PRO14 Rugby: Runners and Riders. Season Preview

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.

Dave Rennie
Glasgow Warriors Head Coach Dave Rennie is ready to get stuck in – pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

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.

Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh Head Coach
Edinburgh Head Coach Richard Cockerill – pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography

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.

Overall Prediction

Conference AConference B
LeinsterMunster
GlasgowScarlets
UlsterEdinburgh
OspreysConnacht
CheetahsBenetton
DragonsCardiff
ZebreKings

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Edinburgh supporter and former tighthead whose clubs include Edinburgh Wanderers, Corstorphine, Lothian & Borders Police and The Co-optimists. I’m a much better player now than I ever was when I actually took to the field.
Follow Sandy on twitter @bigparahandy

28 comments on “PRO14 Rugby: Runners and Riders. Season Preview

  1. Neil on

    A somewhat reliable source has informed me that Rennie is signing up a guy called Pita Sowakula from chiefs, plays Back row from i gather.

  2. Neil on

    Huw Jones looked class in the warm-up game against Ulster, Really classy powerful play in attack and good work rate in defence, i reccomend watching on the Warriors Youtube Channel.

    If thats what we are going to miss out on at the WC ill be highly disappointed.

    • Bazz on

      Yeah I was impressed with Jones too.

      Given we had 12 players missing for the WC I think that was a pretty good all-round performance

      Rory Hughes when he actually catches the ball looks so dangerous…looks like he picked up another injury though…

      Predicting another good year for Glasgow though, great all-round squad.

  3. Did Simon Taylor actually exist on

    I think it’s worth reflecting that Scottish rugby is in it’s strongest place now since the advent of professionalism.
    We can bicker about the make-up of the current world cup squad, but there is serious young talent left playing in the Pro14 which will be peaking over the next RWC cycle. It’s likely that over the next four years we will see a first Scottish 6 nations win, another pro14 title, even a third professional team.
    Feasibly, we could be going into France 2023 with a match-day squad of:

    1) Jamie Bhatti
    2) Stuart McInally
    3) Zander Fagerson
    4) Scott Cummings
    5) Jonny Gray
    6) Jamie Ritchie
    7) Hamish Watson
    8) Matt Fagerson
    9) George Horne
    10) Finn Russell
    11) Damien Hoyland
    12) Sam Johnson
    13) Huw Jones
    14) Darcy Graham
    15) Stuart Hogg
    16) Grant Stewart
    17) Allan Dell
    18) Praying there’s a good tighthead in the age grades rn
    19) Ben Toolis
    20) Magnus Bradbury
    21) Ali Price
    22) Adam Hastings
    23) Duhan Van der Merwe?

    • Bazz on

      I think we will be in a good place over the next 4 years but to predict a 6N win as likely is a bit much. I think England will dominate this WC cycle with us, ireland, wales and france all fighting for 2nd-5th place. I believe the worst for France has passed and they will improve with incredible talent amongst their younger players i.e Ntmack, Dupont, Alldritt, Bamba, Penaud, Chat, Fickou, Iturria etc

      I think our 23 in 2023 will be.

      1. Schoeman
      2. Stewart/McInally
      3. Fagerson
      4. Skinner
      5. Cummings
      6. Bradbury
      7. Ritchie/Watson
      8. Fagerson
      9. Horne
      10. Russell
      11. Kinghorn
      12. Johnson
      13. Hutchinson
      14. Graham
      15. Hogg

      16. McInally/Stewart
      17. Dell
      18. McCallum
      19. Gray
      20. Watson/Ritchie
      21. Dobie/Price
      22. Hastings
      23. McDowell

      • john martin on

        Some interesting names to consider for 2023 (or before)- Oli Keeble, Kyle Steyn, Tommy Gordon, Mark Bennett, Murray McCallum

      • Saint4805 on

        I also expect England to dominate with Wales and Ireland undergoing a bit of a post Schmidt/Gatland crash after they leave. I think we will be able to nick more wins against these two after their head coaches depart as I am not convinced that Pivac and Andy Farrell will reach the same heights. France are always liable to implode and so who knows what they will do.

