Preview: Guinness PRO14 Conference B - 2018/19 Season
By Sky Sports Rugby
Last Updated: 31/08/18 8:54am
With the start of the new Guinness PRO14 almost upon us, it's time to run the rule over Conference B's sides.
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.
This means that Conference B will be made up of Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby, Dragons, Leinster, Scarlets, Southern Kings and Ulster.
Cardiff Blues, Connacht, Glasgow Warriors, Munster, Ospreys, Toyota Cheetahs and Zebre Rugby will form Conference A and our focus on those teams is HERE.
Head Coach: Kieran Crowley
Last season's position: 5th in the Conference
They may have finished outside the top four of their conference, but with 11 victories registered in the PRO14 last season, Kieran Crowley's side showed real signs of improvement.
In the off-season they have lost key men Marty Banks to NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan and Whetu Douglas back to the Crusaders - both of which are considerable blows.
They have brought in a handful of players but none who are that recognised and Benetton's challenge this term will be whether they can eclipse last season's performance.
Their opening fixture away to the Dragons should reveal a lot.
Key player: Tommaso Allan. The former Scotland underage fly-half nailed down a starting spot with Italy last season and will be tasked with filling the void left by Banks. Can he step up to it?
Head Coach: Bernard Jackman
Last season's position: 6th in the Conference
There were grand plans at the Dragons last season in Bernard Jackman's first campaign at the helm but success didn't materialise.
A bulging injury list for the majority of the year hardly helped, but 17 losses from 21 PRO14 fixtures and just two wins was still a woefully disappointing return.
The likes of Ross Moriarty, Richard Hibbard, Aaron Jarvis, Brandon Nansen and Rhodri Williams have joined this summer, among others.
A similar performance to last year after that sort of injection of quality would likely cost Jackman his job.
Key Player: Ross Moriarty. The Dragons have not had a player of such ability in their ranks since they brought through Taulupe Faletau. Former Gloucester man Moriarty has the potential to take games by the scruff of the neck and fans at Rodney Parade are sure to love him.
Head Coach: Richard Cockerill
Last season's position: 3rd in Conference, losing quarter-finalists
For the first time since 2013, Edinburgh will feature in the opening round of a European Cup pool stage owing to their PRO14 performance last season.
Former Leicester Tigers boss Richard Cockerill has done a superb job with the club, leading them to 15 PRO14 victories and 68 competition points - just two off Conference winners Leinster.
Their quarter-final clash with Munster at Thomond Park was also a tight one which could have gone either way, and indicative of the huge progress made over the course of the season.
Key Player: Stuart McInally. The Edinburgh skipper really came to the fore last season for club and country at hooker and his leadership - particularly with new marquee signing John Barclay out with an Achilles injury - will be vital.
Head Coach: Leo Cullen
Last season's position: 1st in the Conference, PRO14 champions
In May, Cullen's side finished a highly impressive season by completing the European and domestic double. The talent housed within their squad, and the depth to it is the envy of their opponents and, as is to be expected, they go into the season as the ones to beat.
Recruitment has been limited - Joe Tomane is their only incomer from Montpellier - but frankly it didn't need to be prolific.
Of course the presence of Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip and Isa Nacewa will be missed - their experience and personalities gave so much to the province, but Leinster have the resources to press forward without them.
Key Player: Johnny Sexton. The fly-half takes over from Nacewa as club captain and, as ever, will be instrumental in their output. The province's all-time leading points scorer should thrive in the role and drive them forward with considerable passion and skill.
Head Coach: Wayne Pivac
Last season's position: 2nd in the Conference, losing finalists
This season will be Pivac's last in charge of the Welsh region and his players will be motivated to ensure he leaves on a high.
Last term Scarlets continued to make waves with their desire to play high octane rugby that thrilled their fans, and it took them to a European semi-final and PRO14 final.
This season, there's a few early hurdles that they must navigate their way past.
First, they have a much longer injury list than they would like, which includes Leigh Halfpenny, Samson Lee, Johnny McNicholl, Hadleigh Parkes and Aaron Shingler. Second, they must quickly fill the gaps left by the highly influential Tadhg Beirne, John Barclay and Scott Williams.
Hurdles aside, a confident and firing Scarlets is a match for any team and over the course of the season you'd expect them to be pushing the tempo again.
Key Player: Jonathan Davies. Back from long-term injury, the 2017 British & Irish Lions player of the series will add so much to the Scarlets' midfield. Can he drive them on to silverware?
Head Coach: Deon Davids
Last season's position: Last in the Conference
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 Kings had an inauspicious start to their PRO14 involvement. The men from South Africa managed just one victory - albeit a fairly big one in the form of a 45-13 thrashing of the Dragons - and ended the season with a points difference of -451 after 21 games.
There's little to suggest that things will be different for Deon Davids' side this season, though with their first game coming against Zebre, they have the perfect opportunity to get their season off to a winning start this weekend.
Finances have always been problematic for the Kings; they struggle to keep up with the big-hitting Sharks, Bulls and Stormers on the South African circuit, but they do have the benefit of young stars eager to prove themselves on the big stage.
Key Player: Sarel Pretorius. The 33-year-old scrum-half made 70 appearances and scored 15 tries for the Dragons after joining the Welsh region from the Cheetahs in 2015, but has now opted to take his career back to South Africa. His experience will be crucial in this campaign.
Head Coach: Dan McFarland
Last season's position: 4th in the Conference, European play-off winners
The northern province experienced a wretched season last term in so many aspects, but ended it on something of a high by squeezing into the Champions Cup courtesy of a play-off victory against the Ospreys in Belfast.
Dan McFarland has secured an early release from his role with Scotland to take charge, having missed a large part of pre-season, and the one thing all of an Ulster persuasion will be craving is some continuity.
Les Kiss endured an ill-fated spell last year before getting sacked in January. Jono Gibbes then took charge, only to say he would be returning to New Zealand in the summer for family reasons - he ended up taking the head coach role at La Rochelle in France.
For the fourth season in a row Ulster were knocked out at the pool stage in Europe, while domestically they only won 12 of their 21 PRO14 fixtures.
And throughout the whole of 2017/18, ex-Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson and centre Stuart Olding were suspended before standing trial for allegations of rape and sexual assault. They were found not guilty and departed the province to Perpignan and Brive respectively.
Key Player: Billy Burns. Ulster really struggled last year with Jackson out of the frame and Christian Lealiifano only available until January. They desperately need Burns to hit the ground running and provide a semblance of control from fly-half.