugby.
The addition of Bloemfontein’s Toyota Cheetahs and Port Elizabeth’s Southern Kings has shaken up the drab format of the (formerly known as) Celtic League, splitting the league into a two conference format. Each conference will have seven teams, each with an evenly split number of teams from each nation represented in the competition (e.g. two Irish, one Scottish, one Italian, two Welsh, and one South African team per conference).
Once the regular season competition has finished, the winners of each conference earn an automatic home semi-final. The second and third-placed teams in each conference will face-off in respective quarterfinals, a playoff format much akin to the Top 14. This year’s final will take place in Dublin for the second year in a row. Scarlets beat Munster back in May to take last season’s championship and crown themselves eternal Pro12 Champions.
The 2015-16 Pro12 Champions find themselves at the beginning of a new era. New Zealander Kieran Keane has stepped into the coaching role following the departure of Pat Lam. Keane’s coaching experience with the Hurricanes and Chiefs of Super Rugby has shown him to be one of the best attacking minded coaches in the world, most notably shown in his role as the architect of the
Chiefs’ utterly remarkable 76 try Super Rugby campaign. As far as personnel goes, the western Irish province have signed 2014 Super Rugby Players’ Player of the Year Jarrad Butler from the ACT Brumbies and fly-half Andrew Deegan from the Chiefs. Most importantly, Bundee Aki has stayed put in the west and will make sure that the Connacht back line remains unpredictable. If anything, Connacht might be dark horses in Conference A.
After two years of relative underperformance, especially come playoff time, Leinster find themselves in preseason form with shades of 2012. Head coach Leo Cullen has had a bumpy, but optimistic first two seasons leading his former club, seasons that saw his side reach a Pro12 Final two years ago and a Champions Cup semi-final earlier this year. Undoubtedly, though, Leinster will be poised for a run at the inaugural Pro14 Championship. With Sexton’s leadership from fly-half, Heaslip’s control of the forward pack, and one of the world’s best center pairings in Henshaw & Ringrose, the eastern Irish province have no excuses but to perform well. They’ve also added two excellent southern hemisphere players in Australian flanker, Scott Fardy, and kiwi fullback, James Lowe.
Last season’s finalists have been on the cusp of greatness for a few years now. Following a poor 2015-16 Pro12 season, they came out last year with a fire and passion that surely would have done Anthony Foley proud. Alongside their showing in the final last season, the southerners, along with what looked like all of Munster, made their way to the other Champions Cup semi-final, a match that was lost to eventual champions Saracens. Rassie Erasmus returns to the helm to try and bring Munster that one step further towards the silverware that felt so close last season. Although they lost stalwart second rower Donnacha Ryan to Racing 92, they added on lock Gerbrandt Grebler and scrum-half James Hart from Racing 92, as well as utility back JJ Hanrahan from Northampton. While none of these three are expected to start right away, their inclusion in the squad will foster intra-squad competition and bolster the team in case of injury. They also have one of the most favorable schedules in the league, their first match of which comes against Treviso.
One spot away from a league playoff berth and a last-placed finish in their Champions Cup pool, the 2016-17 rugby season was forgettable in every sense for Ulster. Les Kiss struggled to find consistency in his side, and controversy surrounding Paddy Jackson/Stuart Olding, coinciding with the IRFU’s poor decision to not renew Ruan Pienaar’s contract, ultimately doomed Ulster. However, the province now has a new start under the tenure of New Zealander Jono Gibbes. Gibbes will operate as head coach while Kiss maintains his role as director of Rugby. The departure of Pienaar has made the side considerably weaker, even with the addition of fly-half Christian Lealiifano from the Brumbies. The forwards will get a nice boost with South African Schalk van der Merwe. This campaign will have its challenges, though, as regular flight-half Paddy Jackson and center Stuart Olding will be sitting out under sexual assault allegations.
Treviso finished 10th in the table last year with five wins from 22 matches. Although two of those wins came against Edinburgh and Ospreys, the Italian side were repeatedly on the end of full-on beat downs. It is a good thing that head coach Kieran Crowley at least gets to live in beautiful Italy because even with the talent of Irish-born fly-half Ian McKinley and injury-plagued former Highlanders captain, Nasi Manu, they probably won’t get far.
Three wins last season and new ownership from the Italian Rugby Federation means that Zebre will be desperate to flex even the slightest bit of muscle this season. Former Ireland international, Michael Bradley, remains at the coaching position to try and steer his ship in the right direction. Unfortunately, the Italian side has lost Italian internationals like Fedrico Ruzza and Josh Furno to other European sides, making the task ahead that much harder. They have only ever finished above last place once in their history, and they will be fighting to stay out of 14th place this season.
The 2012 Heineken Cup semi-finalists made a step in the right direction this off-season by hiring former Leicester head coach, Richard Cockerill. Cockerill brought his Aviva Premiership side to several league titles and European finals during his tenure and somehow (seriously how) ended up in the Scottish capital. The new head coach has named 22-year-old Magnus Bradbury as club captain to usher in his new tenure, a move that presents a good challenge for the Scottish side and a new culture that Cockerill seems to be trying to create. Edinburgh have a good amount of strength in the forwards with newly signed Italian prop Michele Rizzo, WP Nel (returning from injury), and now-Scottish Anton Bresler. They will be accompanied by the veteran experience (if you can call the veterans) and dynamism of Jamie Richie and John Hardie. The backs are more of a conundrum with the likes of Duncan Weir and Mark Bennett’s trying to make their impact, but we will only know their attacking effectiveness once the season starts.
