Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

Pro14 2019/20: 6 Players to Watch

For the last couple of years, I have been previewing the new Premiership Rugby season with a look at some of the players new to their clubs who I think you should keep an eye on this season. While I will be doing that again this summer, I decided that it was time to branch out to the Pro14 as well. As with the Premiership articles, I will limit myself to just one player per team, which definitely leads to some difficult decisions – looking at you, Cardiff Blues! I will also add that Gareth Anscombe was a shoe-in for this list, but the injury suffered in Wales’ Rugby World Cup warm-up against England will see him miss the vast majority of the season, so I took him off the list.

Let me know which new transfers you’re looking forward to watching this season.

Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier – Cheetahs)

The South African scrum half was a fan-favourite at Ulster but fell afoul of the IRFU’s selection policies, which led to a move to France. Now he is making his way back to the league, but this time will be based in his home country with the Toyota Cheetahs. At 35 years old, this 2 year contract will likely take him to the end of his professional career, and that top-level experience will be vital for the Cheetahs if they want to push for the playoffs.

Josh Adams (Worcester – Cardiff Blues)

Between Will Boyde, Hallam Amos and Josh Adams, it was hard to narrow it down to just a single player from Cardiff, but Adams eventually got the nod. After a couple of strong seasons with Worcester – who are generally competing to avoid relegation from the Premiership – Adams has done well for Wales and knew that a move back to Wales was required to remain in the national team. A proven try scorer, Adams is a great attacking winger who is also able to play fullback, but is also a strong defender who has got used to dealing with some of the larger wingers of the Premiership. Provided he gets the help from his teammates, I think that he will be a star once he returns from World Cup duty.

Sam Davies (Ospreys – Dragons)

Go back a few seasons and Sam Davies was competing with Dan Biggar for the starting job with Wales. Now, injuries and a drop in form have seen him fall behind Biggar, Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans. With Anscombe coming to take control of the Ospreys, a move to perennial underachievers the Dragons could be a career-defining move for the 25-year-old. With Wayne Pivac taking over as Wales head coach after the World Cup, a fresh start at the Dragons could be just what Davies needs and if he can pull them up the standings then it could bring him back into contention for the national team, however if the Dragons continue to struggle (it wouldn’t be the first time) then he could find himself struggling to earn another cap anytime soon.

Charlie Walker (Harlequins – Zebre)

After years of good performances, it was a shock to see Charlie Walker leaving Harlequins. What was even more shocking was the moment his new team was announced as Zebre. This was a player I fully expected another Premiership team to pick up and I even discussed with friends how happy I would be with him moving to Gloucester! At 26, he has pace to worry defences and years of Premiership experience that will be a big help for a team that finished bottom of the combined table in 2018/19.

Demetri Catrakilis (Harlequins – Kings)

When Catrakilis moved to Quins from Montpellier, it looked like he would be the main man in London. However a throat injury early in the season kept him out for months, leading to the rise of Marcus Smith. Once he returned, he was never able to recapture his pre-injury form and a change of scenery back to the Southern Kings will hopefully do wonders for his career. The Kings have been the worst team in the Pro14 since its inception, but bringing in an experienced fly half who was in the Springboks training squad ahead of the 2015 World Cup could be just what they need to become more competitive and potentially pick up some wins in the opening weeks while teams are without their internationals.

Sam Lousi (Hurricanes – Scarlets)

After 5 backs, I needed to make sure that the forwards have some representation on the list. Last season’s signing from the Hurricanes, Blade Thompson, showed some real promise for the Scarlets before his season was ruined by concussion issues. This summer sees another signing from the ‘Canes in the form of former rugby league player Sam Lousi. The Scarlets have a quality back line but 2018/19 saw them struggle as their pack was ravaged by injury and the loss of Tadhg Beirne to Munster. Adding a physical presence like Lousi at lock will be a huge factor in them trying to get back into the Champions Cup.

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

In recent years, the Scarlets have become the team to watch in European rugby. Under the leadership of Wales-bound Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets have attacked from deep and spread the ball wide, leading to them winning the 2016/17 Pro12 and reaching the 2017/18 Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final.

However, things aren’t going as well this season as they are still without a win in the Champions Cup with just 2 bonus points from 4 games, while in the Pro14 they may be 2nd in their conference (on level points with Ulster) but their 6 wins and 4 losses with just 5 bonus points laves them 15 points behind leaders Leinster. It’s far from a disaster, but for a team that were so impressive last season it is a big drop. But what has caused it?

