PRO14 Conference A preview ahead of 2017/18 season
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 02/09/17 2:27pm
From September 1, the old Celtic and Italian PRO12 will transform into a global PRO14 as a new and exciting season kicks off.
South African Super Rugby pair the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have been welcomed in as, for the first time in rugby union history, the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere combine to create a unique club league.
As part of the changes, the league format has also altered from a 12-team table to two seven-team conferences and within Conference A are Irish pair Munster and Connacht, Welsh duo Ospreys and Cardiff Blues, Scotland's Glasgow Warriors, Italy's Zebre and South Africa's Cheetahs.
Here is our team-by-team guide to Conference A...
Last season: 1st and runners-up
Best finish: Champions 2002/03, 2008/09, 2010/11
What's hot: Munster enjoyed an impressive campaign last season, but finished without the trophies to show for it. The squad and management responded to the death of head coach Anthony Foley in October by playing some inspired rugby, winning 19 of their 22 league games and finishing top of the table at the end of the regulation season. They also made the semi-finals of the Champions Cup, losing to eventual winners Saracens.
Having kept the majority of last season's squad together, Munster have also added Irish trio JJ Hanrahan, Chris Farrell and James Hart, all of whom look like promising signings on paper. The signing of South African open-side Chris Cloete could turn out to be key as well.
What's not: The management situation. Having successfully led Munster back from the doldrums of 2014-2016 to challenge for domestic and European honours, South African Rassie Erasmus has done a marvellous job in charge. Over the summer, however, news broke that he and key defensive coach Jacques Nienaber gave notice of their plans to exercise the release clause in their IRFU contract and return to the Springbok set-up.
With six months' notice necessary, the pair are contractually obliged to remain in Limerick until December, but the situation has the potential to be disastrous. Having lost Donnacha Ryan and Dave Foley to Top 14 duo Racing 92 and Pau, the second-row position looks to have been weakened also.
What's changed: Can Munster replicate last season's efforts? The side played some outstanding rugby during 2016/17, but it was pretty much the same group of players which had finished sixth and exited Europe at the pool stage the season before. Can they make sure last season was not a flash in the pan? Also, how will the squad react to the ensuing departures of Erasmus and Nienaber? Will such a situation have an adverse effect on results?
Ins: Chris Farrell (Grenoble), JJ Hanrahan (Northampton Saints), James Hart (Racing 92), Chris Cloete (Southern Kings), Gerbrandt Grobler (Racing 92), Ciaran Parker (Sale Sharks).
Outs: Donnacha Ryan (Racing 92), Francis Saili (Harlequins), Dave Foley (Pau), Cian Bohane (retired), Mark Chisholm (retired), John Madigan (RC Massy), Peter McCabe (Connacht).
Last season: 4th and semi-final
Best finish: Champions 2004/05, 2006/07, 2009/10, 2011/12
What's hot: The Ospreys head into the season having not lost any of their Wales stars: Alun Wyn Jones, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Justin Tipuric, Sam Davies and Dan Lydiate, meaning they have a squad jam-packed with quality. Young players such as Davies and Keelan Giles will also get another season to progress after some outstanding displays last campaign.
What's not: Their recruitment. Having only signed three players, one of whom was already at the club on a short-term deal last season in Brian Mujati, the Ospreys have yet to adequately improve the squad to the required extent, particularly when you take into account the amount of players to leave the region. Forwards Sam Underhill and Canada international Tyler Ardron will be huge losses.
What's changed: The Ospreys have now failed to make the league final for the last five seasons, and will want to start competing for honours again in the new PRO14. Having lost to Munster in the semi-finals last year, they did qualify for the Champions Cup this time around and so do have a European campaign to look forward to at the top table, alongside their league exploits. Ospreys bosses have also revealed head coach Steve Tandy has renewed his contract until 2020.
Ins: James Hook (Gloucester Rugby), Cory Allen (Cardiff Blues), Brian Mujati (Sale Sharks).
Outs: Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby), Tyler Ardron (Chiefs), Josh Matavesi (Newcastle Falcons), Joe Bearman (Merthyr RFC), Jonathan Spratt (retired), Tom Grabham (Scarlets), Dan Suter (Dragons), Tom O'Flaherty (Exeter Chiefs).
