Another new rugby season is almost upon us, but this season the Guinness League is different, 14 teams competing divided into two conferences including two South African teams. There is no doubt this league needed a new direction, and with the playing ability and the revenue that the Toyota Cheetahs and The Southern Kings will be bringing in, which is rumoured to be an additional £5 million, there are high hopes that this season you will see an improvement for the better.
With two conferences of seven teams, top three in each conference will go through to the final rounds. The top team in each conference go straight through to the semi-finals, with the others competing in the quarter finals. In terms of European qualification, the top three in each conference will qualify for The Champions Cup, with the best fourth placed team with the most points earning the final place. Neither the Toyota Cheetahs or The Southern Kings can qualify for The Champions Cup, so if they earn a qualifying place, the next team or teams who can qualify will take up their respective slot or slots.
In terms of Welsh representation, reigning Champions, the Scarlets I fully expect to have a very strong season again. Their conference I see them competing for the top spot with Leinster, and will be very interesting to see how they go in the league season and in The Champions Cup. Their backline has so much promise with Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Steff Evans, Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies, and they have a good pack with a strong front five and will be interesting to see if Tadhg Beirne can follow up his outstanding season last season, if he can Irish international honours may not be too far away.
Ospreys are in the same conference as Cardiff Blues and Ospreys will be a looking on an improvement from last season. They gave some fine players and as last season will be interesting to see how they manage the game time of Dan Biggar and Sam Davies at fly half through the season especially in the big games. They often in the big matches try and get both on the pitch and normally end up playing Davies at full back to start, even though in my view Dan Evans is a far better full back than Davies. If Ospreys can get the combinations right they can be a threat to most sides in this league. Keep an eye out for Kieran Williams, a young centre who if given the opportunity could be a real find for the Ospreys this season.
Dragons have a new coach in Bernard Jackman and there is hope that with a new set up that they will be a stronger proposition on the field this season. They are in the same conference as Scarlets, and I hope they are more competitive home and away this season on a more regular basis. For what it’s worth, I like what I have heard from Jackman and I hope he is given some time to turn around their fortunes, they do have some good players in Tyler Morgan, Hallam Amos and one, in particular, to look out for is the young flanker, Ollie Griffiths. A real talent.
Cardiff Blues will hope that all the issues off the field can be overcome and the players bring a smile to The Arms Park faithful. Danny Wilson has made a few recruits and at home, in particular, I see them being an attractive side to watch with numbers of tries being scored on their 4G pitch, with a rejuvenated Alex Cuthbert getting on the end of a number of back moves. Will the pack though be strong enough to compete with the top sides though? Time will tell. Keep an eye out for Seb Davies, the young Welsh lock looks a real talent with a hard edge, and I look forward to seeing how he progresses this season.
In terms of my predictions for Welsh teams and winners of the inaugural tournament here goes:
Guinness Pro 14 Winners – Leinster
Scarlets – Champions Cup qualifiers
Ospreys – Champions Cup qualifiers
Dragons – Improved season, but missing out on qualifying
Cardiff Blues – Top finishing fourth team, qualifying for Champions Cup.
There are some real talent in this league with backs such as Charles Piutau (for one more season), Joey Carberry, James Lowe, Adam Byrne, Jonathan Davies and Willis Halaholo and forwards such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien and Marcell Coetzee just to name a few. With players in the ranks of the two South African teams such as Springboks internationals Teboho Mohoje, Francois Venter and explosive winger Raymond Rhule, can only add to the quality of matches fans can enjoy. I am looking forward to it.