    • Campbell B on

      This is a well intended post and I agree largely with it. A lot of choice.I think we have got into a rut, always hoping, tomorrow will be better.We need to start believing in today. Today I still have reservations about our coach. This blog will read very differently in 2 months time, lets hope for the better.

      • john martin on

        Campbell, I too have reservations about our coach, the last England game summed up GT’s teams, capable of great highs & depressing lows. Consistency isn’t a GT’s team trait. I had an inkling that we let Vern Cotter go simply to ensure GT stayed in Scotland. Furthermore Scotland do seem to be fairly simple to beat, it takes a better class of team to do it mind, don’t kick loosely long (to Hogg), don’t allow Russell/Scotland space & front foot ball. However with Finn Russell is maturing into a top 10, given a wee bit luck we can be in with a chance at the hour mark in the QF

      • Campbell B on

        I believe Cotter would, like most coaches, had a settled side , playing in the warm ups.

        There was a post in here at the time Cotter was released , which I think was probably based on truth. It reflected that the SRU may have had to face it would lose either Townsend or Cotter.to Montpellier. Glasgow and Scotland were emerging from under a cloud.

        Presently Glasgow are just beginning to emerge again under Rennie, Edinburgh rising under the experience of Cotterill and Scotland under Townsend have yet to beat PRO 14 peers , Ireland or Wales in 5 tests. Something Cotter did achieve in his duration. Our opening match of the RWC is a must win for Gregor IMO.

  4. Neil on

    Age of players by 2023 WC

    18-22: ?
    23: Jack Blain
    24:
    25: Matt Fagerson, Stafford Mcdowall, Charlie Shiel

    26: Adam Nicol, Scott Cummings, Adam Hastings, Callum Hunter-Hill, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham,

    27: Rory Hutchison, Zander Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie, Murray Mcallum

    28: Sam Skinner, Grant Stewart, George Horne, Lewis Carmichael, Magnus Bradbury, Duhan Van Der Merwe

    29: Jonny Gray, Huw Jones, Kyle Steyn, Pierre Schoeman,

    30: George Turner, Finn Russell, Sam Hidalgo- Clyne, Ali Price, Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson, Jamie Bhatti, Mark Bennett

    31: Stuart Hogg, Oli Kebble, Allan Dell, Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson, Rory Sutherland,

    32: Duncan Weir, Chris Harris, Blade Thomson, Simon Berghan,

    33: David Denton, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Grant Gilchrist, Stuart Mcinally, Matt Scott

    34: Richie Gray, Byron Mcguigan, Duncan Taylor, Fraser Brown, Ryan Wilson,

    35: Sean Maitland, John Hardie, Tommy Seymour

    36 —>

    • Campbell B on

      I had wondered if the age of our key players would be an issue. But if we consider Dan Carter was 33 at the 2015 RWC , Hogg, Russell, Watson , Jones will be in the right zone. Graham and McInally appear better than average, but need more experience.

      At the minute these are the 6 that could get a Lions tour in the the future though I think only 2 would get a test place.

      I know we blame Gatland but not one of our side has been picked in a Lions test match and if we are being truly honest , that is just about where we were in 2015.

      I think when we can see at least 4 are automatic lions choices, we can consider we have reached a good place. To my mind it is how many standout players do we have.

      Controversially , and I accept his form is debatable, the one guy who would be a lions pick and would thrive in that environment , is Huw Jones. However right now, we know what he needs to do . I look forward to seeing him do a job at Glasgow , but playing in a Premiership side, will take him back to where he belongs, head and shoulder above the rest.

      • Saint4805 on

        I think Hogg is the only one likely to get a starting place in a Lions test side. Watson should tour but will struggle to displace the likes of Navidi. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russell doesn’t even tour incredible as that seems as I can see Gatland picking Sexton, Farrell and Biggar again. Unless of course he takes Farrell primarily as a 12 with the option to cover 10. The key is getting a Scot into the coaching set up in order to push their case at the selection meetings. This is why our players lost out in all the marginal calls.

