PRO14 Conference B preview ahead of 2017/18 season
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 02/09/17 2:27pm
The PRO14 will create rugby union history this week as the first ever global club league gets underway, live on Sky Sports.
The inclusion of South African duo the Cheetahs and Southern Kings has given way to a new league structure of two seven-team conferences, evenly split between the five nations involved.
We've already taken a look at each team in Conference A, now it's the turn of Conference B which includes last season's champions Scarlets...
Last season: 3rd and Champions
Best finish: Champions 2003/04, 2016/17
What's hot: They head into the new season as defending champions having played some breathtaking attacking rugby. Steff Evans and Rhys Patchell will look to kick on after superb individual campaigns last season, and at 22 and 24-years-old respectively, there is ample scope for them to continue improving. The marquee signing of Leigh Halfpenny from Toulon looks a shrewd purchase.
What's not: The losses of Liam Williams to Saracens and DTH Van der Merwe to Newcastle Falcons. Both have been major attacking threats for the region in recent years and their exits are sure to be keenly felt, particularly Williams who enjoyed an eye-catching Lions tour.
What's changed: Can they replicate their performance of last season? They will be the team to beat this season, with sides keen to shut them down and suss them out. In terms of transfers, the headline changes are the departures of Williams and van der Merwe, while Wales internationals Halfpenny and Tom Prydie and Australian Sevens international Paul Asquith are among the new arrivals.
Ins: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), Paul Asquith (Australia Western Sydney Rams), Tom Prydie (Dragons), Geraint Rhys Jones (Dragons), Tom Grabham (Ospreys), Morgan Williams (Wales Sevens).
Outs: Liam Williams (Saracens), DTH van der Merwe (Newcastle Falcons), Rynier Bernardo (Cheetahs), Peter Edwards (Merthyr RFC), Aled Thomas (retired), Morgan Allen (Bedwas RFC), Gareth Owen (Leicester Tigers), Richard Smith (Neath RFC).
Last season: 2nd and semi-finals
Best finish: Champions 2001/02, 2007/08, 2012/13, 2013/14
What's hot: Heading into the season, Leinster undoubtedly have the strongest squad in terms of depth, with most positions two or three deep with internationals. Ex-England head coach Stuart Lancaster had a big impact when joining the coaching set-up last season, and has remained in Dublin, while their two signings in Scott Fardy and James Lowe from Super Rugby look like masterstrokes.
What's not: For all their top players, Leinster underachieved last year in losing two semi-finals, one of which was at home to Scarlets in the league, and are beginning to build up a trend of losing big games having now lost three semi-finals and a final since they last won a piece of silverware in 2014.
What's changed: Stalwarts Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy and Hayden Triggs all retired after last season, meaning a hefty bit of experience has left the squad. In addition to their two high profile signings, the Irish province have also promoted seven players from their academy, including prop Andrew Porter and lock James Ryan, two to keep an eye on for sure.
Ins: Scott Fardy (Brumbies), James Lowe (Chiefs).
Outs: Zane Kirchner (Dragons), Mike Ross (retired), Hayden Triggs (retired), Mike McCarthy (retired), Dominic Ryan (Leicester Tigers).
Last season: 5th
Best finish: Champions 2005/06
What's hot: New signing Jean Deysel proved what he is capable of at Munster last season and should thrive for Ulster, particularly alongside fellow Springbok backrow Marcell Coetzee, whose injuries should be behind him. Australia international Christian Lealiifano has joined on a five-month deal until January to further bolster an already talented back-line, while Iain Henderson returns to camp having impressed on Lions duty and looks ready to step up.
What's not: The loss of Ruan Pienaar and the situation regarding Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Having spent seven seasons with Ulster and excelled at almost every turn, scrum-half Pienaar was forced to exit the province this summer against his wishes as a result of the succession policy implemented by the IRFU and David Nucifora. His absence will no doubt be keenly felt.
What's changed: Aside from the departures of Pienaar and the suspensions of Jackson and Olding, there have been several changes to Les Kiss' coaching set-up with Neil Doak and Allen Clarke leaving the province and replaced by Jono Gibbes as Head Coach and Dwayne Peel as Assistant Coach, who join from Clermont and Bristol respectively.
Forward Roger Wilson has retired after making a record 221 appearances for his native province, while it has also been confirmed, a full year in advance, that wing Charles Piutau will leave to join Bristol in the summer of 2018.
Ins: John Cooney (Connacht), Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies), Jean Deysel (Sharks), Schalk van der Merwe (Southern Kings).
Outs: Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier), Roger Wilson (retired), Franco van der Merwe (Blues), Ricky Lutton (released).
Last season: 9th
Best finish: 2nd 2008/09
What's hot: Former Leicester Tigers coach Richard Cockerill has joined as head coach and he could be exactly what the club needs to restart it into gear. As ex-Edinburgh, Glasgow and Scotland second-row Al Kellock has acknowledged: "I have met with Richard since he moved up to Edinburgh and he comes across as an outstanding character who is driven and motivated to get the best out of the current group of players at the club."
What's not: For the last seven seasons Edinburgh have failed to finish above eighth in the league, a trend which for a club of their size is nearing on unacceptable. It's a run which will see them absent from the European Champions Cup for a fifth season in succession. A result of their form over the last few years is dwindling attendances and this is something they will hope to rectify.
What's changed: Cockerill taking over at the helm is the major change. The club will also host all of their home games this season at Myreside for the entire campaign. If new signing Mark Bennett can avoid injury, he could turn out to be a brilliant addition in the centre.
