The Lion King
Now I may not be the smartest guy in England, but I’d like to think I still know better than to pet a lion, especially when they are the other side of a fence. Unfortunately for the Ospreys, hooker Scott Baldwin decided that this would be a good idea when visiting Weltevrede Game Lodge ahead of the team’s match against the Cheetahs. The Welsh international missed the game as he required stitches to his hand, which will leave him out of action while he recovers.
The Ospreys went on to lose 44-25 which is not leaving them in a good position. They have now lost their last 4 games – including a 16-6 defeat away to Benetton – despite having a squad containing a number of internationals. They need an uplift in their fortunes soon, but to lose their first choice hooker will certainly not help.
We all make mistakes, hopefully Scott Baldwin will remember this moment – and how lucky he is to have not been hurt worse! – and learn from his mistake. Meanwhile, I’m sure Ospreys fans will be hoping for a swift recovery.
The Italian Job
How great is it to see the Italian teams being competitive in the Pro14! It wasn’t that long ago people were discussing whether they still even deserved a place in the league, now Benetton have beaten Ospreys at home and Edinburgh away, while Zebre have picked up wins in South Africa against the Kings and most recently at home to Ulster, who were unbeaten until then. To put into perspective how well they are doing, Benetton (9 points) and Zebre (10 points) have both earned more points than more respected opponents Cardiff Blues and Ospreys (both on 5 points) and 2015/16 Pro12 Champions Connacht (8 points).
It may still be early days, but it looks like the Italians could finally be improving and making an impact on the league. I really hope this continues for the rest of the season and begins to benefit Conor O’Shea and the national team.
An African Adventure
People who know me will know that I have been very sceptical about the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the competition, partially because I’m not sure that they belong there and also because I feel that the whole organisation of this has been rushed.
Leinster were forced to alter their squad after Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were unable to enter South Africa due to visa issues arising from a change in regulations relating to New Zealand nationals from January this year. Leinster have admitted that this was an administrative error, but considering how close it was to the season before the league and fixtures were announced, my gut feeling is that the competition organisers should have been informing all clubs of any visa regulations to ensure there were no issues.
The big arguments towards including the 2 South African sides was that it would bring extra revenue to the league through TV deals and an increased fan base, but is that really working so far? In their 3 home games so far, the Cheetahs have attendances of 13,982 against Zebre, 6,980 against Leinster and 4,589 against the Ospreys. The Kings have fared even worse with 4,062 against Zebre and 3,011 against Leinster. These attendances are on the whole shocking, and are made worse when you remember that the Cheetahs play at the 46,000-seater Free State Stadium and the Kings play in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (48,000 capacity), leaving us with stadiums that look pretty much empty. We have also seen Friday’s game between the Cheetahs and Ospreys kick off at 4pm UK time, which is not at all sociable for UK rugby fans who work for a living and as a result can’t even watch the match live.
Finally, and most importantly, the rugby itself:
Week 1: Ulster 42-19 Cheetahs – Scarlets 57-10 Kings
Week 2: Munster 51-18 Cheetahs – Connacht 32-10 Kings
Week 3: Cheetahs 54-39 Zebre – Kings 10-31 Leinster
Week 4: Cheetahs 38-19 Leinster – Kings 17-43 Zebre
Week 5: Cheetahs 44-25 Ospreys – Dragons 29-13 Kings
To be fair to both teams, starting a season in foreign conditions with games against 3 of the Irish provinces and the reigning champions was always going to be a difficult task. In the last 3 rounds, though, the Cheetahs have used the favourable conditions in Bloemfontein to amass a 100% record at home, whereas the Kings have continued to struggle (they are the only team without a win or even a point to their name) and this weekend allowed the Dragons their first 4-try bonus point since March 2015.
It will take a while for both teams to get used to the different conditions and style of play in the Northern Hemisphere Rugby. Both of these teams are used to the much more flowing style of Super Rugby, so I am not too surprised to see them having conceded the most points over the first 5 weeks (192 allowed by the Kings, 176 by the Cheetahs). I think that if the Cheetahs can tighten up a bit defensively and continue to take advantage of playing their home matches at altitude, they could push for a spot in the playoffs, but the Kings need to find a way to improve quickly or they could find themselves at the foot of the table come May.
The Great Divide
I completely understand why the Pro14 was split into 2 conferences, a 26-game regular season and then playoffs would be far too long. However, we are already beginning to see the big issue with a conference system: the inequality.
The conferences were organised according to the finishing positions of teams last year, this does not mean the teams will be of a similar quality this year. After 5 weeks of competition last season’s weakest Welsh team, the Dragons, are currently on 9 points, whereas the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys’ talented squad both find themselves on just 5 points. Benetton’s 9 points sees them above only the Kings in Conference B, but in a combined table they would actually just be in the top 10 right now.
Hopefully the Conferences will balance out by the end of the season, I would hate for a team to miss out on the playoffs or the Champions Cup due to being in the stronger Conference.