They’ve been found out

Scarlets have been playing the same style of rugby for a couple of seasons now and with that comes the chance for teams to pick up on their tactics and find ways to exploit them. It may not be easy to defend effectively against Scarlets’ expansive style but if it can be done, then it makes it very hard for them to score big points. In defence, they can be vulnerable as many of their back 3 are better attacking with ball in hand than competing for the aerial ball. Leinster’s kicking game gave them victory over the Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, which will have given other teams a blueprint to follow in order to get victory.

Players leaving

Tadhg Beirne joined from Leinster ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of the stars of the team in his 2 seasons at Parc y Scarlets. Capable of playing in the back row but at his best when playing lock, the Irishman was always a threat at the breakdown and had the range of skills to prove dangerous in the loose too – just ask Anthony Watson, who fell foul of his sidestep when they faced bath in last season’s Champions Cup. Beirne returned to Ireland this summer with a move to Munster, making him eligible for selection to the national team.

While Beirne is in my opinion the biggest loss, they also lost 2 great players with bags of experience in John Barclay (Edinburgh) and Scott Williams (Ospreys). To lose 3 such important players is always going to hit a team hard.

International call-ups

With the team’s success, there has big a large increase in the number of Scarlets being selected for the national team over recent years. Rhys Webb’s injuries and subsequent move to France have seen Gareth Davies become the first choice 9 for Wales, while Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Rhys Patchell are just a few of the Scarlets to have spent significant time away with Wales recently.

While this is a deserved reward for the players’ performances, this does mean that the Scarlets will frequently be without top players. Losing them for a couple of matches while Wales are playing is bad enough, but they will also miss a number of training sessions, reducing their chemistry with the team – especially new arrivals – and they will also miss time while they recuperate from their international exertions.

Injuries

The Scarlets have had some horrible luck with injuries this season. Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, James Davies, Blade Thomson, Aaron Shingler and Rhys Patchell have all missed significant time this season with injuries, while an injury to Angus O’Brien has left the region short of depth at fly half. That is an entire international quality back row missing at the same time, bad enough at the best of times but worse when you remember they have just waved goodbye to Beirne and Barclay. Even when the players come back from injury, it will generally take a couple of matches at least for a player to get back up to the speed of the game.

Money

When injuries and internationals mount up, you need to have a deep squad to be able to cope. Unfortunately for Scarlets, the funding isn’t there to have the depth of squad that teams in England and France can boast, which then leads to the same players having to play regularly in the Pro14 and then take on much stronger squads in Europe the next week.

Does it all have to be doom and gloom? Not necessarily. Despite their struggles, they are still in currently in a playoff position and an early exit from the Champions Cup will give them extra rest weeks to recuperate, while some of their players are returning or close to returning form injury. There is still every chance that they could make the playoffs but if I’m honest, with the behemoth that is Leinster in their conference, I cannot see them getting further than the semi-finals.

Finding a Fly Half

Finding a Fly Half

The Scarlets’ Champions Cup campaign has not started how they would have hoped. After a late penalty try gave Racing 92 the victory at Parc y Scarlets in Round 1, they were blown away at Welford Road by Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester Tigers and currently find themselves bottom of their pool with just 1 losing bonus point to their name. While they have undoubtedly been hurt by the loss of injured duo James Davies and Aaron Shingler from the back row (combined with Tadhg Beirne’s move to Munster), I would argue that their biggest struggle over the opening 2 rounds has been at fly half.

Rhys Patchell has missed both matches due to injury and his replacements Dan Jones and Angus O’Brien have not come close to effectively filling his boots. Against Racing, O’Brien looked nervous in poor conditions and was then unfortunate enough to suffer an ACL injury just before halftime which has likely ended his season. Jones was a big part of the team’s success last year but at the moment does not appear to be in a good run of form and does not appear to be able to get the back line going – something crucial to the region’s recent success. Between injuries and international duties, Patchell is likely to miss time this season and with O’Brien also out, there are no other recognised 10s in the Scarlets squad, centre Steffan Hughes coming on towards the end of the Tigers match.

Watching the Tigers game, I couldn’t help feel that the Scarlets need to get another 10 in for the rest of the season, either on a permanent basis or even just a loan. They could potentially go for a player from the Welsh Premier Division, but if they want continued success I think they would do better finding a player already used to top-tier rugby, so have pulled together a couple of potential options.

