Pro 14: Gavin Cummiskey’s team by team guide

The revamped competition kicks off on Friday night with Ulster and Munster playing

 CJ Velleman (Southern Kings), Tommaso Castello (Zebre), Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht) Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Dean Budd (Bennetton Treviso), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Isa Nacewa (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh) and Neill Jordan (Toyota Cheetahs). Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

CJ Velleman (Southern Kings), Tommaso Castello (Zebre), Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht) Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Dean Budd (Bennetton Treviso), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Isa Nacewa (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh) and Neill Jordan (Toyota Cheetahs). Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Conference A

MUNSTER
Coach: Rassie Erasmus (until January 1st)
Captain: CJ Stander
Overview: Uncertainty and instability are unavoidable due to the imminent departure of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber but Munster have covered the loss of Francis Saili with the return of JJ Hanrahan and recruitment of big Belfast centre Chris Farrell. New South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler recently served a drugs ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid dromostanolone.
Betting: 4/1.
Last five seasons: 6th, semi-final, runners-up, 6th, runners-up.

Prospects: Grobler, following an ankle injury, means the badly needed replacement for Donnacha Ryan is unavailable (Jean Kleyn is fit again). Still, Conference A is so weak that Munster should coast into the playoffs. Probably with a home semi-final.

CONNACHT
Coach: Kieran Keane
Captain: John Muldoon
Overview: The arrival of unknown Australians Jarrad Butler, a backrow, and Andrew Deegan, an outhalf, will not be enough. Keane comes with a seriously impressive reputation overseeing a stunning Chiefs backline so expect skill levels to revisit 2016 levels.
Betting: 50/1
Last five seasons: 8th, 10th, 7th, champions, 8th.

Prospects: Better than last season but the expected loss of Bundee Aki to Ireland for key periods could prove too heavy a blow for them reach the play-offs.

Bundee Aki plays a bit of hurling at Connacht training in the Sportsground, Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Bundee Aki plays a bit of hurling at Connacht training in the Sportsground, Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

CARDIFF BLUES
Coach: Danny Wilson
Captain: Gethin Jenkins
Overview: Cardiff comfortably finished seventh in the Pro 12 last season so they can rightfully expect to maintain their long standing among the also-rans. Jack Roberts return from Leicester should improve midfield.
Betting: 40/1
Last five seasons: 9th, 7th, 10th, 7th, 7th.

Prospects: Decent enough squad to push for the play-offs or at least be in

TOYOTA CHEETAHS
Coach: Rory Duncan
Captain: Neill Jordaan
Overview: So many reasons to ridicule this addition to the Pro 14 and 500,000 (euro not Rand) reasons to ignore them. But the fact the Cheetahs are playing Currie Cup and in a European league at the same time seems unworkable.
Betting: 14/1
Last five seasons: N/A

Prospects: Unclear. The Free State franchise are double-jobbing until November. This and next weekend the Currie Cup suffers. Their philosophy is to attack from all angles with Makazole Mapimpi a scorer of spectacular tries.

GLASGOW WARRIORS
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captain: Ryan Wilson
Overview: Huw Jones returning to Scotland from South African rugby, where he excelled, and Niko Matawalu from two season in the English Premiership are two outstanding purchases in a busy summer that also included the arrival of a highly rated Kiwi coach.
Betting: 7/1
Last five seasons: Semi-final, runners-up, champions, semi-final, 6th.

Prospects: Genuine contenders. Josh Strauss and Gordon Reid may have taken the Queen’s silver but the bones of the 2015 title winning squad is at Rennie’s disposal.

OSPREYS
Coach: Steve Tandy
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
Overview: Sam Underhill is a big loss as the young English openside joins Bath but James Hook is home to keep the whole operation ticking along when Dan Biggar and inevitably Sam Davies are on Wales duty.
Betting: 10/1
Last five seasons: 5th, 5th, semi-final, 8th, semi-final.

Prospects: Presuming the Cheetahs will misfire in unfamiliar surroundings, third place is the lowest expectation.

ZEBRE
Coach: Michael Bradley
Captain: George Biagi
Overview: The work being done far from view, by Steve Aboud, a coach of coaches who was instrumental in the early days of the Irish academy system, and Conor O’Shea has led to Bradley’s appointment. They lack quality in many positions.
Betting: 500/1
Last five seasons: 12th, 12th, 11th, 12th, 12th.

