PREVIEW: Pro14, Round One
MOMENTOUS OCCASION: A truly historic chapter will be written this weekend, when the first-ever Pro14 season kicks off after the addition of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings from South Africa.
As this world class championship continues to raise the bar, the introduction of the Cheetahs and the Kings makes the Pro14 a global tournament.
Round One also marks the first games played under the new conference format - which sees each team play home and away against teams in their own conference and then home OR away against the other Conference before two more rounds that ensure all derby games are played.
The Cheetahs will be the first team from South Africa to go up against 'northern' opposition when they travel to Kingspan Stadium on Friday, to face Ulster.
The Kings face a daunting trip to Parc Y Scarlets where the men from Llanelli will play their first Championship game since winning the title in Dublin last May.
Kings coach Deon Davids, who lost an entire team of senior players from his Super squad, admitted that starting against the defending champions will be a big ask.
He spoke of "seeing the big picture" and how they can grow as a team.
"Eventually we will get there and feature a good side," Davids said.
"Going forward, everyone must understand that - if we want to grow the game in South Africa - we need to ensure the teams that play in the different tournaments must be able to compete.
"We must give exposure to players in those competitions."
There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the first fixtures of the season with Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh meeting at the Cardiff Arms Park.
It will mark the Pro14 debut of Richard Cockerill as Edinburgh coach, but each team will believe that they have ground to make up for and make a challenge to finish in the Top Three of their respective conferences.
Former Leicester boss Cockerill will have high hopes for the Scots, but Blues got off to a fast start last season and Danny Wilson will be aiming for more of the same this year.
That game is one of three inter-conference fixtures with Ulster hosting Cheetahs and Munster welcoming Benetton to Cork's Irish Independent Park. Benetton have recruited smartly during the off-season and much will be expected from coach Kieran Crowley in his second year with the Italian team.
Elsewhere, Ospreys welcome Zebre Club to Swansea in a repeat of last season's opening round fixture.
Zebre's new coach Michael Bradley will be looking to his side to leave Wales with more than they had to show for last year as they Parma-based outfit kick off their first campaign under the guidance of the Italian Federation.
Not far from Liberty Stadium, Scarlets will play their first match as defending Champions against the Kings while in Newport the Bernard Jackman era begins at Dragons where they will welcome their head coach's old team Leinster. Meanwhile, in Galway the 2015 Champions will take on the 2016 title winners when Kieran Keane and Dave Rennie (former Super coaches from the Chiefs) go head-to-head as they take charge of their new teams for the first time.
Pick of the round: Ulster v Cheetahs
A packed house is expected at Kingspan Stadium where Les Kiss and his Ulster side will be the first team from the Northern Hemisphere to take on South African opposition. The hosts are no strangers to welcoming South Africans with players like Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Franco van der Merwe all becoming folk heroes at Ulster.
The game will also mark the arrival of Australian international Christian Lealiifano who has signed on a short-term deal to provide cover at flyhalf. For the visitors, head coach Rory Duncan has assembled a strong squad for the Cheetahs' trip to Ireland which also sees them travel to Limerick to face Munster in Round Two. The men from Bloemfontein are buoyed by their entry into the Pro14 and hope to transfer that energy into their opening performances.
CONFERENCE A: Cardiff Blues, Cheetahs, Connacht, Glasgow Warriors, Munster, Ospreys, Zebre.
CONFERENCE B: Benetton, Dragons, Edinburgh, Southern Kings, Leinster, Scarlets, Ulster.
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We look at all the Round One action!
Friday, September 1
CARDIFF BLUES v EDINBURGH
(Cardiff Arms Park - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Cardiff Blues finished in seventh place in the Pro12 last season and were unbeaten in the last four rounds.
Blues only defeat in their last five encounters against Scottish opponents was 15-29 to Glasgow Warriors in round 13 last season, whilst the last Scottish side to have won at the Arms Park was also the Warriors, in November 2015.
Blues only defeat in round 1 since 2009 came when they visited Glasgow in 2013.
Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill takes charge of his first Pro14 encounter after recent spells as head coach in the English Premiership and France's Top-14.
Edinburgh concluded the 2016/17 campaign with a pair of victories over Dragons and Glasgow - with the Dragons win being their first over a Welsh Region for six matches.
The Welshmen have won their last five fixtures against Edinburgh whilst their only reversal in their last nine encounters came at Murrayfield in November 2014.
Blues beat Edinburgh 34-16 at the Arms Park in Round One last year.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Matthew Morgan, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Aled Summerhill, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Damian Welch, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Matthew Rees (captain), 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhil, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Keiron Assiratti, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Sion Bennett, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 Steve Shingler, 23 Tom James.
Edinburgh: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Chris Dean, 12 Junior Rasolea, 11 Jason Harries, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Magnus Bradbury (captain), 7 John Hardie, 6 Jamie Ritchie, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Darryl Marfo.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Nathan Fowles, 22 Jason Tovey, 23 Glenn Bryce.
