Preview: Guinness PRO14 Conference A - 2018/19 Season
By Sky Sports Rugby
Last Updated: 30/08/18 7:20pm
The Guinness PRO14 season starts on Friday night with last season's champions Leinster Rugby in action against Cardiff Blues.
The formation of the Conferences will remain unchanged from last term. This is to ensure a balance of fixtures for all teams during the initial two seasons of the competition's expansion.
As a result, Cardiff Blues, Connacht, Glasgow Warriors, Munster, Ospreys, Toyota Cheetahs and Zebre Rugby will form Conference A.
Conference B will be made up of Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby, Dragons, Leinster, Scarlets, Southern Kings and Ulster.
With just a short time before the action begins, here we run the rule over Conference A...
Head Coach: John Mulvihill
Last season's position: 4th in the Conference
Start of a new season and what more motivation do you need than another opportunity to chase a feeling like this... Can’t wait to get back on the field with the @cardiff_blues men and look forward to continuing the climb. Big year ahead... Let’s go. #bringtheheat pic.twitter.com/Hys2OxrXpb— Blaine Scully (@BlaineScully1) August 27, 2018
Mulvihill is one of a number of new head coaches taking charge of Conference A sides. He's landed in a Challenge Cup- winning environment and immediately after his arrival said that he has "inherited quite a strong, settled squad".
Samu Manoa is one of a handful of new names arriving at Cardiff Arms Park and he will certainly get fans' pulses racing.
His ability to play across both the second-row and back-row lends them great options and his dynamism will cause opponents all manner of issues. Mulvihill plans to give Manoa time to settle in, so don't expect to see him in their early match-day squads.
Key Player: Jarrod Evans. The 22-year-old made the fly-half jersey his own last season and flourished. This term, more of the same is expected as he continues to develop his all-round game.
Head Coach: Andy Friend
Last season's position: 6th in the Conference
The Irish province are also moving into the 2018/19 campaign with a new man steering the ship and the noises out of Galway are positive ones.
Friend's side are heading into the start of the season, a period they've called "the month of champions" [facing the last four PRO12/14 champions], off the back of pre-season victories.
The province have four of their first six games at The Sportsground and must try and make the most of that in order to put them on the right track.
Key Player: Robin Copeland. The No. 8 announced his move from Munster in March and then went through a red-hot run of form. He has the unenviable task of succeeding one of Connacht's greatest ever but should shoulder that responsibility well.
Head Coach: Dave Rennie
Last season's position: 1st in the Conference; losing semi-finalist
The Warriors put their foot on the gas early in the competition last season and it produced a 10-match unbeaten run.
The fact that their electric form didn't carry all the way through to the final day of the season, and instead teetered off, will have irked them.
Rennie's men have to use that feeling to drive them on this time around but must do so without a key cog in their attacking wheel - Finn Russell.
The early key to success for the Warriors will be to quickly establish a potent new nine and 10 axis and drive their physical intensity up a level.
Key Player: Callum Gibbins. The 29-year-old has just been named club co-captain alongside Ryan Wilson and was also appointed captain of the 2017/18 Guinness PRO14 Dream Team. The no-nonsense flanker will lead by example.
Head Coach: Johann van Graan
Last season's position: 2nd in the Conference; losing semi-finalist
A semi-final loss in the league and a semi-final loss in the Champions Cup will have left Munster's players, and fans, wanting more.
The news that Conor Murray will miss the start of the season is far from ideal, however they must press on regardless. Injuries troubled them at points last term and they'll be hoping for better luck over the course of the 2018/19 season.
Tadhg Beirne's introduction into their pack is an exciting one, while former Sale Shark Mike Haley has a considerable opportunity at this feet.
The Munstermen have lost only once at home in any tournament since February 2017 and, after a first full pre-season under their head coach, are likely to start with a bang.
Key Player: Joey Carbery. The 22-year-old's move from Leinster to Munster is one of the transfers of the summer and could be an electric one for both province and player.
Head Coach: Allen Clarke
Last season's position: 5th in the Conference
Ospreys will be looking forward to banishing the memories of a challenging season and already captain Justin Tipuric has made their ambitions clear - they are aiming for the play-offs and to secure Champions Cup rugby.
With greater numbers moving out than in, including the departure of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, the opportunities are there for squad members to step up and they must.
Shaun Edwards' expertise will be at their disposal, as he links up with the region in a consultancy role this season, while the introduction of George North and Scott Williams in particular will bring plenty of experience and energy.
Key Player: George North. At his peak North is a match for any side in the world and, after eight weeks off during the summer, the invigorated 26-year-old may well set this team, and competition, alight.
Head Coach: Franco Smith
Last season's position: 3rd in the Conference; losing quarter-finalists
The @SouthernKingsSA and @CheetahsRugby will both have a point to prove in their second @PRO14Official season, which kicks off this weekend with the first of 21 pool rounds. Fixtures: Kings v Zebre Rugby Club - Friday, 20h35, Cheetahs v Munster - Saturday, 18h15 pic.twitter.com/aYQFw30iPL— South African Rugby (@Springboks) August 29, 2018
The Cheetahs set their own PRO14 bar high by reaching the play-offs in their maiden season and must capitalise on the fact that they've experienced everything at least once now.
There's been a considerable amount of player movement during the off-season and gelling as quickly as possible will be absolutely vital to their campaign.
One other factor that they will be keen to address is their form on the road as they won just two games outside of South Africa last term.
Key Player: Oupa Mohoje. The 28-year-old will captain the side this season and look to lead from the front, particularly after losing a number of experienced colleagues to other clubs in the off-season. The powerful athlete is an explosive ball carrier and strong in the line-out.
Head Coach: Michael Bradley
Last season's position: 7th in the Conference
Bradley wants his team to stick to their guns and continue developing an attacking brand of rugby over the course of the coming season.
Despite finishing at the foot of the Conference last season, the Italian outfit accumulated more wins and turned more heads than they have done before in the competition.
The goal this term, quite simply, is to continue on an upward trajectory and do so in the style that they love.
Key Player: Edoardo Padovani. The versatile back has excellent feet and pace to burn. He's back with the Italian outfit and will be eager to push their tempo and create waves at any opportunity.