Matthew Morgan/Steven Shingler – Cardiff Blues

If you are looking for experience of the league, these woud be the best bets. With Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe the preferred options at 10, it leaved limited minutes for Morgan and Shingler. The sheer number of quality fly halves may even make the Blues willing to part with one of their talents as they have the depth to cover the position even when Anscombe is away with Wales. For Shingler, it would be an opportunity to play alongside older brother Aaron, while Morgan is a talented attacker who could shine in the Scarlets back line.

Jason Tovey – Cross Keys

I was honestly shocked when I found out Tovey was currently playing in the Welsh Premier Division! At 29 and with experience playing in the league for the Dragons (two stints), Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh, he clearly knows the league well and can still bring something to the Scarlets. While he may not be as attacking as Patchell, he is a reliable 10 and his tactical kicking could be just what they need in a harder match. The only problem here is that the Scarlets may have left it too late, as it is looking increasingly likely that Tovey will be starting a third stint with the Dragons as they look to cover their own injuries at the position.

Demetri Catrakilis – Harlequins

Brought in to the Stoop from Montpellier to replace Nick Evans, the South African was unfortunate to pick up an injury early in his Quins career that led to the emergence of Marcus Smith. Add to that the further development of James Lang and Catrakilis looks to be third choice this season having struggled somewhat when he got on the pitch. Now aged 29, could a change of scenery be just what he needs to revitalise his career? He is a highly experienced player and featured in a few South Africa training camps when younger and his experience of playing in South Africa could benefit the Scarlets when they are facing the Kings and the Cheetahs. However, considering Smith has featured in the England squad as an apprentice player and Lang was capped by Scotland in the Summer Tests, I doubt they would want to let Catrakilis go and risk leaving themselves short in the case of international call-ups.

Owen Williams/Lloyd Evans – Gloucester

Like with Cardiff, Gloucester have options at 10 with Danny Cipriani looking set to get the majority of the minutes and still not in line for an England spot, while Billy Twelvetrees looks back to form and can also cover the position. Gloucester were willing to let Billy Burns go to Ulster and could potentially afford to let either Williams or Evans to go. Williams would be the more attractive signing due to his experience and big boot from the tee (handy when Leigh Halfpenny is unavailable) while he has also spent a lot of time at 12, allowing the Scarlets some flexibility during the internationals. Not only that, but it would likely be an attractive move for the player too, as the increased minutes and playing in Wales may help to put him back on Warren Gatland’s radar. Evans may not have the experience of the other names on the list, but he is also training as part of a Gloucester team that it looking to play attractive rugby anywhere on the pitch – sound familiar Scarlets fans? The one issue right now would be the potential unavailability of Cipriani as he is likely to receive a ban following his red card against Munster and could still come into the England squad, so Gloucester may not be willing to spread themselves too thin in the midfield.

Max Malins – Saracens

Potentially the England 10 of the next generation, Malins will find his first team opportunities limited this season with Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Alex Goode all seeing time at the position. He has a good all-round game and has impressed when given a chance with the first team while excelling with England U20s. The issue here would be that I can’t see Sarries wanting to let go of such a talent on anything more than a season-long loan, while I doubt Malins would want to leave England long-term as this could push him back on his pathway to the senior England squad.

Jamie Shillcock – Worcester

At just 21 years old, Shillcock already has a decent amount of Premiership experience due to Worcester’s issues at 10 in recent seasons. Now with Jono Lance and Duncan Weir both at Sixways and depth in the centre allowing Ryan Mills to also cover 10, suddenly opportunities look more limited for the youngster. With so many players in front of him and none of them likely to disappear during the internationals a move away to a team like the Scarlets could be just what he needs to further his career, either in a short- or long-term capacity.

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

Eyes On: Premiership & Pro14 Finals

The Premiership and Pro14 seasons came to an end on Saturday with the showpiece events at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively. In the Premiership final, table-toppers Exeter started well but were unable to make the breakthroughs needed to defeat a clinical Saracens side, while a late Scarlets fightback at the Aviva was not enough to deny Leinster a Pro14/Champions Cup double.

I was at Twickenham with a few friends so was delayed watching the Pro14 final until late on Sunday, but also watched the Premiership final again to see if there was anything I missed from my position in the Twickenham stands. Keep an eye out over the next week (hopefully) for my write-up on our trip to HQ.

