The early weeks of this year’s PRO14 competition will be a fascinating sideshow to the World Cup. It could conceivably, be described as an A league for at least a good part of it but the league and the clubs clearly mindful of revenue have neither termed it that or curtailed it in any way.
Between Week 1 and week 5 the PRO14 will continue, but minus pretty much all the international players who will be strutting their stuff over on ITV instead of Premier Sports.
All PRO14 clubs have recruited during the close season. Some appear to have recruited solely for the World Cup and for others it has been business as usual.
Let’s take a look at who has done what, what players they are losing (to the WC as well) and what that may mean for their league ambitions.
Glasgow Warriors. Dave Rennie’s men have 16 players away at the World Cup, the most of any team in the league (12 with Scotland) apart from Benetton. Siu Halanukonuka is with Tonga, new signing Mesu Dolokoto and everyone’s favourite maverick Nikola Matawalu are with Fiji and DTH Van Der Merwe is with Canada. Most notably in terms of their style of play is the fact that both Ali Price and George Horne are missing. This leaves Nick Frisby and part time Stirling County Super Six convert Sean Kennedy as their senior scrummies with 17yr old Jamie Dobie as back up. Lost to them anyway, regardless of the World Cup, is Stuart Hogg who will be playing his domestic rugby in England for the woo woo men, Exeter Chiefs, next season. Other notable departures include Alex Dunbar who has signed with Brive in the French Top 14, Jamie Bhatti to Edinburgh and Kaleem Barreto who has joined the Scottish enclave at Stade Nicois.
On the plus side Kyle Steyn and Stafford McDowell are now full time at the club with Steyn perhaps even being a little unlucky not to make the Scotland squad.
Scots qualified props Charlie Capps and George Thornton have joined from Wasps and Stade Nicois respectively. Another prop Aki Seiuli will join up with Warriors on a 2-year deal once his current club Otago’s Mitre Cup campaign is over. Hooker Johnny Matthews, on the back of a great season with Boroughmuir, joins on a short term contract as does another hooker Pat O’Toole who has jetted in from the exotically named Houston Saber Cats. In addition to the previously mentioned Dolokoto Glasgow have also signed another Fijian, in back rower Jale Vakaloloma.
Andrew Davidson who was at the club prior to joining Newcastle has returned to Glasgow and with Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray away with Scotland, will surely play a part.
Verdict – Glasgow have lost a lot of their creativity with the World Cup call up and transfers out but Dave Rennie is no mug and seems to have targeted his recruitment shrewdly. I’d be hugely surprised if they didn’t continue in the vein that took them to the PRO14 final last season.
Edinburgh have 11 players in World Cup squads representing Scotland and Fiji. Jamie Ritchie suffered a fractured cheekbone against Georgia in Scotland’s last warm up match and although he has rejoined the squad in Japan, his cover Magnus Bradbury remains overseas for now.
Ten players have been signed including three loanees. They have also lost eight players who have either retired or been released to sign with other clubs including near double club centurion legend Ross Ford who has moved into an S&C role with the age grade Academies.
Two scrum-halves have gone to be replaced by another South African player – Nic Groom who has signed from Super Rugby. Like Glasgow, Edinburgh have added to the Fijian population in Scotland by bringing in two of their own to keep Bill Mata company, winger Eroni Sau and back row Mesulame Kunavula.
The loanees are Murray Douglas, fresh from Super Rugby in Australia, Ewan Ashman, the Scotland U20’s hooker who has joined up with the club possibly due to an injury to another new signing Mike Willemse, and No. 8 Ruan Steenkamp from Bulls in South Africa.
Rounding out the newcomers are Nick Haining, a Scottish qualified back row from Bristol Bears, Edinburgh born but former Glasgow academy lock Sam Thomson who arrives via Warringah in Australia, and loosehead Jamie Bhatti who has made the now well-trodden journey east along the M8 from Glasgow.
Verdict – A lot of players have left for pastures new and a great many more are away with Scotland and Fiji. This churn would probably have taken place regardless of the World Cup as RC attempts to strengthen Edinburgh’s non international side but it’s a lot of change regardless of the apparent quality of the recruits. Despite the fitness of the “first choice” centres in Matt Scott and Mark Bennett, it may take a while for Edinburgh to get going. Expect a stronger finish than start. Third – hopefully.
Benetton have supplied 15 players to Italy’s World Cup squad. Among those are a number of players who were hugely influential for their success in last year’s competition including Tommaso Allen, Dean Budd, Jayden Hayward and Tommaso Benvenuti. Nasi Manu, now thankfully recovered from cancer, is also on world cup duty with Tonga.
