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Guinness PRO14: Predictions and all you need to know as Ulster prepare to begin season against Ospreys

 

Provincial rivals: Jarrad Butler (Connacht), Tyler Bleyendaal (Munster), Scott Fardy (Leinster) and Rob Herring (Ulster) at the launch of the Guinness PRO14 Championship
Provincial rivals: Jarrad Butler (Connacht), Tyler Bleyendaal (Munster), Scott Fardy (Leinster) and Rob Herring (Ulster) at the launch of the Guinness PRO14 Championship

By Michael Sadlier

You had to hand it to the PRO14 for putting on a season launch with all attention already being in a Far Easterly direction on a certain global tournament in Japan.

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In fairness, the World Cup was still two days away from kicking off which meant that last week's Irish launch, in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium, was an understandable shot at product promotion.

But even that largely became a convenient vehicle for providing soundbites regarding how various nations might fare in the Land of the Rising Sun rather than the perils of visiting the RDS or Scotstoun.

Indeed, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland, naturally, had his brains picked regarding his time as Scotland assistant coach.

And so it went on with Munster's South African coach Johann van Graan being asked to talk about the Springboks, while Leinster's Leo Cullen was grilled about how Devin Toner was coping with his omission from the Irish squad.

Not exactly a great vehicle for the impending PRO14 - five rounds of games are played during the course of the World Cup - and, actually, a more lavish launch, not just a regional one, is in the offing for later in the season in Cardiff, host city of the league's final next June.

Nevertheless, the PRO14 is now upon us and will largely remain ticking along until next summer by which stage the organisers will have doubtless compiled yet more streams of data telling us all the competition's great significance.

It is, of course, the bread and butter of the pro game, not as stirring as the Champions Cup, or the Six Nations, but an essential competition giving the season its continuity and longevity.

With the organisers claiming that the title's destination is by no means a foregone conclusion - there have indeed been four different winners in the last five seasons - you get the sense that if Leinster make off with a hat-trick of successes it will hardy help dispel the notion that Cullen's squad are too strong and that the trophy has almost become a consolation prize for them with the desire to be top dogs in Europe again burning so intensely.

In fairness, Glasgow Warriors have closed the gap, and were narrowly beaten by the southern province in last May's final at Glasgow's Celtic Park, but the league badly needs the chasing group of potential challengers to come through.

Benetton Treviso and Connacht were the surprise packages of last season, while the Scarlets - champions in 2017 - and Cheetahs fell away. And then there is Ulster.

With precious little expectation when they arrived at the beginning of last season, McFarland got them to a semi-final where they were, admittedly, swamped by Glasgow.

But, now, they look in better shape - injuries aside - and with Sam Carter, Matt Faddes and Jack McGrath on board there is a sense that Ulster might just have a very decent PRO14 season.

The World Cup comes into view again when the elephant in the room gets mentioned.

Namely that Ulster, and other contenders for high finishes such as Connacht and the Cheetahs, have minimal disruption in terms of players over in Japan and are therefore in a good starting place.

Then there is the theory that Connacht's title, in 2016, came off the back of a season that began with, you guessed it, the demands of a World Cup.

This could also be no bad thing for McFarland in, again theoretically, getting a good start as they have switched Conference - there has been some shuffling with six teams moving to revamp things for the next two seasons - and now find themselves in A, alongside Leinster and Glasgow which may mean that third, and a play-off, is Ulster's minimum target.

Not that McFarland was having any of this thrown his way.

"That (idea that third is, at worst, Ulster's likely finishing place) does a disservice to other teams," he said. "We have to play last year's beaten finalists (Glasgow) twice now.

"They (Leinster and Glasgow) are the two best sides by a distance and it will be difficult.

"But then you have the Ospreys who were excellent at the end of last season and the Cheetahs have just won the Currie Cup and are playing some great rugby.

"The bottom line is, if you're going to finish first, second or third in the Conference, and get into the play-offs, then you've got to be winning and winning away from home.

"We're going to be focused on a good start but it's a long season and all sorts of things can happen whether it's injuries or players being away either in or after the World Cup.

"The key objective for us is to perform consistently over the season to put us in a position where we can challenge for championships at the end of the year."

A lot may still hinge on good wins over, first up, the Ospreys and then after two games in South Africa, doing the same when hosting the Blues and Zebre before the trip to Munster which comes a week after the World Cup final.

But, as McFarland pointed out, it's a long season during which much can happen.

And there are likely to be robust challenges in Conference A over the course of the campaign, from Allen Clarke's Ospreys and the Cheetahs who now have Ruan Pienaar on board.

If Ulster can keep them at bay then they can launch a bid to try and unseat Leinster and Glasgow from their expected top two slots and potentially bank a home semi-final, as was the case last time when they defeated Connacht.

As for Conference B, on paper it looks like Munster's to win and, after that, it could be very competitive with Benetton and Connacht, who both made the play-offs last season, battling hard against the Scarlets and Edinburgh.

