Pro14 Preview: A Team by Team Analysis
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: We take a stab at predicting the prospects of each of the teams in the new Pro14 competition!
As September dawns upon the fans in Northern Hemisphere, we look in anticipation as the top players in the Premiership, Top 14 and the new Pro14 lace up their boots for another long season.
Fans of the Pro12 competition as it was formerly known, would be forgiven for thinking that their league was a poorer relation to others in Europe, especially in comparison with the big money spenders in England and France.
This season two new teams enter the fray - the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings. A unique mix of the styles of both hemispheres, with the hard hitting Northern Hemisphere defence and the unpredictable, exciting South African attack, promises an exciting season for fans.
Below we have created a breakdown of each team's key players, new signings and vulnerabilities:
Benetton Treviso: One of two Italian clubs in the competition, Treviso have always struggled to get out of the bottom three positions. Last season they managed to finish above key rivals Zebre, as well as the Newport Gwent Dragons, finishing 10th, which was their best finish since the 2012/13 season. The squad will be bolstered by the arrival of new signing, Marty Banks from the Kiwi franchise The Highlanders. One of the standout players in the past Super Rugby season, he is sure to provide them with better distribution and an excellent option off the kicking tee.
Predicted Finish: Seventh (Conference B)
Cardiff Blues: Having finished seventh for the past two seasons, the Blues will be looking to reach the playoffs for the first time in the competition. It is not likely to get any easier for the Welsh side as they have lost one of their key players in Cory Allen to rivals, Ospreys. Cardiff Blues have only made 3 signings, one of which is exciting young Welsh-born centre, Jack Roberts as he makes the move from Leicester Tigers to the Blues and is sure to add an extra ball carrying dimension to the Blue's backline. Having finished below Munster, Ospreys and Glasgow last season, the Blues will find it tough with all 3 in their conference.
Predicted Finish: Fifth (Conference A)
Cheetahs: One of the new inclusions in this season's competition, it is difficult to predict how they will integrate into the league. They are in what is arguably the tougher conference, however coming off the back of the Super Rugby season, there is unlikely to be any rustiness as soon as the whistle blows. They play an attacking brand of rugby, which can be seen through the skill and pace of players such as Sergeal Petersen. The Cheetahs willingness to throw the ball around is also matched by their typical South African physicality, with flank Teboho Mohoje set to give the Cheetahs go-forward ball, as he has done on many previous occasions. Watch out for signing Makazole Mapimpi, who set Super Rugby alight in 2017, scoring 11 tries.
Predicted Finish: Fourth (Conference A)
Connacht: Connacht failed to build on their Leicester City-esque title winning season of 2015-16, finishing eighth last season in a disappointing campaign. New boss Kieran Keane brings a vast amount of experience, having played the role of assistant coach to Kiwi outfit, Chiefs. He is especially known for creating attacking teams, and the Connacht faithful will be hoping he can coax out Connacht's attacking talent, which was seen 2 seasons ago in their title winning campaign. Andrew Deegan is perhaps the most intriguing signing, with the young Wallabies fly-half relatively unknown in the Northern Hemisphere. He will be keen to impress, also competing with current fly-half, Jack Carty for the starting berth. Connacht have released a considerable amount of players and it is hard to see them competing in what is set to be a very tough conference. They are likely to focus on qualifying for the Champions Cup.
Predicted Finish: Sixth (Conference A)
Newport Gwent Dragons: The Dragons will be looking to salvage some pride, after finishing 11th in last season's competition. Similarly, to the competition itself they have had a complete rebrand with the Welsh Rugby Union taking control of the club and it is hoped that this will paint a brighter future for the region. A new coach in Bernard Jackman can only mean good things, as the former Leinster hooker moves into his second coaching position after previously taking the post at Grenoble. Signings include Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner, who will add some much needed potency to the Dragon's backline. They will be hoping at the very least to gain victories over Treviso and they have shown in past seasons that they often claim scalps over title contenders. Four straight losses in pre-season games mark worrying signs for the side, however these sort of games cannot be over-analysed.
Predicted Finish: Sixth (Conference B)
Edinburgh: Despite a torrid campaign filled with injuries in 2016-17, things may be looking up for Edinburgh as Richard Cockerill has been appointed as head coach. New additions to the team include the experienced Robbie Fruean and centre Mark Bennett has made the switch from rivals Glasgow. Being on the sidelines for a number of months, he is likely to be a key player for the Scottish side, who are in desperate need of some flair which was lacking last season. They will hope to secure a place in the Champions Cup, with the highest fourth placed finisher gaining entry to the 2018-19 competition.