      • Grant on

        Garland to pick Richie gray and huw Jones shocker ….

        See he is getting his excuses in first , if they locks are injured , why did you pick them ?

      • CrazyP on

        Sexton has been declining since the lions by the time the next comes along he won’t be close. He’ll be 36!More likely The 3 F’s; Ford Farrell and Finn

      • TeamCam on

        Navidi is good but Watson is much better. That said, Gatland would take Navidi instead. And he’ll take Carberry or Anscombe or Patchell ahead of Russell.

      • Cherry Picker on

        On current form and they key word in current, Hogg would have stiff competition for the test spot from Liam Williams and that is a horrible thought. Exeter is a positive move for Hogg in every way and might just put him back at number 1.

  5. SB on

    Glasgow have a very tough start away to the Cheetahs. Huw Jones played like a man with something to prove in the Ulster friendly and I expect Matt Fagerson will be the same. Grant Stewart is another who will be thinking he should be in Japan and might still be. Glasgow will be putting out an experienced pack but the question is will Rennie’s system flourish with Frisbee, Thomson and Bryce playing 9, 10 and 15?

    Edinburgh have an easier start and all their backs available bar Kinghorn and Graham. In the pack they need Murray McCallum, Lewis Carmichael and Luke Crosbie to step up. Groom was captaining Edinburgh yesterday so it will be interesting to see how Pyrgos reacts to being benched.

    Next weekend will be ridiculous in terms of rugby viewing. I’m intending to watch Cheetahs vs Glasgow, Fiji v Australia, France vs Argentina, New Zealand vs South Africa, Edinburgh vs Zebre and Scotland vs Ireland. Can’t wait.

  6. CSC on

    Glasgow were ponderous and predictable for the first 20 mins of their friendly against Ulster, and made me wonder if they were determined to stick to a particular unambitious playing script. OK, experimentation is one of the purposes of pre season games, so I’ll reserved judgement of their tactics. Having said that, Ulster didn’t try to vary their smother game throughout – why not when it was working so well; just waiting for the opportunity which would inevitably come along. Pleased to see Glasgow got a lot better as the game went on, especially their defence; and some really good individual performances. Once the season gets underway I hope to see an attack strategy that shows more variety and creativity.

  7. Lochinverboy on

    Was at Scotstoun on Sat. I thought Jones was excellent and young McDowall? There’s a young lad with a great future. Interestingly, he last started v Sarries away then disappeared to Ayr. Development or naughty st by Rennie? Who knows. Would love Hughes at FB for Glasgow…..if he keeps fit! Hard hard start V Cheetahs but the depth is there. Feel for Ritchie but paradoxically it might suit us him being out for the Irish game. Thomson will give it 100% but his injury record ain’t good. Bradbury on the bench would be a sensible option at 8. Can’t wait.

    • Neil on

      This would be my 1st choice Glasgow team for the new season.

      1. Oli Kebble
      2. Fraser Brown
      3. Zander Fagerson
      4. Jonny Gray
      5. Scott Cummings
      6. Callum Gibbins
      7. Thomas Gordon
      8. Matt Fagerson
      9. George Horne
      10. Adam Hastings
      11. Niko Matawalu
      12. Sam Johnson
      13. Huw Jones
      14. Kyle Steyn
      15. Tommy Seymour

      16. Grant Stewart
      17. Aki Seiuli
      18. Siosiua Halanukonuka
      19. Kiran Mcdonald
      20. Ryan Wilson
      21. Ali Price
      22. Peter Horne
      23. Stafford Mcdowall

    • FF on

      Bradbury can’t bench as if he officially replaces Ritchie in the squad Ritchie can’t play again in the RWC. Bradbury is there in case of other injuries of Ritchie failing to recover in time.

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