Whoever named the Pro14 conferences clearly didn’t have much of an imagination. Here is the preview for Conference A and look out for the Conference B preview to be released tomorrow.
Arguably the toughest of the two groups with the stronger of the two newcomers, the Cheetahs who have four Springbok internationals. Alongside the South African side in the conference is Munster, Connacht, Glasgow and Ospreys. All the teams will be vying for the top three spots to make the play offs.
Head coach: Steve Tandy
The Ospreys head coach must surely have been disappointed with last season’s semifinal defeat after working so hard to make it to that stage. Expect the Liberty Stadium outfit to make it tough for all their rivals and fight right until the end to make the play offs.
Key Player: Alun-Wyn Jones
The Welsh captain is a Paul O’Connell-esque figure at both club and country level and when he plays he invariably raises the standard of those around him in red and black. They need him fit for the business end of the season to make any noise.
I think they will just miss out on the playoffs, but that being said I think it will be very close and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they make it in. This is especially true if the South African teams don’t end up travelling well.
Head coach: Danny Wilson
The former Bristol forwards coach will want to build on their positive campaign last year having just missed out on European qualification. Given the quality of their opposition, the new format does not suit the Welsh outfit, but the Blues will spring a few shock results on their day.
Key Player: Sam Warburton
Like Jones, the Lions captain raises the standards of his troops. However, it’s a case of when the open side is fit and firing. Therefore, Cardiff will suffer badly when he’s away on international duty.
I don’t see as much wiggle room as the Ospreys given the quality of the opposition in the group. Don’t expect enough shocks for a playoff push.
Head coach: Dave Rennie
This guy is no slouch. Rennie coached the Chiefs to the latter stages of SuperRugby every year he was in charge and he was the first coach to beat an international side with a club side. He is more than capable of picking up where Gregor Townsend left off and may even improve Glasgow.
Key Player: Stuart Hogg
Glasgow are competitive all around the park, but Hogg provides that little bit of star quality that wins the tight games. He has the blistering pace to cross the try line, and he is always a threat for a halfway line shot at goal with that giant boot of his.
Depending on how Munster survive without Rassie Erasmus, Glasgow could be one of the top two sides in the group. They have plenty of quality and one of the best squads to cope without their internationals in November and Spring.
Head coach: Rassie Erasmus (Leaving midseason)
This is a problem. We don’t know for definite when he’s leaving and we don’t know who his successor will be with Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery the front runners for the job. One thing we do know is that he will be sorely missed and that a certain South African colleague of mine is jumping up and down with excitement to have him back!
Key Player: Conor Murray
Munster are full to the brim with talent at the moment, but Murray is in a different class and impossible to ignore when picking the key player in this – or any – squad. His ability to control games even when his pack is struggling is extraordinary and the innate knowledge of when to speed up and slow down a game is second to none. The two-time British and Irish Lion is the world’s best scrum half at the moment.
Munster’s new signings should see them be able to cope without their international stars. Whether they can cope without Erasmus is a totally different kettle of fish. I still fully expect them to battle with Glasgow for the top spot.
Head coach: Kieran Keane
For those Connacht fans fearing a one step forward two steps back scenario without Pat Lam, fear not. Kieran Keane is another man from Down Under that knows what it takes to win and win in style having coached All Blacks golden boy Beauden Barrett. He can certainly pick up the pieces of last seasons underwhelming defence of their Pro12 crown and have them competing potentially as soon as this season.
Key Player: Kieran Marmion
Marmion Is incredibly unlucky to have Murray ahead of him in the Ireland pecking order because when he does play he’s exciting, and he makes things happen from nothing. Good player, getting even better.
I expect Connacht to have to adjust to Keane’s methods but they will be very competitive in every match and who knows, they may even shock the rugby world again.
Head coach: Michael Bradley
Does anyone love a challenge more than this man? Bradley led Connacht for seven years and laid the foundations for today’s success before leading Edinburgh to their best ever finish in the Celtic League. This time he may have bitten off more than he can chew. It would take a rugby genius to see the minuscule improvements he can make on the field without proper financing in one season. Zebre might steal a couple of results during the international windows given all the Italian internationals play abroad. I have a sneaking suspicion his old mate Conor O’Shea may have roped him into this.
Key Player: Giovanbattista Venditti
One of the few internationals in the side. Venditti is a tricky customer to defend against, particularly if you kick recklessly to him. He is a live wire in attack and will score tries for the much maligned Italian outfit.
The whipping boys of the division and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Living without any expectation might be Bradley’s secret weapon. Not expecting much.
Head coach: Naka Drotske
The World Cup winning hooker from 1995 is leading his Cheetahs side into the unknown. I’ll be honest I don’t have a clue how the South African sides will get on, because until now all we could do was theorise on how the Northern Hemisphere clubs would fair against our Southern counterparts. Drotske has had success with the Cheetahs and was unlucky to be one of the sides that were cut from Super Rugby.
Key Player: Oupa Mohojé
The flanker caught the eye against the French in the summer Tests after he seemed star struck with the glitz and glamour of international rugby. He is the key to the Cheetahs breakdown dominance that is the basis behind their free-flowing style.
My prediction is based on the fact they have four fully fledged Springboks in their squad that will only be missing for the November series. The unpredictability of their free-flowing style might catch teams off guard in their debut season in the competition.
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