Last season: 6th
Best finish: Champions 2014/15
What's hot: Glasgow have been one of the most active sides in terms of signings, and looked to have picked up some gems. Scotland international Huw Jones arrives from the Stormers in Super Rugby having made a brilliant international breakout campaign during 2016/17, while prop Oli Kebble, backrow Callum Gibbins and wing Lelia Masaga all look like stellar deals.
What's not: The loss of Gregor Townsend. While Dave Rennie could prove a wise appointment, the loss of head coach Townsend to the national set-up must be viewed as a blow. Under his stewardship, the Scottish club progressed no end and clinched their first ever silverware in 2015. Having been one of the most exciting teams to watch under Townsend, how will Glasgow fare without him? The exit of No 8 Josh Strauss is also a major loss.
What's changed: Last season's sixth-place finish will have been a frustrating one for a squad who had made at least a semi-final in each of the previous five seasons before that. With a total of 11 new signings and 14 outgoings, as well as the change of head coach, there has been a major overhaul at the Warriors, and how quickly everyone can adapt will be interesting to see.
Ins: Huw Jones (Stormers), Oli Kebble (Stormers), Callum Gibbins (Hurricanes), Lelia Masaga (Chiefs), Samuela Vunisa (Saracens), Siosiua Halanukonuka (Highlanders), Ruaridh Jackson (Harlequins), Adam Hastings (Bath Rugby), Brandon Thomson (Stormers), George Turner (Edinburgh season-loan), Kiran McDonald (Hull RUFC).
Outs: Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), Sila Puafisi (CA Brive), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh Rugby), Rory Clegg (Ealing Trailfinders), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Sean Lamont (retired), Grayson Hart (Ealing Trailfinders), Peter Murchie (retired), Junior Bulumakau (Doncaster Knights), Tijuee Uanivi (London Scottish), Fraser Lyle (London Scottish), Hagen Schulte (Heidelberger RK), Nemia Kenatale (released).
Last season: 7th
Best finish: 2nd 2006/07, 2007/08
What's hot: New singing Jack Roberts from the Leicester Tigers looks an exciting capture and will provide real pace in the centre, while Wales coach Shaun Edwards has joined as a new defence consultant to great acclaim. Aled Summerhill scored a hat-trick in Cardiff's first pre-season friendly with London Scottish and the 22-year-old winger looks ready for a breakout campaign.
What's not: The loss of young centre Cory Allen to Welsh rivals Ospreys will sting Blues fans, while only signing three players this summer would appear not enough to improve on the region's seventh-placed finish in each of the previous two campaigns.
What's changed: The Welsh Rugby Union's proposed temporary takeover of the Blues has been called off, with the region's chief executive Richard Holland confirming they made the "unanimous decision" not to pursue the option.
Ins: Jack Roberts (Leicester Tigers), Damian Welch (Exeter Chiefs), Sion Bennett (Northampton Saints).
Outs: Cory Allen (Ospreys), Jarrad Hoeata (North Harbour), Cam Dolan (released), Marc Thomas (Yorkshire Carnegie), Pele Cowley (released).
Last season: 8th
Best finish: Champions 2015/16
What's hot: Flanker Jarrad Butler looks a super signing from the Brumbies, while attracting a coach the quality of Kieran Keane to Connacht is a massive plus.
They may have endured a disappointing campaign last year, but several of the talented players who won the league in 2016 remain such as Tiernan O'Halloran, Ultan Dillane, Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Matt Healy. Connacht stalwart and skipper John Muldoon will lead the region again having signed an extension last season.
What's not: The announcement of Pat Lam's decision to exit the province to Bristol had an impact on Connacht's form last year, and considering all he achieved with the province his leaving is a blow. Marnitz Boshoff's return to South Africa is also a major shame, as a mixture of rotten luck with injuries and the tragic passing of his father meant we barely saw him in Connacht green.
What's changed: With 13 players leaving Galway, only Glasgow have seen more players exit in the close season. The change of management is a further adjustment for the province to deal with and, like Glasgow, all eyes will be on how quickly everyone at the Sportsground can settle.