The competition really needs Kieran Crowley's Benetton side to get their internationals back and intact, from both the World Cup and Six Nations, to improve on what was seen at Thomond Park last May when they took Munster to the wire.

The sight of Leinster and Glasgow carving it all up again just won't look good for the product. And Ulster? Matching, or bettering, last time is going to be very tricky.

The lengthy trek towards booking a place for Cardiff, come June, begins now.

Michael Sadlier runs his eye over all teams for an exciting new Guinness Pro 14 season

Benetton Treviso

Coach: Kieran Crowley

Captain: Dean Budd

Ground: Stadio Monigo

Capacity: 6,700

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Ian Keatley looks an interesting signing as the former Munster player arrives from London Irish.

Big loss: Veteran scrum-half Edoardo Gori, who goes to

Colomiers in France.

Last season: 3rd Conference B and beaten in the play-offs for the semi-finals.

Overview: Last season was historic for the Italian region as they made the play-offs and then put it up to Munster before narrowly losing out in Limerick. They could do it again but that may hinge on just how they cope with so many away during the World Cup.

Verdict: 4th Conference B

Edinburgh

Coach: Richard Cockerill

Captain: Stuart McInally

Ground: Murrayfield

Capacity: 67,144

Conference: B

Key arrivals: The arrival of the ‘sledgehammer’ Eroni Sau and the Brumbies’ Murray Douglas on a short-term deal could be just what is needed until the World Cup is done.

Big loss: Alan Dell has left for London Irish but very concerning is the damage Hamish Watson has shipped at the World Cup.

Last season: 5th Conference B

Overview: There is absolutely no doubt that the Scottish capital’s underachieving club — for so long overshadowed by Glasgow Warriors — are clearly making moves in a more positive direction under the combative Cockerill, but this could be another one of those ‘nearly’ seasons as work is poised to begin on their new ‘mini Murrayfield’ home.

Verdict: 5th Conference B

Ospreys

Coach: Allen Clarke

Captain: Justin Tipuric 

Ground: Liberty Stadium

Capacity: 21,088

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Getting Gareth Anscombe was quite the coup for Clarke as the Wales out-half can bring a whole new attacking dimension to the Ospreys’ game.

Big loss: It’s Anscombe again as he looks to be out for the season after shipping a serious knee injury playing for Wales.

Last season: 4th Conference A

Overview: It remains one of those imponderables that the Ospreys haven’t really set the league alight since the heady days of Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams. Clarke is still facing a hard task in trying to change this and needs to get into play-off territory. Top three is doable but might still be beyond them.

Verdict: 5th Conference A

Cardiff Blues

Coach: John Mulvihill 

Captain: Ellis Jenkins

Ground: Cardiff Arms Park

Capacity: 12,000

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Hallam Amos and Jason Tovey from Dragons look to be good signings, as is Will Boyde from Scarlets.

Big loss: Out-half Gareth Anscombe, who has decamped to the Ospreys but is now injured after playing for Wales and out for most of the season anyway.

Last season: 5th Conference A

Overview: A switch in Conference is hardly likely to lead to substantial improvement for the Welsh capital’s side, who have consistently struggled to perform despite, on paper, having players who ought to make them potential contenders for decent finishes.

Verdict: 6th Conference B

Glasgow Warriors

Coach: Dave Rennie

Captain: Ryan Wilson

Ground: Scotstoun

Capacity: 9,708

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Though there have been rumours of big signings, this season’s arrivals at Scotstoun have been rather low key with Jale Vakaioloma from Brisbane and Aki Seiuli from Otago racking up.

Big loss: This is an easy one. Stuart Hogg’s dazzling skills are now heading south with the Scotland full-back hooking up with Exeter.

Last season: 1st Conference A and beaten finalists

Overview: Unless the landscape has radically altered — and losing Stuart Hogg’s X-factor won’t help — the Warriors should, despite World Cup disruption, be there or thereabouts when it comes to the business end of the campaign. Having Leinster in the same conference will keep them more than honest.

Verdict: 2nd Conference A

Scarlets

Coach: Brad Mooar

Captain: Ken Owens

Ground: Parc y scarlets

Capacity: 14,870

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Lock Sam Lousi looks a decent signing from the Hurricanes and will arrive after Tonga exit the World Cup. Fiji lock Tevita Ratuva should also be there soon enough.

Big loss: It’s not so much player wise but rather how they will fare without Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones who go to Wales.

Last season: 4th Conference B

Overview: They were a real puzzle last season which may have been down to Pivac’s long goodbye after being unveiled as Warren Gatland’s successor. The 2017 champions surely can’t be as poor again, can they? We’ll take a punt and say they’ll find a way — post-World Cup of course — to challenge.

Verdict: 2nd Conference B

Connacht

Coach: Andy Friend

Captain: Jarrad Butler

Ground: Galway Sportsground

Capacity: 8,129

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Ex-Ulster prop Paddy McCallister pitches up in Galway from his time in Gloucester but the most interesting newbie is Australia Sevens player John Porch.

Big loss: Cian Kelleher has returned to Leinster, while ex-Ulster prop Conor Carey has left for Worcester.

