Mathew Brown – The Rugby Channel Column
THE GUINNESS PRO14 KICKS OFF!
After a whole Summer of excited anticipation, the Guinness PRO14 is finally ready to get underway and The Rugby Channel will bring you three LIVE matches from the opening round.
If you haven’t already taken advantage of the ridiculously low-priced offer of a single dollar per week for an annual subscription, then immediately click here and get yourself sorted for what promises to be an outstanding weekend of action as teams from Ireland and Wales host squads from Italy, South Africa, and Scotland!
In case you missed it, the Guinness PRO14 has embarked on an ambitious expansion to create an historic northern/southern hemisphere competition by adding the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, both formerly of Super Rugby. In expanding to fourteen teams and splitting into two conferences, the PRO14 has also created an extra playoff round with the addition of quarterfinals which will give more sides the opportunity to truly compete to make the postseason.
At the same time, despite splitting into Conferences A and B the PRO14 will maintain all their important derby fixtures, and in the case of the Scottish, Italian, and South African teams, even add in a third ‘rubber’ match for season’s bragging rights.
The Rugby Channel will get you right into the thick of the campaign with three matches from Round 1, featuring last year’s surprise beaten finalists Munster, the team who defeated them to take the crown, Scarlets, against one of the new additions the Southern Kings, and a big matchup featuring the 2015/16 champs Connacht versus 2014/15 winners Glasgow!
Munster finished first on the log last year and looked all set to grab their first title since 2010/11 when they were stunned in the Dublin final by the underdog Scarlets. As a losing finalist and a perennial power, their only goal for 2017/18 has to be a return to the Championship match and a hoisting of the silverware.
In order to do that they are going to have to overcome some player losses and the midseason departure of the man who returned them to a position of defensive dominance, Rassie Erasmus.
The biggest hole will be left by lock Donnacha Ryan leaving for France. His engine room horsepower, general toughness, and lineout skills will be difficult to replace. Munster has signed South African Gerbrandt Grobler who will compete for a starting position as well as provide depth in the second row. In the backs, attacking threat Francis Saili has moved on to Harlequins and his ability to turn nothing into something with ball in hand will definitely leave a void in the Munster backline.
Erasmus and defense coach Jacques Nienaber will be leaving, probably at the end of the calendar year but perhaps earlier, to take up positions with South African Rugby. Erasmus’s systems will obviously stay in place for this year but the uncertainty surrounding his exit may prove problematic unless his replacement is willing to continue with the same or a similar program.
Opening at home against an opponent like Benetton is a scheduling bit of happiness for Munster as they can work out the kinks and probably get their season off to a bonus point start.
Benetton Treviso is a team that should be on the upswing in 2017/18. They finished tenth last year with five wins in coach Kieran Crowley’s first season in charge, managing to beat Edinburgh, Dragons, and Ospreys as well as topping Zebre twice. This year they’ll hope to add a road win or two to their triumph list but it is unlikely to come in Cork.
Benetton has benefitted from the turmoil surrounding compatriots Zebre (Italy’s national governing body has taken over the team and will be running it) by nabbing a few of their internationals. They have also signed former Highlanders flyhalf Marty Banks who will be an impact player for them. Banks is a true gamer, used to the rigors of Super Rugby and will add some attacking and kicking prowess to Treviso’s lineup.
Despite looking like a bit of a mismatch, early round fixtures like this tend to be closer than expected as both sides transition from the preseason into championship play.
The Scarlets started really slowly last September, eventually got things together to win seventeen matches and finish third, got past Leinster in the semifinal while down a man, then blasted Munster to earn their first title since 2003/4. The question is now, can they sustain their championship form or was it a momentary burst of excellence? I tend to think it will be the former as they will still have most of the young talent that propelled them to ultimate victory at the Aviva Stadium in May.
One big loss will be fullback Liam Williams who has moved to Saracens after an outstanding year performing for Scarlets, Wales, and the Lions. His dangerman status at the back will be sorely missed but the club wasted no time in signing Welsh star Leigh Halfpenny to take his place. And while Halfpenny is certainly not the ball in hand threat that Williams is, he is an upgrade in both the defensive and kicking departments, as well as having a very good, veteran rugby brain.
As the defending champions, Scarlets will also have a target on their backs wherever they go, week in and week out, but that will be countered by a huge boost in overall confidence as their formerly green youngsters are now battle hardened with big match experience.
The Southern Kings initially suffered from the uncertainty surrounding their future as they lost a significant number of players who understandably needed to secure employment elsewhere in South Africa and abroad. The talent drain stopped once the new Guinness PRO14 was announced but the team that lines up at Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday will be somewhat different than the one that finished eleventh in Super Rugby.
This is the match that I’m most looking forward to this weekend. Going up against the current titleholders on the road is definitely a tough assignment for the Southern Kings in their PRO14 debut but how they play on Saturday will, either fairly or unfairly, set the tone for how fans look at the expansion of the competition. Should be a good one!
Connacht realized an enormous dream in 2015/16 by winning their first ever major title then slipped all the way down to eighth last year in a nightmare season that featured an incredibly long injury list and every bad break imaginable. Coach Pat Lam is gone now, replaced by Kieran Keane who was previously an assistant with the Chiefs in New Zealand and a former All Black from Christchurch.
On the pitch they’ll be bolstered by their biggest off season signing, Jarrad Butler, an experienced backrower from the Brumbies who will likely play mostly on the blindside flank.
Connacht has one of the toughest schedules in the comp, having to face the other three Irish sides twice along with Glasgow and Ospreys but getting only one crack at the lesser Scottish and Welsh sides, Edinburgh and Dragons.
Glasgow also has a new coach as Gregor Townsend has moved on to lead Scotland. Dave Rennie has a distinguished record as the head coach of the Chiefs and will certainly be welcomed in Glasgow by players and fans alike. And he’ll have plenty of talent to work with, as even though the Warriors have lost a number of players they’ve also been extremely active in new signings.
Top of that list is dynamic winger Lelia Masaga from the Chiefs who will provide more flair and danger out wide for the Warriors. Also expected to do some damage up front is prop Oli Kebble from the Stormers.
Glasgow is loaded with mostly Scottish internationals and right now that’s a very good thing as the national team had its best Six Nations effort in many years in 2017. Glasgow finished sixth last year, their first time not making the playoffs since 2010/11. Their main problem was inconsistency in both attack and defense, something that Rennie will definitely work to shore up this season.
Can’t wait to watch this one!
If you don’t have time to watch all sixty-two wonderful matches from the RugbyTown Sevens, give TRC Report #66 a look. It has complete highlights of all the scoring from the Shield, Bowl, Plate, and Cup Finals, plus the Third Place match!
In the first month of the Guinness PRO14 The Rugby Channel will bring you nine LIVE matches from the expanded competition, which is more than enough reason to Subscribe Now!
Plus you’ll get Women’s Premier League coverage from Infinity Park, and the Collegiate All-Americans clashing with Oxford University in Philadelphia on September 16, even more reason to Subscribe Now!