Looking ahead at the 2018/19 Guinness Pro14 season
5th May 2018, Thomond Park, Limerick, Ireland; Guinness Pro 14 rugby, quarter final, Munster Rugby versus Edinburgh; Munster team celebrate at the final whistle (Photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)

The Guinness Pro14; in its various previous incarnations, has often been considered a poor relation to the more glamorous English and French leagues. Without the financial muscle to attract the same calibre of players [previously] however, last season the league finally ‘showed up to the party’. Looking ahead at the 2018/19 Guinness Pro14 season, we preview the sides and the competition.

2018/19 Guinness Pro14

Munster, Leinster, and Scarlets all made the semi-finals of the Champions Cup, with Leinster winning the trophy as part of a seemingly comfortable European-domestic double. Proudly carrying the Guinness Pro14 banner, big name players such as Johnny Sexton, Leigh Halfpenny and CJ Stander all strutted their stuff for both club, and country.

Of course, the biggest Celtic teams have always been able to sprinkle some stardust (remember Ospreys’ Galacticos?) across the competition. Leading lights like Brian O’Driscoll and Gavin Henson have shone a light on the Northern hemisphere competition.

What was noticeable last season though, was how much some of the other teams improved.

Edinburgh, Benetton and Zebre were all much tougher propositions to play against. And the introduction of South Africa’s Cheetahs and Southern Kings proved a positive move. The TV money they brought with them helped too. The Cheetahs were hard to play against on their home ground – consider the scalps they took – and the ex-Super Rugby sides were pleasing to watch throughout (even if the Kings didn’t have the consistency).

Last Word on Rugby asks ‘Was it a flash in the pan?’ or, can the 2018/19 Guinness Pro14 keep it up this season? Will last year’s strugglers thrive and the winners stumble?

This is your essential preview to the 2018/19 Guinness Pro14 season.

Last season’s Pro14 ‘also rans’

Sadly, this is not a difficult category. Dragons and Southern Kings were comfortably the worst teams in the league, both in terms of points garnered and performances.

Kings had a cruelly tough task: losing their best players along with their Super Rugby status, no pre-season and a very restricted budget. Coach Deon Davids accepts that the position hasn’t changed much, and their target is just to improve on last season’s performance.

“My first goal will be to ensure these players can prepare and play in an environment where they can have fun, express themselves and reach their full potential. It was against extremely challenging circumstances that we battled to prepare for this campaign,” Davids told Sport 24.

Dragons, on the other hand, look like an intriguing team to keep on eye on. Last year, Bernard Jackman made clear that he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of his squad, informing many part-way through the season that their services were no longer wanted.

In 2018/19, he has a squad more to his liking and, hopefully, fewer injury concerns. Ideally, some of those talented young players like Aaron Wainwright and Jack Dixon can finally break through.

The middle of the Pro14 pack

Benetton and Zebre both had greatly improved seasons (from an admittedly low bar). They will hope that the work Conor O’Shea is doing for Italian rugby will continue to pay dividends. Benetton could be a dark horse to watch in the Challenge Cup, an improvement on their perennial whipping boys’ status in the senior competition.

Connacht, Ospreys and Ulster will all have been disappointed by their respective seasons, although Ulster at least managed to sneak into the Champions Cup. 

Connacht have fallen a long way from the team that delighted neutrals in 2016 and the loss of John Muldoon will be another big one. Robin Copeland has the talent to ease new coach Andy Friend’s mind and he will hope Sevu Reece, who joins the squad in November, will bring back some flair. However, don’t expect Connacht to be reaching for the heights of that dream season any time soon.

Ospreys have lost Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb to Northampton Saints and Toulon, proving that the lure of the other leagues remains, and now new signing Gheorghe Gajion had been ruled out for six months. But, the additions of Scott Williams, Aled Davies and George North will give the Ospreys faithful hope that they can improve.

In preseason, Sam Davies showed signs of the promise that had fans so excited two seasons ago.

