Belfast Telegraph

A guide to the Pro14 teams and how they might fare

By Jonathan Bradley

Ahead of the historic first season of the newly-expanded Guinness Pro14, Jonathan Bradley takes a look at the runners and riders and tells us how he reckons they will finish.

Benetton Treviso

Coach: Kieran Crowley

Captain: Dean Budd

Ground: Stadio di Monigo

Capacity: 6,700

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Marty Banks (Highlanders), Whetu Douglas (Crusaders), Irne Herbst (Kings), Nasi Manu (Edinburgh)

Big loss: Luke McLean

Last season: 10th

Overview: Treviso managed only a couple more points in the first season of former Canada coach Kieran Crowley’s reign but it was good for a two-place improvement in the final standings as well as winning back their spot in the Champions Cup. The addition of Marty Banks, a cult figure at the Highlanders, is a really interesting one and, with him at 10, and no Lions fatigue to worry themselves with, they could leave an opponent or two red-faced early on.

Verdict: Bottom of the conference.

Cardiff Blues

Coach: Danny Wilson

Captain: Gethin Jenkins

Ground: Cardiff Arms Park

Capacity: 12,125

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Sion Bennett (Northampton), Jack Roberts (Leicester), Damian Welch (Exeter)

Big loss: Jarrad Hoeata

Last season: 7th

Overview: After a tumultuous number of seasons, there is a bit of stability in the Welsh capital these days with Danny Wilson about to embark on his third year in charge. The side were hardly prolific last year but do have danger-men in Gareth Anscombe, Alex Cuthbert and Willis Halaholo. When Sam Warburton is available, he leads a back-row unit that is blessed with real depth but they are a little light up top.

Verdict: Should battle with Connacht for Champions Cup spot.

Connacht

Coach: Kieran Keane

Captain: John Muldoon

Ground: Galway Sportsground

Capacity: 8,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Jarrad Butler (Brumbies), Peter McCabe (Munster), James Mitchell (Sale), Gavin Thornbury (Wanganui)

Big loss: John Cooney

Last season: 8th

Overview: Back down to earth with something of a bump last season after the fairytale of 2016. Players admitted the mid-season announcement of Pat Lam’s departure was unsettling but Kieran Keane arrives with a strong reputation. Starting the season with Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun injured is a blow but will be interesting to watch how they go.

Verdict: Play-offs might be beyond them this season but will target a place in the Champions Cup.

Dragons

Coach: Bernard Jackman

Captain: Cory Hill

Ground: Rodney Parade

Capacity: 8,500

Conference: B

Key arrivals:  Liam Belcher (Cardiff Blues) Gerard Ellis (London Irish), Gavin Henson (Bristol), Zane Kirchner (Leinster)

Big loss: T Rhys Thomas

Last season: 11th

Overview: Had a miserable season last time around, finishing above only Zebre in the table. Former Leinster man Bernard Jackman has been brought in as coach, while former Springbok Zane Kirchner and Wales international Gavin Henson, will at least raise the profile of the region. Plenty of work to do, but would be a welcome sight if they can claim a scalp or two.

Verdict: If the Dragons can see tangible improvements on the pitch, it’ll be considered a success.

Edinburgh

Coach: Richard Cockerill

Captain: Magnus Bradbury

Ground: Myreside

Capacity: 5,500

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Mark Bennett (Glasgow), Robbie Fruean, Darryl Marfo (both Bath), Jason Harries (London Scottish), Duhan van der Merwe (Montpellier)

Big loss: Nasi Manu

Last season: 9th

Overview: With Richard Cockerill coming in, things certainly won’t be boring in the Scottish capital. The man who for so long embodied Leicester will try and get the best out of what has been an underachieving squad who have threatened a breakthrough only to fall back in recent years. A couple of interesting additions should aid their improvement too.

Verdict: Will be targeting a Champions Cup spot, perhaps even better should Ulster falter.

Glasgow Warriors

Coach: Dave Rennie

Captain: Ryan Wilson

Ground: Scotstoun Stadium

Capacity: 6,600

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Callum Gibbins (Hurricanes), Siosiua Halanukonuka (Highlanders) Adam Hastings (Bath), Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins), Huw Jones, Oli Kebble, Brandon Thomson (all Stormers) Lelia Masaga (Chiefs) Samuela Vunisa (Saracens) Niko Matawalu (Exeter)

Big loss: Josh Strauss

Last season: 6th

Overview: In what was Gregor Townsend’s last year before taking the Scotland job, it was a relatively poor PRO12 campaign for the 2015 winners. All change now though with Dave Rennie coming in and bringing a host of new players from the southern hemisphere along with him.

Verdict: Have a real chance of banking a home semi-final and going on to win the competition.

Leinster

Coach: Leo Cullen

Captain: Isa Nacewa

Ground: RDS Arena

Capacity: 18,500

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Scott Fardy (Brumbies), James Lowe (Chiefs)

Big loss: Hayden Triggs

Last season: 2nd (beaten semi-finalists)

Overview: Strange times at the RDS where three seasons without silverware is tantamount to a drought in Dublin. The coaching dynamic between Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster is now entering its first full season, while they have added two exciting players from the southern hemisphere, with James Lowe especially a livewire. Having already lost some of their Ireland contingent to worrisome injuries, their fortunes likely depend on how their Test stars fare when not in the green jersey.