Ins: Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), Robbie Fruean (Bath Rugby), Duhan van der Merwe (Montpellier), Darryl Marfo (Bath Rugby), Jason Harries (London Scottish).
Outs: Michael Allen (retired), Will Helu (Timisoara Saracens), Rory Scholes (Connacht), Jack Cosgrove (Bristol Rugby), Nasi Manu (Benetton), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors season-loan).
Last season: 11th
Best finish: 3rd 2003/04
What's hot: Ex-Grenoble head coach Bernard Jackman looks an astute appointment while the signings of Zane Kirchner from Leinster and Gavin Henson from Bristol are more high profile than the club has previously managed. The Welsh Rugby Union's takeover of the region provides increased stability, particularly from a financial perspective.
What's not: Losing Tom Prydie to the Scarlets is a major blow, with the versatile full-back one of the most talented Dragons in the squad. An 11th-placed finish last season, below Benetton, was also very disappointing for the Dragons, and they have now finished ninth or below for six consecutive seasons. Jackman has a lot of work to do.
What's changed: Aside from the changes to the playing staff and management mentioned above, the club's name has been changed from 'Newport Gwent Dragons' to the 'Dragons' following their takeover by the Welsh Rugby Union, which was confirmed by Newport RFC shareholders via an 81 per cent resolution Yes vote. The WRU has also taken control of the club's stadium Rodney Parade.
Ins: Zane Kirchner (Leinster), Gavin Henson (Bristol Rugby), Dan Suter (Ospreys).
Outs: Tom Prydie (Scarlets), Shaun Knight (Bath Rugby), Geraint Rhys Jones (Scarlets), Nick Crosswell (Manawatu Turbos), Darran Harris (Merthyr RFC), Craig Mitchell (released).
Last season: 10th
Best finish: 7th 2012/13
What's hot: The signings of fly-half Marty Banks from the Highlanders and Maori All Black Whetu Doulgas from the Crusaders look like decent captures, while Benetton have also managed to pinch second-row pair Federico Ruzza and Irne Herbst from this year's PRO14 rivals Zebre and the Southern Kings respectively.
What's not: Losing international pair Luke McLean and Filo Paulo to London Irish is a negative, while the club head into this season having consistently struggled in the PRO12 for some time. Like fellow Italian side Zebre, Benetton have regularly finished in the bottom three throughout their seven-year PRO12 history, finishing above 10th only once in 2013. Kieran Crowley will hope the new league format can bring them some joy.
What's changed: Benetton are back in the European Champions Cup for 2017/18, having finished above Zebre in last year's table. The format for European qualification has changed from this season, however, and to earn a place in next year's European Cup they will have to finish in the top four of Conference B, or lower depending on if the Kings (illegible for European competition) finish above them. Either way, an improvement in their league form is necessary if they want to continue competing at Europe's top table.
Ins: Marty Banks (Highlanders), Federico Ruzza (Zebre), Nasi Manu (Edinburgh Rugby) Whetu Douglas (Crusaders), Irne Herbst (Southern Kings), Sebastian Negri (Hartpury RFC).
Outs: Luke McLean (London Irish), Filo Paulo (London Irish), Andrea Pratichetti (Amatori San Dona), David Odiete (Rovigo Delta), Davide Giazzon (Mogliano), Jean-Francois Montauriol (I Medicei Firenze).
Last season: 11th in Super Rugby
Best finish: 11th in 2017 Super Rugby
What's hot: Highly-rated head coach Deon Davids will remain and lead them into the new PRO14, and the 49-year-old has demonstrated an outstanding ability to nurture young talent and unearth talented players. Though it initially appeared the squad was being gutted in terms of player exits, the Kings have recovered to sign a number of players, taking the squad roster to 40 ahead of the campaign. Players such as Andisa Ntsila, Luzuko Vulindlu and Alshaun Bock, all of whom shone during the most recent Super Rugby season have also rejoined.
What's not: A number of other talented players have left, however, with the loss of back three pair Malcolm Jaer and Makazole Mapimpi to fellow PRO14 newbies the Cheetahs particularly hard to take. Flanker Chris Cloete and prop Schalk van der Merwe have also left to join PRO14 rivals Munster and Ulster respectively. The initial signing of Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks, while an obvious punt, had appeared a stroke of genius but his failing a medical and subsequent removal from the squad is a great pity for the player and club.
What's changed: The Kings have bolstered their coaching staff ahead of the start of the PRO14 with the inclusion of South Africa 'A' and Border Bulldogs assistant coach Chumani Booi to Davids' team as backline coach following Vuyo Zangqa's departure to a position in Germany. As well as re-signing quality players from last season, the Kings have also added players with PRO12 experience such as lock Dries van Schalkwyk and prop Rossouw de Klerk.
Ins: Godlen Masimla (Stormers), Dries van Schalkwyk (Zebre), Rossouw de Klerk (Grenoble), Kurt Coleman (Stormers), S'bura Sithole (Sharks season-loan), Khaya Majola (Sharks season-loan), Rowan Gouws (Sharks season-loan), Stephan Coetzee (Sharks season-loan).
Outs: Lionel Cronje (Toyota Verblitz), Schalk van der Merwe (Ulster), Chris Cloete (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cheetahs), Malcolm Jaer (Cheetahs), Tyler Paul (Sharks), Ross Geldenhuys (Sharks), Irne Herbst (Benetton), Wilhelm van der Sluys (Exeter Chiefs), Louis Schreuder (Sharks).