There is slightly less room for optimism at Ulster, especially with last season’s breakout star Jacob Stockdale injured for 6-8 weeks. They will hope to have solved their issues at 10 with Billy Burns, while Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore and Henry Speight are all good additions. Countering the positives, Charles Piutau has moved to Pat Lam’s big-spending Bristol Bears – Ulster could struggle again this season, unless they get a great opening few rounds.

Cardiff Blues finished the season as winners of the Challenge Cup and fourth in Conference A (although they scored fewer points than Benetton, fifth in Conference B).

The Blues are a mixed bag, but they certainly have a platform for new coach John Mulvihill to build on. Samu Manoa and Dmitri Arhip should help them solve some of the problems they’ve had up front, and Tom James makes a welcome return.

Last season’s Top 6 – what will 2018/19 hold?

All likely to remain at the business end of the table and, with the conferences staying the same (see below), commentators presume the Top 6 will probably finish much the same order as last year.

Cheetahs have lost some key players to rivals and, while Edinburgh should continue their progress under Richard Cockerill, they still don’t have the depth to match the others just yet. Both teams could come under pressure for their top 6 spots but don’t expect them to give up without a fight.

Munster will hope that new signing Joey Carbery will address the issue they’ve had at 10 since Ronan O’Gara retired and Johann Van Graan has been impressed by their academy players this summer.

Munster Rugby's Outhalf 'dilemma'
Joey Carbery during Ireland Rugby squad training at Carton House in Kildare. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Peter O’Mahony will, as ever, provide leadership, CJ Stander will continue to rampage and the addition of Tadhg Beirne from Scarlets is exciting. Thomond Park will still be one of the toughest grounds to visit and they should be worth a quarter-final berth, at least, in Europe.

The big question is, can they outdo provincial rivals Leinster? Can they match Scarlets, who so thoroughly beat them on Irish turf for the title two seasons ago?

Glasgow Warriors will hope that half-backs George Horne and Adam Hastings can fill the gap left by the beloved Finn Russell, who has departed for Racing 92. Both certainly showed promise last season. Dave Rennie is a shrewd coach whose style lines up well with Glasgow’s talented squad and ambitions, and they have a slightly easier group in Europe this year. But, having stormed to the top of their conference last season, they fell at home to Scarlets in the semi-finals and it is difficult to see them making it past them or Leinster this season.

Scarlets might have lost key players; particularly the outstanding Beirne, but their replacements should soften the blow.

In his last season before taking the Wales job, Wayne Pivac has added depth to the squad and reduced their exposure to international windows. They are still the most exciting team to watch on their day but it remains to be seen if Uzair Cassiem and Blade Thomson can add the ‘heft’ they surely need. Like others, Scarlets must keep pace with Leinster and the big boys of Europe to have anything left at the knockout stages.

Leinster: the team to beat in 2018/19 Guinness Pro14

Their youngsters didn’t always deliver the goods last season but they still have squad depth that coaches dream of. Confident, and already on the right side of the ledger in preseason.

The loss of Carbery and Jordi Murphy to their oldest provincial rivals will rankle but Ciaran Frawley showed promise at 10 last season to fill the third-place fly-half spot. And Caelan Doris looks like yet another talented backrower.

Seán O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy will all be back too. It’s difficult to see past them but it is harder to reach that same level ‘again’ so it will be a truly fine achievement if Leinster raise the trophy once more in 2018/19.

2018/19 Guinness Pro14 Roundup

The playoff final slots probably won’t change much but there should be significant improvements everywhere else, making it more competitive as a whole.

That will place greater demands on the squads both at home in Europe. The complaints from English clubs that Celtic teams could afford to preserve their best players for Europe might be tested this season – it’s possible fans could see some giant-slaying results, as well as some big wins over their rivals.

Could teams falter again in South Africa? Having data and experience in managing travel, will increase teams chances of both earning points and recovering from longhaul flights. Vice-versa too, in the Cheetahs and Kings adapting, as the Italian sides have.

Either way, it looks like yet another year of great rugby across the continent.

 

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