Last season: 3rd Conference  A and  beaten in play-offs for semi-finals.

Overview: The westerners will fancy another good run in the PRO14, which last time saw them lose a play-off to Ulster, and will have to prioritise it as battling on two fronts is probably too big an ask.

Verdict: 3rd Conference B

Leinster

Coach: Leo Cullen 

Captain: Johnny Sexton

Ground: RDS

Capacity: 16,500

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Cian Kelleher is back from Connacht but, on the whole, the Leinster conveyor belt has led to a series of in-house promotions and contract extensions.

Big loss: Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath have gone but are hardly going to be missed. Dan Leavy, out for the season, will be.

Last season: 1st Conference B and champions

Overview: The Cullen/Stuart Lancaster coaching combo shows no sign of letting up the funnelling of largely home-grown talent into a side of star quality. If not distracted by the World Cup and chasing Saracens’ Euro crown this could be a hat-trick of PRO14s.

Verdict: 1st Conference A and likely champions

Southern Kings

Coach: Robbie Kempson (interim)

Captain: TBC

Ground: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium

Capacity: 46,000

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Out-half Demetri Catrakillis returns to the Kings from Harlequins while much travelled lock Jerry Sexton, brother of Johnny, arrives from Jersey.

Big loss: A fair number of players have moved on and the most notable loss is hooker Mike Willemse, who has joined Edinburgh.

Last season: 7th Conference B

Overview: The Kings only won two games last season and though no side can completely write them off — Yaw Penxe remains a dangerous strike runner if given space and time — there seems to be hardly any prospect of their fortunes changing. Not a great looking gig for ex-Ulster prop Kempson.

Verdict: 7th Conference B

Ulster

Coach: Dan McFarland

Captain: Iain Henderson

Ground: Kingspan Stadium

Capacity: 18,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Seem to have signed well with lock Sam Carter from the Brumbies and utility back Matt Faddes, via Otago, while Ireland and Lions prop Jack McGrath brings power to the scrum.

Big loss: Not a lot really. Rory Best will not return after the World Cup but Ulster will cope without him.

Last season: 2nd Conference B and losing semi-finalists.

Overview: Season two of the McFarland project could well be interesting. Ulster showed signs of revival in the last campaign and look settled with little disruption involving international call-ups. They may find the going tough enough in the same group as Leinster and Glasgow.

Verdict: 3rd Conference A

Dragons

Coach: Dean Ryan

Captain: Cory Hill

Ground: Rodney Parade

Capacity: 8,700

Conference: A

Key arrivals: The traditionally struggling Welsh region will be pinning much on getting hold of centre Tom Griffiths from Saracens and on the hope that Dean Ryan can lift things in Newport.

Big loss: Hallam Amos and Jason Tovey have upped sticks for Cardiff, which is a huge double blow.

Last season: 6th Conference B

Overview: Nothing much usually changes in that they struggle to do much more than win some games at home before finding themselves in close proximity to crisis talk over the future of the Welsh regions. A new conference, a new coach, but same old outcome.

Verdict: 6th Conference A

Munster

Coach: Johann van Graan

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Ground: Thomond Park

Capacity: 25,600

Conference: B

Key arrivals: The most attention-grabbing move has been hiring Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree on the coaching ticket. Jed Holloway joins on a short-term deal from the Waratahs.

Big loss: The squad is much the same, though coping during the World Cup will be tricky.

Last season: 2nd Conference A and beaten semi-finalists

Overview: This is a crucial season for Johann van Graan and much will be expected from his new coaching team brought in off the back of local men Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery leaving the province. A lot needs to be done to get Munster back in closer range to be viable title winners again.

Verdict: 1st Conference B

Toyota Cheetahs

Coach: Hawies Fourie 

Captain: Oupa Mohoje

Ground: Free State Stadium

Capacity: 46,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: It’s hard to see a way past a certain Ruan Pienaar, who has returned home from Montpellier. He could make a huge difference.

Big loss: Exciting centre Nico Lee has packed his bags and headed to France where he has joined Brive, while lock Louis Conradie is with Otago.

Last season: 6th Conference A

Overview: The South Africans go into the season with a new coach who comes in to take charge after the Bloemfontein-based side lifted the Currie Cup with Pienaar already on board. It could bode well for a better campaign than last time when they managed only eight wins.

Verdict: 4th Conference A

Zebre

Coach: Michael Bradley

Captain: Tomasso Castello

Ground: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Capacity: 5,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: The Italian club may have got themselves a real gem in signing former Queensland Reds back three player Junior Laloifi from Manwatu. Ex-Leinster lock  Ian Nagle, who was on loan with Ulster, has also joined.

Big loss: Full-back Matteo Minozzi has hooked up with Wasps.

Last season: 7th Conference A

Overview: It’s hard to see where they are going and, last season, Zebre managed to amass just 19 points from their 21 games, the lowest of any side. It’s a grim picture as they ended up horribly adrift at the foot of Conference A. Few genuinely believe that they possess what is needed to change things.

Verdict: 7th Conference A

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