Before I get into this, a quick congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who was refereeing his 200th Premiership match on Saturday. He is a wonderful referee and in my opinion one of the best – if not the best – referees in the world at the moment.

Exeter 10 – 27 Saracens

Exeter were so effective against Newcastle in the semi-final with their possession-heavy attacking style to draw in the defence and create the space to exploit out wide. When they started the game with 100% possession for the first 9 and a half minutes I genuinely thought that they were on their way to a victory. However, the Saracens defence never allowed themselves to get drawn too narrow and dealt with everything the Chiefs threw at them. What really disappointed me was the fact that Exeter didn’t appear to have a Plan B. They kept trying to hit it up the middle and though they were able to hold possession relatively well they were not making much ground and when they went wide they had not earned it and were easily shut off on most occasions. Joes Simmonds did not have a bad game but he just couldn’t find a way to break down Saracens, and when Gareth Steenson came on in his place early in the second half he had only a little more luck. Exeter have a wonderful squad and most teams will struggle to deal with their usual tactics, but if they want to regularly win silverware, they need to have some backup tactics for teams that can deal with their usual style of play.

finalcongratWhat a performance by Saracens! Their defence was nigh-on impregnable, refusing to be drawn narrow while still effectively closing up the middle of the pitch. Their discipline was important too and they only gave away 2 kickable penalties in the first half before building up enough of a points difference in the second that Exeter were unable to rely on kicks at goal. In fact, Gareth Steenson’s try was the only time the Sarries try line really felt at risk and that was helped by Schalk Brits’ yellow card meaning a back (in this case Chris Wyles) had to be sacrificed to bring Jamie George back on from the scrum. With Paul Gustard leaving England for Harlequins following the South Africa tour, Eddie Jones could do much worse than asking Sarries’ defence coach Alex Sanderson to join the national team as Gustard’s replacement.

Leinster 40 – 32 Scarlets

They may not always be the most attractive team to watch, but Leinster are so effective and know how to win games. They have such depth in their squad but more than that, they adapt to the environment and the team they are playing against. Johnny Sexton is so used to the Aviva Stadium from matches with Leinster and Ireland so knows exactly how to deal with the conditions and after seeing the struggles the Scarlets were having under the high ball (more on that below), he continued to pepper them with high balls throughout the match, while Rob Kearney – one of the best in the world under the high ball – and Jordan Larmour put heavy pressure on the catcher every single time. As well as the high balls, Sexton also controlled the territory with some wonderful kicking to touch, including one penalty he put out about 3 metres from the try line, while his range of passing took advantage of any gaps in the Scarlets defence. They may be losing a couple of players this summer, but I find it hard to bet against them defending their Pro14 title next season.

Scarlets play such sexy rugby, but sometimes they just need to be a bit more pragmatic. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies are incredible attacking players, but they are not currently the best at playing the less sexy but possibly more important territorial game. Much like how Exeter need to create a Plan B, the Scarlets need to do so as well. On top of that, some players need to work on individual weaknesses over the summer. Steff Evans and Leigh Halfpenny failed to cope with 8 high balls throughout the course of the match, immediately gifting Leinster possession and territory. Winning against the big teams both in club and international rugby requires players in the back 3 that can deal with the high ball effectively, so if they don’t improve they could see their appearances limited in the big matches for both Scarlets and Wales next season as opposition teams will deliberately target them as Sexton did on Saturday.

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Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Pro14 Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Today, I will be looking at the Pro14, but keep an eye out for my thoughts on the Premiership over the next couple of days.

Things started off on Friday evening at Scotstoun, where Glasgow did not turn up until the second half and as a result went down 13-28 to last season’s Pro12 Champions the Scarlets. The Scarlets will be joined in the final by Leinster, who are still on track for a Pro14/Champions Cup double after holding off a late Munster fightback.

laceyBefore I start with my thoughts about the individual matches, I do have one gripe to bring up: Considering these are the semi-finals of 1 of the 3 biggest rugby leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, some of the officiating was absolutely awful! Glasgow were denied a lineout deep in Scarlets territory when John Lacey and his assistant deemed that their restart had was already over the plane of the touchline when Tom Prydie caught the ball in touch (meaning a Scarlets scrum on halfway) only for replays to show that Prydie and the ball were clearly still in play when he caught it and then carried it in to touch. While this alone didn’t cost Glasgow the match, it does not help the team at all getting such a poor decision against them. Hopefully the quality of refereeing will be better in the final.