They have brought in some experience to cover some of those gaps with Former Irish International stand-off, Ian Keatley and winger Leonardo Sarto joining along with Michele Lamaro and Charly Trussardi joining from French Pro D2 and Italian Top 12 clubs respectively.
Seven have departed. Luca Bigi has gone to Zebre whilst the rest have retired or moved to play lower level rugby.
Verdict – the 16 players that Benetton are going to be missing represent a bridge too far and I think they will struggle in the early part of the season which may cause a hangover that destabilises their year entirely.
Leinster have supplied 14 players to Ireland’s world cup squad. 13 of those players started for Leinster in the PRO14 final at Celtic Park and are now unavailable to Leinster at least until Ireland lose their traditional World Cup quarter-final.
Sean O’Brien (the wing forward one) has left for London Irish and Jack McGrath has moved north to join Ulster but is in the World Cup squad anyway. Another 7 players have also departed.
They have brought in one player from Connacht – Cian Kelleher – and have promoted 7 from their academy including the younger brother of the aforementioned Cian, Ronan Kelleher.
Verdict – Leinster’s B team play together a lot as the IRFU rotate their international stars pretty regularly so it’s not like putting together a scratch side and hoping for the best. Whilst their results on those occasions don’t quite match those achieved by the top picks they don’t do too badly even when up against opposition at full strength. They will be ok and in all probability will be ahead of most of the opposition (bar Glasgow) in Conference A.
Munster have 12 players away with the national side but it’s probably in the forwards they have taken the biggest hit with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Tadgh Beirne being a big miss for them. That said all but two of the three-quarter line that started their last PRO14 match are in the Ireland Squad.
Eight players have moved on and they have brought in four from their Academy as well as scrum-half Nick McCarthy from Leinster.
Verdict – Despite their heavy World cup absences Munster have to fancy themselves for a home PRO14 semi-final as Conference B appears wide open.
Southern Kings have provided no one for the Springboks World Cup squad although that doesn’t really come as a surprise as the team from Port Elizabeth propped up the PRO14 with only 2 wins all season (against the Scottish sides). They have however recruited heavily with 16 players joining them for the new season. Notable among that group being the hugely experienced Demetri Catrakilis from Harlequins and Jerry Sexton from Jersey Reds (yes he is Johnny’s brother). The other names are all from within South African rugby Currie Cup and Super rugby sides. To balance this massive recruitment 18 players have departed with all but Mike Willemse (Edinburgh) to lower-level rugby.
Verdict – a huge turnaround of players at Kings but unless you are a devotee of domestic SA rugby most of the players will be unknown to you (and me). They may make a step forward in terms of the number of games won but they’ll still struggle on the road and are highly unlikely to trouble the playoff places.
Cheetahs had the proverbial difficult second album in the Pro14 last year having made the knockout stages in their first year and slumped to a disappointing 2nd bottom of Conference A. Like the Kings they have no players in the Springboks squad but scrum-half Ruben De Haas (me neither) is in the USA squad and tighthead Johannes Coetzee is with Namibia. They have secured the services of Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar who will undoubtedly prove to be a shrewd signing even at the age of 35 and might get a bit of buzz building around them back home. They have also brought in 4 players from SA Super Rugby sides as well as 2 from Griquas. Clayton Blommetjies rejoins the club after his brief flirtation with Scarlets.
Regular starters Shaun Venter and Nico Lee have left for Ospreys and Brive respectively and it has been announced that loose head prop Ox Nche will be leaving Cheetahs for Sharks when his contract expires in October.
Verdict – This will be a better season for Cheetahs. They will be boosted early doors by the disruption elsewhere and by their success in this years Currie Cup. With Glasgow, Leinster, and Ulster as serious competition in Conference A it will probably only be as far as fourth at very best.
Ulster have a mere 3 players in the Irish World Cup squad but inexplicably, for this observer anyway, one of them is not their outstanding scrum-half John Cooney. That is undoubtedly a blow for the player but a real fillip for the Kingspan side.
Among those going to Japan is now former Ulster captain Rory Best who will also be retiring from rugby after Ireland lose in the quarter-finals (sorry, I mentioned it again).
Centre Darren Cave, a double centurion for Ulster, has also retired.