Ins: Jarrad Butler (Brumbies), Rory Scholes (Edinburgh), Gavin Thornbury (Wanganui), James Mitchell (Sale Sharks), Peter McCabe (Munster), Andrew Deegan (Waratahs).
Outs: John Cooney (Ulster), Marnitz Boshoff (Blue Bulls), Ben Marshall (retired), Shane O'Leary (Canada Atlantic Rock), Ronan Loughney (released), Nepia Fox-Matamua (released), Rory Parata (released), Danie Poolman (released), Lewis Stevenson (released), Rory Moloney (released), Ivan Soroka (released), Danny Qualter (Nottingham), Josh Rowland (Ireland Sevens).
Last season: 12th
Best finish: 11th 2015/16
What's hot: The Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) taking over Zebre has saved the club from extinction and allowed them to continue in the new PRO14. A new chief executive and directors have been appointed allowing the club a fresh start, while hiring former Ireland and Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley as head coach looks to be a coup for the Parma-based outfit.
What's not: Only once in their five-year PRO12 existence did the club finish off the bottom of the league, and that year saw them finish 11th in 2016. Last season they were bottom of the pile again having only won three league games all season and they head into the new campaign with a lot of work to do. Losing Italy international Edoardo Padovani to French giants Toulon is a big loss, while 10 players have left the club with only two coming in.
What's changed: While the club has maintained the same name, the FIR have, in effect, created a whole new club. A new company has been formed to manage the club, which has been renamed 'Zebre Rugby Club Company' from 'Zebre Rugby Srl'. As well as the loss of Padovani, South African-born club stalwarts Quintin Geldenhuys and Dries van Schalkwyk have exited, while promising young second-row Federico Ruzza has left to join Italian rivals Treviso.
Ins: Sami Panico (Calvisano), Dave Sisi (Bath Rugby).
Outs: Edoardo Padovani (Toulon), Quintin Geldenhuys (retired), Dries van Schalkwyk (Southern Kings), Federico Ruzza (Benetton Treviso), Pietro Ceccarelli (Oyonnax), Joshua Furno (Otago), Kayle van Zyl (Amatori San Dona), Lloyd Greeff (Western Province), Bruno Postiglioni (released), Sidney Tobias (released).
Last season: 13th in Super Rugby
Best finish: 6th in 2013 Super Rugby
What's hot: The Cheetahs have managed to keep the majority of their squad together ahead of their move north to the new PRO14 which is a huge boost. In the backrow they are blessed with some star quality, with Springbok No 8 Uzair Cassiem joined in the loose forwards by fellow Bok Oupa Mohoje.
Ox Nche looks like another star in the making at loosehead, with the 21-year-old having excelled for South Africa A against the Barbarians in June. His pace for a prop verges on the ridiculous.
What's not: The loss of South Africa international Raymond Rhule after the Currie Cup to the Stormers. The winger displayed his credentials in the Springboks' Rugby Championship opener against Argentina by scoring a scorching try and will be a considerable miss. "I went to school in Bloemfontein and am going to miss everything about Free State. It was my home for a long time and a big part of my life. But I'm very excited about moving," Rhule told Netwerk24.com at the beginning of August.
What's changed: Aside from transferring leagues, the Cheetahs' most significant change has come in a coaching capacity. They have altered their management set-up with Rory Duncan coming in from his positions as Free State XV and Free State U21's coach to become the new head coach, and Franco Smith moving to a Director of Rugby position. Smith coached Treviso for six seasons between 2007 and 2013 and so has invaluable experience of the league and the prospective opposition.
Ins: Makazole Mapimpi (Southern Kings), Malcolm Jaer (Southern Kings), Martin Dreyer (Blue Bulls season-loan), Njabulo Gumede (Blue Bulls season-loan), Alandre van Rooyen (Blue Bulls season-loan), Freddy Ngoza (Blue Bulls season-loan).
Outs: Raymond Rhule (Stormers), Boom Prinsloo (Bulls), Francois Uys (Grenoble), Armandt Koster (Grenoble), Danie Mienie (Toulouse).