Glasgow 13 – 28 Scarlets

What a disappointment for Glasgow! After topping the combined table through the season, they didn’t really turn up until around the 50 minute mark, going in 3-21 down at half time. With the new playoff format for the Pro14 including a quarter-final and with them having gone out of the Champions Cup at the pool stages, Glasgow had 3 weeks between their last game and this semi, which probably put them at a slight disadvantage as they had to get back up to the pace of the game compared to the Scarlets, who defeated the Cheetahs in the quarter-finals. While a rest can be good for the players, sometimes it can get too long and my mind couldn’t help but go back to Gloucester in the 2002/3 season, where they won the league by 15 points but after a 3 week rest lost to London Wasps in the final 39-3. Glasgow tried to play their natural attacking game despite the late loss of Stuart Hogg to illness, but could not get things going and little inaccuracies like overthrowing a 5m lineout and a couple of close decisions like Jonny Gray’s disallowed try proved costly and gave the Scarlets the momentum needed to build up an unassailable lead.

proptryThe Scarlets must be becoming every neutral’s favourite team! In knockout rugby, getting points on the board is key so to go to the corner on a kickable penalty is a brave call, but the Scarlets backed it up by scoring within a couple of phases – a lovely finish by Man of the Match Rhys Patchell! From there, it was pure Scarlets rugby as they scored some wonderful tries, the most notable being try number 3, where Rob Evans got on the end of a wonderful counter down the Scarlets left wing. They can hold their own in the set piece and will look to dominate Leinster at the breakdown in in the final despite the loss of John Barclay. They may have been outplayed by Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup, but I expect the rematch on Saturday to be a closer affair.

Leinster 16 – 15 Munster

Leinster’s strength in depth is incredible. Despite Jamie Heaslip’s enforced retirement and missing Sexton, Henshaw, both Kearneys, McFadden, O’Brien, Leavy and van der Flier (yes that’s 3 Irish international 7s missing!), Leinster were still able to play the first 62 minutes with former Australian international Scott Fardy on the bench and come out with a victory against their rivals. Fardy’s impact in defence towards the end was fantastic and young fly halves Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery controlled the game well from 10 and 15 respectively. Carbery was joined in the back line by Jordan Larmour and James Lowe, who is a real star and was a deserved Man of the Match, causing Munster issues throughout the match with his strong but elusive running, his offloads – including a beautiful one to Jack Conan for the opening try – and his kicking. He also almost had a try of his own, only to be put into touch through a lovely try-saver from Sam Arnold. Granted, Leinster are losing a couple of players this summer (Richardt Strauss and the timeless Isa Nacewa are retiring, Jordi Murphy and possibly Carbery/Byrne are on the way to Ulster – more on that in the next couple of weeks) but this looks to be a team set to compete at the top in the long term.

I hope the Scarlets were taking notes watching this game, because Munster may have shown the defending champions how to beat Leinster next weekend. The men in red struggled at times in the scrum but caused the European Champions some real problems at the lineout and the breakdown. Munster’s issue was there wastefulness. They outscored Leinster 2 tries to 1 and came close on a couple of other occasions before giving away penalties, while they also brought a number of moves to a disappointingly early end with a number of poor forward passes. Scarlets have the players to hurt Leinster in the same areas but I would argue they are also much better at playing the open game. Munster may not have got the win themselves, but they may have done enough to give the Scarlets a blueprint to victory.

Final thought

The final is set to be a fantastic affair. Leinster may have the recent head-to-head form in their favour and with the match being at the Aviva they will also have some degree of a home advantage. If Scarlets can get some control in the game – something they failed to o in the Champions Cup – then their attack could cause Leinster some real problems. That said, if Leinster can grab control again (or play the “boring rugby” as a certain Scarlets fan I know has taken to describing it) I can see them strangling the life out of the Scarlets. I honestly feel this could come down to whether Johnny Sexton is fit to play. If he is available I see him being able to control the game and give Leinster the double, otherwise I see Scarlets coming out narrow victors.

Leinster to beat Scarlets (sorry Gez!)

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.

Pro14 Rugby Ramble

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.

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They’re called the King of the Jungle for a reason – Picture from Flikr – Mathias Appel

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.