They have given full contract status to 7 Academy players most of whom have already had significant game time for the senior side. Jack McGrath, who is in the squad for Japan has also joined as well as two from Super rugby (Matt Faddes of Highlanders and Sam Carter from Brumbies). South African prop Gareth Milasinovich has also moved to the club from Worcester Warriors.
Verdict – Ulster are not as depleted as their other main rivals in conference A but don’t actually play any of them until well after the World Cup has been decided so won’t gain any significant advantage from that. A strong side but will be duking it out with Ospreys for third.
Ospreys. Not only did Wales suffer a blow with the cruciate injury sustained by Gareth Anscombe in their warm-up game v England but Ospreys have probably lost the talent of their new man for the majority of the 2019-2020 season. In addition to that they also have 7 players away with Wales as well as Lesley Klim with Namibia and Ma’afu Fia with Tonga. Most notably among the Welsh travellers are the hugely influential trio of Alun Wynn-Jones, Justin Tipuric and George North.
7 from their academy along with the previously mentioned Shaun Venter (Cheetahs), and Gareth Evans (Gloucester) round out the imports. Among those leaving the club are legendary lion tamer Scott Baldwin, Tom Habberfield and Sam Davies.
Verdict – 4th for Ospreys. They won’t unseat any of the front runners but will have enough to stay ahead of Cheetahs.
Scarlets had 14 players in Wales extended squad which was cut by only 3 when the travelling names were released. Blade Thomson is with Scotland and Kieran Fonotia is with Samoa. Their entire backline minus the wings is missing.
They have brought in some reinforcements. A pair of locks from New Zealand rugby – Sam Lousi from Hurricanes and Danny Drake from North Harbour as well as the experienced Tom James who has 163 appearances for Cardiff in two spells.
The much anticipated but ultimately disappointing Clayton Blommetjies departs having only joined the club at the beginning of last season along with short term gun for hire Sam Hidalgo-Clyne.
Verdict – Hit harder than most early season they may have some catching up to do as it progresses but will be part of a four way battle for second or third behind Munster
Cardiff’s close season has been dominated by a rent arrears wrangle which we were promised wouldn’t impact transfers. With that in mind only really the signing of Josh Adams (Japan bound) from Worcester and Hallam Amos from Dragons could be described as noteworthy with their other signings being bit part players at former clubs or Academy graduates. The list does include former Edinburgh man Jason Tovey who has had a rugby journey that would be worthy of a movie (a TV movie, but still). Fourteen players have departed including Matthew Rees to retirement. They only have 5 players in the Welsh squad but one of those is Josh Navidi and he will be missed especially as Wales probably fancy themselves to go the distance. In addition to the Welsh contingent Rey Lee-Lo is with Samoa.
Verdict – I can’t see this being a classic for Cardiff and think they will struggle to penetrate the top three in Conference B. Fifth or sixth.
Dragons have long since been the whipping boys of the PRO14 in all its guises and last season was no different as they went on to finish 13th out of 14 teams. Dean Ryan has been appointed by the club as Director of Rugby and will be hoping to turn their fortunes around. They have 4 players in the Wales World Cup squad. Ross Moriarty being the standout.
They have brought in 5 players of which I will highlight Sam Davies who moves across from Ospreys and former Scotland U20’s Loosehead Jack Cosgrove from Worcester.
World cup bound Hallam Amos is off to Cardiff and Gavin Henson has been released, much to the chagrin of the tanning salons in Newport.
Verdict – they may improve but it won’t be enough to take them higher than sixth
Connacht finished third in last year’s PRO14 conference A before being dispatched by Ulster in the quarter finals. They are the least affected Irish province with only Bundee Aki and Jack Carty away at the World Cup.
They have brought in 11 players in total with all but one being Ireland qualified. Five are from their academy as well as centre Tom Daly from Leinster. Eleven players have also departed. Among those Cian Kelleher has joined Leinster and Conor Carey is off to Worcester.
Verdict – The most unfathomable of the Irish sides. Not the best watch but with the last four seasons taking them on an upward trajectory they are hard to pigeonhole. If I must I’ll say a slip to 4th.
Zebre have 10 players in the Italian World Cup squad. Carlo Canna and David Sisi among them as well as new signing from Benetton, hooker Luca Bigi.
They have picked up a couple of second rows in Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney from Leinster. Winger Charlie Walker also joins them from Harlequins and they have boosted their numbers with 7 players from Italian domestic rugby.
Their one notable departure is winger Matteo Minozzi who is off to Wasps.
Verdict – Unfortunately Zebre will be probably vying for the dubious honour of last place with Dragons.