Verdict: Another semi-final with Scarlets seems most likely.

Munster

Coach: Rassie Erasmus

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Ground: Thomond Park

Capacity: 25,600

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Chris Cloete (Kings), Chris Farrell (Grenoble), JJ Hanrahan (Northampton), Gerbrandt Grobler, James Hart (both Racing 92)

Big loss: Donnacha Ryan

Last season: 1st (beaten finalists)

Overview: It’s been some summer in Limerick with the news that Rassie Erasmus, as well as defence coach Jacques Nienaber, is to be lured back to South Africa in the coming months. A bitter blow for a side who have otherwise recruited well this year. Speculation over Erasmus’ successor is sure to be the dominant talking point in the early months of the season.

Verdict: Will expect a semi-final spot at least should they get the right coach to come in.

Ospreys

Coach: Steve Tandy

Captain: Alun Wyn Jones

Ground: Liberty Stadium

Capacity: 21,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Cory Allen (Dragons), James Hook (Gloucester), Brian Mujati (Sale)

Big loss: Sam Underhill

Last season: 4th (beaten semi-finalists)

Overview: Always seem to be there or thereabouts in this competition and, for the time being at least, can still boast one of the league’s best half-back pairings in the shape of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb. The signing of James Hook provides cover at 10 when the former is on Welsh duty, although they have lost two handy operators from their pack with the exit of Tyler Ardron and Sam Underhill.

Verdict: Play-off spot will be considered the goal in a tough conference.

Scarlets

Coach: Wayne Pivac

Captain: Ken Owens (pictured)

Ground: Parc y Scarlets

Capacity: 14,870

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), Tom Prydie (Dragons), Paul Asquith (Western Sydney Rams), Tom Grabham (Ospreys)

Big loss: Liam Williams

Last season: 3rd (Champions)

Overview: Started last season by losing their first three games but by season’s end were clearly the best team in the competition, and were playing the best rugby to boot, as they beat Munster in the final. Have lost sparkplug Liam Williams but have managed to replace him, if not like for like then with similar quality in the shape of his Welsh team-mate Leigh Halfpenny. Figure to be among the front-runners for the title once again.

Verdict: Will, at the very least, fancy a return to the Aviva Stadium for another final.

Southern Kings

Coach: Deon Davids

Captain: Michael Willemse

Ground: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium

Capacity: 46,000

Conference: B

Key arrivals: Stephan Greef (Pumas), Cornal Hendricks (Free agent), Dries van Schalkwyk (Zebre)

Big loss: Chris Cloete

Last season: 11th (Super Rugby)

Overview: Coming off a wretched season in 2016, the Kings, knowing their Super Rugby days were numbered, gave a good account of themselves in 2017. The side won six games,  including beating the likes of the Waratahs, Sharks and Bulls. Few household names but are sure to be a physical outfit.

Verdict: Could be a number of tests between now and May, will likely battle with Treviso to avoid the basement position of conference B.

Toyota Cheetahs

Coach: Rory Duncan

Captain: Francois Venter

Ground: Free State Stadium

Capacity: 46,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Cecil Afrika, Chris Dry, Rosco Specman (SA Sevens), Rynier Bernardo (Scarlets), Malcolm Jaer, Makazole Mapimpi (both Kings)

Big loss: Raymond Rhule

Last season: 13th (Super Rugby)

Overview: The South African additions have certainly raised interest in the coming season but the Cheetahs will have to manage players very carefully in a campaign that, for them, began all the way back in February. Altitude should make them a formidable force at home but they are expected to confirm some key departures when the Currie Cup season ends, including Springbok Raymond Rhule.

Verdict: Probably won’t trouble the play-offs in this first season.

Ulster

Coach: Les Kiss

Captain: Rory Best

Ground: Kingspan Stadium

Capacity: 18,000

Conference: B

Key arrivals: John Cooney (Connacht), Jean Deysel (Munster), Christian Leali’ifano (Brumbies), Schalk van der Merwe (Kings)

Big loss: Ruan Pienaar

Last season: 5th

Overview: Starting with the Ruan Pienaar saga, and finishing outside the top four, it was a season to forget in its entirety for Ulster last time around. With a new coaching staff — Jono Gibbes, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon have all arrived to work with Les Kiss —and a relatively clean bill of health to start things off, there is at least hope that they can right the ship and get back into the end of season shake-up.

Verdict: Anything less than a top three finish in conference B would be considered a bit of a disaster.

Zebre

Coach: Michael Bradley

Captain: George Biagi

Ground: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Capacity: 5,000

Conference: A

Key arrivals: Dave Sisi (Bath)

Big loss: Edoardo Padovani

Last season: 12th

Overview: Former Connacht man Michael Bradley has taken on the seemingly thankless task of coaching the Parma outfit this season and has a heck of a job ahead. The worst side in the league last year, they appear to be in an even worse shape this time around. There was even a doubt at one stage this summer that they would even be able to compete this season, with reports of unpaid wages causing some to speculate that they be wound up. The money concerns did see some Italian players jump ship, while also hampering recruitment.

Verdict: Anything other than rock bottom would be seen as a big surprise.

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