Prospects: This is the tougher conference and Zebre are expected to prop it up.

Coonference B

LEINSTER
Coach: Leo Cullen
Captain: Isa Nacewa
Overview: James Lowe is an exciting addition, a late arriving one though, which allows others to nail down a back three spot (maybe even Jordan Larmour). Midfield is a problem until Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose recover but everywhere else they are well stocked.
Betting: 7/4
Last five seasons: Champions, Champions, 5th, runners-up, semi-final.

Prospects: Win or failure. Squad looks stronger than it has been since 2012. Someone, possibly Scott Fardy, needs to nail down the tighthead locking role so James Ryan can put pressure on Devin Toner. Seven international backrows with Max Deegan and Caelan Doris to follow while bad for Irish rugby is great for Leinster.

Robbie Henshaw is a massive player for Leinster this season. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Robbie Henshaw is a massive player for Leinster this season. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

ULSTER
Coach: Jono Gibbes
Captain: Rory Best
Overview: Tough times in Belfast are offset by the arrival of a fully matured head coach but unless new prop Schalk van der Merwe is the real deal the same problems as last term will reappear. Big season for Kieran Treadwell. Jean Deysel is nice acquisition while fit again Marcell Coetzee will feel like one.
Betting: 10/1
Last five seasons: runners-up, semi-final, semi-final, semi-final, 5th.

Prospects: So much depends on Christian Lealiifano and John Cooney striking up an effective partnership because little is coming from within the Ulster system. This is the easier conference so its play-offs or bust for Les Kiss.

BENETTON TREVISO
Coach: Kieran Crowley 
Captain: Dead Budd.
Overview: Marty Banks will kick his goals but the loss of Luke McLean and Filo Paulo to London Irish seems too damaging for serious progress to be visible this season. Ian McKinley is switched to fullback and could be capped by the Azzurri.
Betting: 500/1
Last five seasons: 7th, 11th, 11th, 12th, 10th.

Prospects: Any move up the ladder is progress. Weaker conference so best coaching and use of resources will finish fourth. Time for Luciano to spend his billions.

DRAGONS
Coach: Bernard Jackman
Captain: Cory Hill
Overview: Tough gig but Jackman has the Grenoble experience, when he threatened to turn water into wine, to fall back on. That matters. So does Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner, neither recruit are bad business but it’s not as if they had to fight off clubs for either signature. The pack will struggle.
Betting: 500/1
Last five seasons: 11th, 9th, 9th, 10th, 11th.

Prospects: The Edinburgh and Treviso matches take on a new meaning. Such rivalries are how this league hopes to grow long term. Promised support from the WRU is crucial.

EDINBURGH
Coach: Richard Cockerill
Captain: Magnus Bradbury
Overview: Mark Bennett is a quality addition but the best Scottish players known the financial gains of moving to England or France are not punishable by international exile. Appointing Richard Cockerill as coach is a serious statement of intent. “I got sacked and I’d never finished outside the top four,” said the former England hooker of his Leicester years.
Betting: 175/1
Last five seasons: 10th, 8th, 9th, 9th, 9th.

Prospects: Time to build Cockers a cage in Murrayfield. He will make it a hellish place to visit. Real improvement expected.

SOUTHERN KINGS
Coach: Deon Davids
Captain: Michael Willemse
Overview: This is not the Southern Kings on show during 2017 Super Rugby. That squad has disintegrated. The 27 man panel travelling north for the opening rounds against the Scarlets and Connacht will tell us something because nobody knows anything.
Betting: 25/1
Last five seasons: N/A

Prospects: This has the potential to fail spectacularly. Nobody, not the new coaches or Pro 14 organisers, have any idea how competitive this team will be. Lots of players on trial makes it feel very risky.

Scarlets celebrate with the trophy last season. Photograph: Inpho
Scarlets celebrate with the trophy last season. Photograph: Inpho

SCARLETS
Coach: Wayne Pivac
Captain: Ken Owens
Overview: Liam Williams moving to Saracens was a blow but that is offset by Leigh Halfpenny joining from Toulon. The continued development of Tadhg Beirne will be monitored by the Irish provinces, especially Leinster and Munster.
Betting: 11/2
Last five seasons: semi-final, 6th, 6th, 5th, champions.

Prospects: The champions should duel with Leinster for the home semi-final berth. Proved last May they can beat anyone anywhere and in Pivac they have an outstanding coach.

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