Referee: George Clancy
Assistant referees: Nigel Correll (Ireland), Adam Jones (Wales)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
MUNSTER v BENETTON
(Irish Independent Park, Cork - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Munster topped the Pro12 table last season, but were beaten in the Final in Dublin by Scarlets.
Munster have lost just once on the opening weekend since 2009, and that by a single point to Edinburgh in Limerick in 2014.
Munster's only defeat in their last 15 home games in all competitions was 21-30 to Scarlets in Limerick in February whilst the Munstermen have lost just twice in Cork since 2013, against Ospreys and Cardiff Blues in 2016.
Benetton finished in 10th spot last season with wins in three of the last five rounds.
Benetton beat Zebre 19-3 in Parma in round 22 - their first away win in the Championship since a visit to the same venue in December 2014.
The Italians have not been victorious in their Round One fixture since beating Ospreys in Treviso in 2012.
Munster have won their last nine fixtures against Benetton in all tournaments with the Italians most recent victory being 29-19 in Treviso in September 2013.
Munster: 15 Andrew Conway, 14 Darren Sweetnam,13 Chris Farrell, 12 Jaco Taute, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Tyler Bleyendaal (captain), 9 Duncan Williams, 8 Jack O'Donoghue, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Sean O'Connor, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Liam O'Connor.
Replacements: 16 Mike Sherry, 17 Brian Scott, 18 Ciaran Parker, 19 Fineen Wycherley, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 James Hart, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Dan Goggin.
Treviso: 15 Ian McKinley, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Tommaso Allan, 11 Edoardo Gori, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Sebastian Negri, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Lazzaroni, 4 Dean Budd (captain), 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Federico Zani.
Replacements: 16 Engjel Makelara, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Abraham Steyn, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Alberto Sgarbi, 23 Andrea Buondonno.
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)
Assistant referees: Craig Evans (Wales) Gary Conway (Ireland)
TMO: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
ULSTER v CHEETAHS
(Kingspan Stadium, Belfast - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
Ulster finished last season in fifth place, their victory at home to Leinster in round 22 not being enough to make it through to the semifinals.
The Ulstermen have lost just once at Kingspan Stadium in the Pro12 since February 2016, and that by a single point to Munster in Round Seven last season.
Ulster have lost just once on the opening weekend of the PRO12 since 2009 when they visited Dragons in 2013.
Cheetahs will become the first Southern Hemisphere side ever to take part in the Championship.
Cheetahs recently participated in the Super Rugby competition, winning two of their last three matches, against the Sunwolves in Tokyo and fellow Pro14 newcomers, Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
They have not won three successive away games since 2013.
The two teams have never met before.
Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Tommy Bowe, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Chris Henry (captain), 6 Jean Deysel, 5 Alan O’Connor, 4 Robbie Diack, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Kyle McCall.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Matthew Rea, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Peter Nelson, 23 Darren Cave.
Cheetahs: 15 Sergeal Petersen, 14 Rosko Specman, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Ali Mgijima, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Clayton Blommetjies, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan (captain), 7 Henco Venter, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Jacques du Toit, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Gerhard Olivier, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Cecil Afrika, 23 Ryno Benjamin.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Simon Rees (Wales), Leo Colgan (Ireland)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Saturday, September 2
OSPREYS v ZEBRE
(Liberty Stadium, Swansea - Kick-off: 14.30; 13.30 GMT)
Quinton Immelman becomes only the second South African referee to take charge of a Championship encounter - the other being Jonathan Kaplan with three games between 2005-2008.
Ospreys finished in fourth place in the table last season despite gaining only one victory in the last five rounds : 24-10 at home to Ulster in round 21.
The Welshmen lost their most recent match against an Italian opponent, 5-13 in Treviso in March, to end a run of eleven successive Championship wins against teams from Italy.
Michael Bradley takes charge of his third PRO side having previously been at the helm at Connacht from 2003-2010 and Edinburgh from 2011-2013.
Zebre's two most recent victories in Pro14 play both came in Parma in April, against Connacht and Dragons.
Zebre's only away victory in the Championship last season was 19-14 against Edinburgh at Murrayfield on 28 October.
Zebre's only previous victory over Ospreys was 30-27 in Parma in May 2014, whilst their solitary victory in Wales came on a trip to Cardiff in September 2013.
Ospreys beat Zebre 59-5 at Liberty Stadium exactly 12 months ago in the opening round in 2016/17.
Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Keelan Giles, 13 Ben John, 12 Cory Allen, 11 Jeff Hassler, 10 James Hook, 9 Tom Habberfield (captain), 8 Dan Baker, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Olly Cracknell, 5 Rory Thornton, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Sam Parry, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Lloyd Ashley, 20 James King, 21 Reuben Morgan-Williams, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Kieron Fonotia.
Zebre: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Mattia Bellini, 12 Tommaso Castello (captain), 11 Gabriele Di Giulio, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Giovanni Licata, 7 Renato Giammarioli, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 George Biagi, 4 David Sisi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Oliviero Fabiani, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Roberto Tenga, 19 Leonard Krumov, 20 Jacopo Sarto, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Boni, 23 Ciaran Gaffney.
