Mathew Brown – The Rugby Channel Column
THE GUINNESS PRO14!
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After months of negotiations and zillions of unanswered questions, the Guinness PRO12 officially became the PRO14 on Tuesday with the highly-anticipated announcement detailing the addition of the Southern Kings and the Toyota Cheetahs from South Africa.
This is a great move by the competition and The Rugby Channel is thrilled to be able to bring our viewers what promises to be an incredibly entertaining season in 2017/18. The PRO14 has handled this expansion with just the right amounts of attention to tradition and innovation, particularly in setting up the new conference structure and the process of crowning a champion.
Here’s a look at what will be in place when the campaign kicks off in September.
The fourteen teams will be broken up into two conferences of seven teams each. Each conference (called A and B for now) will contain two Irish, two Welsh, one Scottish, one Italian, and one South African side. Teams will play everyone home and away within their conference (12 matches), and will face every member of the other conference at least once (7 matches).
Pretty standard up to this point but here’s where they’ve done some serious thinking to make all the scheduling work out. The Irish sides that are in different conferences will still play each other home and away, as will the Welsh regions, thus maintaining the all-important derby games (2 matches). The opposite Scottish, Italian, and South African squads will face their fellow countrymen two additional times for a total of three derby games per season!
Each team will play 21 matches in total (1 less than currently), followed by expanded playoffs at the end. The winner of each conference will get an automatic bye into the semifinals, to play the winner of the new quarterfinals.
This is one of the best aspects of the new system. Now even more teams will be fighting for six playoff spots in the last weeks of the competition making it even more entertaining and dramatic than usual. Teams that get hot at the right time will now have a better chance to make the postseason and go all the way, bringing more attention to a greater number of teams as the season winds down.
The smartest feature of the new conference structure is that placement in them is fluid and there will be realignment every year based upon where each team finishes.
For example, Conference A gets the Irish teams ranked 1 and 4, the Welsh regions ranked 2 and 3, the highest finishing Scottish and South African sides, and the second best Italian club.
Conference B will consist of the Irish 2 and 3, Welsh 1 and 4, the top Italian, and second placed Scottish and South African squads.
Changing it up at the beginning of each season will promote parity and competitiveness, give meaning to matches late in the season by teams out of playoff contention, and help develop new rivalries.
For 2017/18 the lineup for Conference A will be Ospreys, Cardiff, Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Zebre, and Cheetahs. Conference B will have Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Ulster, Edinburgh, Benetton, and the Southern Kings.
The fixture list for the first thirteen weeks of the season is set to be released next week and it will be interesting to see how the various teams fare when it comes to when they will be taking road trips to the Southern Hemisphere. This brings up one of the main issues being discussed by devotees of the PRO14, that of travel.
I don’t see it as being that much of a burden. Ireland and the UK are only one hour behind South Africa and even though it’s at least a 10-hour plane flight, the lack of huge time zone changes will lessen the impact of jet lag and acclimatization. The northern teams will only have to go to the Republic at most twice per year over a campaign that runs from September to April. And more likely, the schedule will probably allow for northern teams that are playing twice in South Africa to make only one trip down there.
The biggest difficulty will be for the South African sides which will be spending approximately half their time up north. But as these teams have just been playing Super Rugby with its significantly more demanding travel schedule, competing in Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales on a roughly fortnightly basis might be somewhat easier. It will be interesting to see if they choose to constantly be flying back and forth or staying for a couple of weeks at a time? I would think the latter, which might mean as few as six trips per year for them.
The even bigger question has to do with overall competitiveness. First of all, both the Kings and Cheetahs have only just finished playing a five-month season on July 14 so there are going to be some tired bodies when they open an eight-month season less than five weeks from now. On the plus side, they have both been facing off against teams with some of the best talent in world rugby on a regular basis so the Guinness PRO14 might seem a little easier from top to bottom than Super Rugby.
The Kings won six and lost nine games this year to finish eleventh overall, beating the Sunwolves, Waratahs, Rebels, Sharks, Jaguares, and Bulls. The franchise is a relatively new one, having been created in 2009 to play the British & Irish Lions. They have participated in just three years of Super Rugby and 2017 was their best performance. They play their home matches at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth which holds 46,00 fans but it isn’t yet clear if they will continue to use that venue for all of their Guinness PRO14 fixtures.
The Cheetahs are a proud and storied team that had a rough go of it in 2017, winning only four matches and losing eleven to finish thirteenth. They beat the Sunwolves twice, the Bulls once, and ended their Super Rugby tenure by topping the Kings. They have been in Super Rugby since 2006 but before that they contributed to the amalgamated Cats franchise. They play at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein which has a capacity of 48,000. The Cheetahs will also have plenty of talent in the pipeline as they are the reigning Currie Cup champions, completely dominating the competition in 2016.
In terms of style, both the Kings and Cheetahs attempt to play an expansive game which should make for some interesting contests on both their hard and fast Summer pitches and the wetter, muddier fields in the UK, Ireland, and Italy.
If you haven’t previously decided to take advantage of the opportunity to become a subscriber to The Rugby Channel then let the expansion of the PRO14 be your excuse to get on board. Subscribe Now and you’ll get to watch the excitement from Edinburgh to Port Elizabeth from September through May.