In another coup for Scotland Rugby, Dave Rennie has stepped into a new role as head coach of the Glasgow Warriors. Touted as New Zealand’s replacement for Steve Hansen, Rennie left his post at the Chiefs for a tenure at Scotstoun. The Warriors certainly need an injection like Rennie after a dismal season last year, a season that saw them fail to make the playoffs. The Scottish side has already signed 11 players from across the world to try and bolster the Scottish international-heavy Warriors depth chart. Scottish international Huw Jones makes his return home from Super Rugby, one of six Super Rugby signings for the Warriors including Lelia Masaga and Callum Gibbons from the Chiefs and Hurricanes, respectively. Mix them in with plenty of young signings like 21-year-old Adam Hastings (Gavin Hastings son) and the Warriors have plenty to be excited about. Lastly, Scottish international loose forward Ryan Wilson has become the team skipper. Expect Glasgow to contend for one of the playoff quarter-final spots.
The Free State Cheetahs are the best equipped South African side in the Guinness Pro14. They have several Springboks in their squad including a hugely powerful back line boasting Cheetahs captain Francois Venter, South African 7’s star Cecil Afrika, and Rayno Benjamin. Cheetahs head coach, Rory Duncan, must navigate his side through the bumpy Currie Cup/Pro14 crossover early in the season as well as find his side’s place in the brand new competition. Duncan himself does not have a lot of experience with coaching (the Cheetahs are his first, and only, professional coaching experience), but does have plenty of playing experience with the Sharks, Kings, and Cheetahs. Their Super Rugby campaign last season saw them perform quite poorly, but their 0.86 mile-high home stadium gives them a definite advantage over the lowland European teams.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 1, 2017
Formed in 2009, the Southern Kings have had a bumpy early existence. Super Rugby was a bad fit for the newly formed team, a competition they finished 11th in last season. Head coach Deon Davids has more on his plate than many of the teams formerly in the Pro12. The Southern Kings have an exceptionally tough schedule starting off with reigning champions, Scarlets, as well as a lack of Springbok depth on their team. They lost their two biggest players in Malcolm Jaer and Makazole Mapimpi to the Cheetahs, meaning that the Kings will be stuck with a very young team. Even so, Davids has proven himself to be a head coach worthy of the challenge. He has been able to nurture players like Andisa Ntsila and Lozuko Vulindlu into rising stars even as the rest of the team lacks consistency. The success of the Kings will be most intriguing of the South African sides this season and could be a litmus test of the success of the new league.
Gethin Jenkins will captain the Cardiff Blues this season after a bad off-season of financial troubles and several missed opportunities in the signing window. Jenkins, Wales’ most capped player, made the return to his former club after playing for French outfit Toulon for the 2012-13 season. In reference to missed opportunities, the club almost signed Leigh Halfpenny and Franco van de Merwe before they were eventually dealt to Scarlets and Ulster, respectively. Head coach Danny Wilson has made his goal for the season to qualify for the Champions Cup after missing out by one place last season. It will be a big ask for a side that lost Corey Allen and Cam Dolan to other European clubs, but maybe, just maybe they will pull off a big turnaround.
Last season’s 11th place finish spelt trouble for the (formerly known as) Newport-Gwent Dragons, a club that was eventually taken over by the Welsh Rugby Union to provide financial stability. Thankfully things are looking up for the Welsh Side having signed Irishman Bernard Jackman as their new head coach and Gavin Hansen and Zane Kirchner from Bristol and Leinster, respectively, as utilities. Jackman’s time at Grenoble was forgettable to say the least, Grenoble eventually getting relegated shortly after Jackman left the helm. Despite the relative positivity, the Dragons lost a pivotal utility back in Tom Prydie to Scarlets and Shaun Knight to Bath. Overall, it’s not looking very optimistic for the newly re-named Dragons.
Although they made the semi-final last season the Ospreys looked out of form long before the playoffs. Charging through the first half of the season helped them into a playoff spot, but a poor second half of the season showing marred by injuries, including to captain AWJ, spelt a disappointing end. The Swansea club will once again rely on the likes of Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, and AWJ to push them through this inaugural season, but good signings in James Hook from Gloucester and Cory Allen from Cardiff are sure to help add a little bit of depth to the Welsh International-heavy side. It is hard to predict how the Ospreys will come out of the gate considering their tale of two halves last season, but quarterfinal contention is not out of reach by any stretch.
Last but not least we have the reigning champions, Scarlets. Almost no one expected them to give such a hard end-of-season push last season, and many were pleasantly surprised when they were able to best the competition’s favorites. Head coach Wayne Pivac has been much to Scarlets what Pat Lam was to Connacht, an innovator. Additionally, the off-season has been very good to the Welsh outfit, most notably with the signing of Leigh Halfpenny from Toulon. The plethora of experience that he brings to what is already a very strong backline only spells good news for Scarlets. Alongside fellow Welsh international 22-year-old Steffan Evans, Halfpenny should feel right at home.
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