Referee: Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Robert Price (Wales)
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS v LEINSTER
(Rodney Parade, Newport - Kick-off: 15.15; 14.15 GMT)
Bernard Jackman takes charge of his first Pro14 encounter having played exactly 100 games in the tournament for Connacht and Leinster between 2003 and 2010.
The Welshmen have not been victorious in the Championship since beating Benetton on 6 January.
Dragons have not won on the opening weekend since they beat Ulster at Rodney Parade in 2013.
Dragons won only one game against an Irish Province last season - at home to Connacht in Round Eight.
Leinster finished off the 2016/17 Pro12 campaign with a defeat at Ulster in round 22 and a loss to eventual champions, Scarlets, at the RDS in the semifinals.
The Leinstermen have won on four of their last five visits to Wales, only succumbing to Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets in November.
Leinster have only started a Championship campaign with a victory twice in the last nine years - in Llanelli in 2013 and at home to Benetton last year.
The last six meetings between the two sides have been evenly shared with three wins each, but Leinster did win at Rodney Parade in round 16 last season.
Newport Gwent Dragons: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Ashton Hewitt, 13 Tyler Morgan, 12 Jack Dixon, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Gavin Henson, 9 Charlie Davies, 8 Harri Keddie, 7 James Benjamin, 6 James Thomas, 5 Cory Hill (captain), 4 Matthew Screech, 3 Leon Brown, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Buckley, 17 Luke Garrett, 18 Lloyd Fairbrother, 19 Rynard Landman, 20 Max Williams, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Angus O'Brien, 23 Jared Rosser.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Adam Byrne, 13 Rory O'Loughlin, 12 Isa Nacewa (captain), 11 Jordan Larmour, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Max Deegan, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Dan Leavy, 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 James Ryan, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Cathal Marsh, 23 Barry Daly.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Lloyd Linton (Scotland), Stuart Kibble (Wales)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
SCARLETS v SOUTHERN KINGS
(Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli - Kick-off: 17.30; 16.30 GMT)
Scarlets, the reigning Pro12 Champions, concluded last season with seven straight victories including the final against Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
The Welshmen have not lost at Parc y Scarlets in the Championship since the opening round last season when Munster were the visitors.
Southern Kings make their debut in the Championship and play only the second competition game in their history in the Northern Hemisphere, the other was only just north of the equator in Singapore against Japanese Super franchise, the Sunwolves, winning 37-23 in March 2017.
Southern Kings ended their recent Super campaign with two victories in the last three rounds, both away from home, with identical scorelines: 31-30 against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and the Bulls in Pretoria.
The two sides have never met before.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Hadleigh Parkes, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay (captain), 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ryan Elias, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Emyr Phillips, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 David Bulbring, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Jonathan Evans, 22 Rhys Jones, 23 Paul Asquith.
Southern Kings: 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Sibusiso Sithole, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Rudi van Rooyen, 8 Andisa Ntsila, 7 Victor Sekekete, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Dries van Schalkwyk, 4 Jurie van Vuuren, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Michael Willemse (captain), 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Luvuyo Pupuma, 18 Etienne Swanepoel, 19 Bobby de Wee, 20 Siyabulela Mdaka, 21 Godlen Masimla, 22 Ntabeni Dukisa, 23 Jacques Nel.
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland), Wayne Davies (Wales)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
CONNACHT v GLASGOW WARRIORS
(Sportsground, Galway - Kick-off: 19.35; 18.35 GMT)
New Zealander Kieran Keane takes over the coaching mantle from Pat Lam at Connacht .
Connacht's only victory in the last six rounds last season was 22-19 in Edinburgh on April 7.
Connacht were defeated 5-41 at home to Glasgow Warriors in round 1 last year to end a run of three opening weekend victories.
New Zealander Dave Rennie takes over as head coach from Gregor Townsend after being in charge at the Chiefs in Super Rugby since 2012.
Glasgow Warriors finished in sixth place in the table last season but gained just one win in the last four rounds - against Zebre at Scotstoun on 14 April.
Warriors have not won away from home since beating Leicester Tigers 43-0 in the European Champions Cup at Welford Road in January, whilst their only victory over an Irish opponent since last September was at home to Connacht in March.
The Scotsmen have lost just once on the opening weekend since 2012 - at home to Scarlets in 2015.
Connacht have beaten Glasgow just twice in their last 13 encounters since 2011, and both of those were in successive matches in Galway in May 2016 in round 22 and the semifinal.
Connacht: 15 Darragh Leader, 14 Cian Kelleher, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Eoghan Masterson, 5 James Cannon, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Peter McCabe, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Sean O'Brien, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Conor McKeon, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Tom Farrell.
Glasgow Warriors: 15 Ruaridh Jackson, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Lee Jones, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Ali Price, 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Matt Smith, 6 Ryan Wilson (captain), 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 George Turner, 1 Jamie Bhatti.
Replacements: 16 James Malcolm, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Adam Nicol, 19 Greg Peterson, 20 Matt Fagerson, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Leonardo Sarto.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Dan Jones (Wales), Stuart Gaffikin (Ireland)
TMO: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)