Predicted Finish: Fourth (Conference B)
Glasgow Warriors: The Warriors have proven to be one of the best sides in the League in recent years, and this season isn't likely to be any different. Despite losing key players such as Josh Strauss to Sale Sharks, they have bolstered their backline with the signing of Huw Jones from the Stormers in South Africa. Despite his injury problems, he has shown class above his age when playing for Scotland in the 2016 Autumn Internationals and for Western Province in the Currie Cup scoring 45 points in 16 appearances. Yet again, Finn Russell is likely to be one of their key players, as Warrior fans hope that he will push on after he failed to make the Lion's tour, yet performed excellently in Scotland's summer tests. Glasgow are likely to make it into the playoffs, with a squad that is capable of pushing for the title.
Predicted Finish: Second (Conference A) (semifinalists)
Leinster: Leinster have one of the most impressive squads in the competition, with an incredible level of depth. This was displayed by their ability to promote 7 players from the academy, including players such as Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne who were key players last season for the senior side. They will be hoping to avoid late season slip ups, such as their humiliating semifinal defeat to the Scarlets at the RDS last season. Signings James Lowe and Scott Fardy will surely have huge impacts, adding to an already youthful backline and powerful pack. Leinster are looking for their first silverware since the 2013-14 season and if they win the Pro14, they will become the most successful side in the league's history, winning 5 titles.
Predicted Finish: First (Conference B) (Pro14 Champions)
Munster: Munster looked like champions right up until the Pro12 final last season. Johan Erasmus has proven an excellent choice as head coach, however his departure for South African rugby in December has cast doubts over the Irish Province's chances in the season ahead. Former player Felix Jones is to step in as interim head coach. Despite losing Francis Saili to Harlequins, Munster have brought JJ Hanrahan back to the squad and James Hart provides another option at scrum-half. As ever, Munster will use their ever-impressive pack to provide a solid platform, however the loss of Donnacha Ryan to Racing 92 will be felt. Chris Cloete arrives from the Southern Kings, adding some bulk to the pack. Despite placing in the tougher conference, Munster should qualify for the Play-Offs.
Predicted Finish: First (Conference A) (semifinalists)
Ospreys: The Ospreys will be determined to make the playoffs and have shown their intent with numerous key signings. James Hook returns after 6 years away from the Ospreys and Cory Allen makes the move from Cardiff. They have however lost young talent such as Sam Underhill. Their most influential player may well be Alun Wyn Jones this season, with his experience necessary especially in guiding a young squad as captain. Winger Keelan Giles will be hoping to continue his try scoring form from 2016-17, as he touched down 14 times. Ospreys look considerable stronger in the pack, with the addition of experienced prop Brian Mujati.
Predicted Finish: Third (Conference A) (Play-Offs)
Scarlets: Scarlets finally showed their winning ability when it mattered in the 2016-17 season, as they dismantled Munster 46-22 in Dublin in the final. They will look to repeat this feat once again and their newest signing suggests that they could well do so. Despite losing the prolific Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny signs on, providing an excellent kicking option as well as an experienced head. Scarlets retain the services of the likes of Tadhg Beirne who played a big role in helping them secure the Pro12 crown and Jonathan Davies is in the form of his life. The Scarlets may well retain the league title, however they still do not have the depth of squad that the likes of Leinster have and the loss of players such as Daniel Van Der Merwe will not help their cause.
Predicted Finish: Second (Conference B) (Pro14 Finalists)
Southern Kings: The second of the two new South African sides have recruited four players from fellow SA side The Sharks. Key players during their recent Super Rugby season, including Chris Cloete have moved to other Pro14 clubs, with winger Makazole Mapimpi transferring to The Cheetahs. The Kings actually outperformed their SA counterparts in the South African conference, however their form has often been quite poor against the stronger Super Rugby sides. Many would see them as capable of producing some scalps in their conference, however they will do well to finish in the Top 5 in their conference.
Predicted Finish: Fifth (Conference B)
Ulster: Often seen as the near-misses of the league, Ulster will be hoping to make a return to the semifinals, having finished fifth last season. They will first have to finish top three in their conference if they wish to make the playoffs and the signing of Christian Lealiifano could help them do that. The departure of Ruan Pienaar brings John Cooney to Ravenhill and a change in management comes as Jono Gibbes becomes head coach and Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon become his assistants. Ulster must improve their pack's performance if they wish to win any silverware and this will be helped through the return of Marcell Coetzee from injury and new signing Jean Deysel.
Predicted Finish: Third (Conference B) (Play-Offs)
Zebre: The Italian side's record in the League makes for dim reading, having filled the bottom position for 4 of their 5 seasons playing in the competition. They have signed young Irish talent, Ciaran Gaffney from Connacht in hope of providing some spark to a depleted outfit. A new coach in former Connacht player, Michael Bradley will give the Parma-based team new motivation for the season and it is hoped that the confidence of young fly-half, Carlo Canna will continue to grow as he looks set to build on his 22 Italian caps in the Autumn. Although Zebre are unlikely to reach the Play-Offs, they will of course relish the Italian derby games against Treviso, hoping to overturn their loss to them at the end of last season.
Predicted Finish: Seventh (Conference A)