Wednesday 16 October 2019

Pro14 preview: Everything you need to know as Leinster aim to regain crown

The Leinster team celebrate with the trophy last year
The Leinster team celebrate with the trophy last year

Des Berry

Leo Cullen has seen Cian Kelleher return to Leinster as the only outside addition to his squad this season.

Other than that, the Academy continues its' good work with the promotion of a scatter of talented youngsters, like Scott Penny, Conor O'Brien, Ciaran Frawley and Ronan Kelleher.

In contrast, Jack McGrath, Sean O'Brien, Noel Reid, Nick McCarthy and Mick Kearney have all moved on.

However, The Blues have managed to stay undefeated in pre-season against Coventry (47-17), Canada (38-35) and Northampton Saints (34-26) to grow the confidence of a strong group.

"It has been a long pre-season and we've tried to break it up into different blocks," said Cullen.

"The guys have worked hard and we're looking forward to putting it into proper practice now.

"Everyone wants to get back into competitive games and even watching the World Cup, we're just keen to get up and running."

The champions will start out in Italy tomorrow (KO5.15, Eirsport 1) against a Benetton club looking to build on their consistency from last season.

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The Irish drain to Italy is best reflected in two out-halfs, Ian Keatley and Ian McKinlay, both playing for Treviso this season.

"They're a very hard team to break down, some big physical men," warned Cullen.

"It'll be a good challenge for our guys as they still have the guts of their team in Irne Herbst, Marco Fuser, Marco Lazzaroni, Marco Barbini, Dewaldt Duvenage, the South African scrum-half.

Leinster old boy McGrath will make his debut for Ulster against Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium in the PRO14 League tonight (KO7.35, Eirsport 1).

The Ireland loose-head will be joined on debut by summer signings in second row Sam Carter and full-back Matt Faddes and their second season flanker Jordi Murphy.

"I don't think you will ever find a coach who will say he has had a bad pre-season," said coach Dan McFarland.

"We've had two really good competitive games. We have a good idea on where we are and what we need to work on.

"We're just looking forward to that first game against The Ospreys.

Johann van Graan's Munster will start out tomorrow (KO3.0, TG4 & Eirsport 1) in Thomond Park against The Dragons.

The poor relation of Welsh rugby might just have made one of the best moves in the off-season with the signing of Sam Davies.

It remains to be seen how the new Munster coaching ticket will gel with understandable excitement around the signing of Stephen Larkham to improve the back play and Graham Rowntree to continue the good work up front.

"Steve's played 100 test matches, won a World Cup, coached at a World Cup, been successful at the Brumbies," said van Graan.

"Graham, a British & Irish Lion, played at Leicester, a club very much like Munster.

"I coached against him for test matches when he was with England and I have always respected what he did."

Connacht won't have it all their way at Scarlets tomorrow evening (KO5.15, TG4).

There will be a concentration on evolving the variety that attacking style of play that was so easy on the eye last season.

"It is just trying to expand the variety of our attack," said backs coach Nigel Carolan.

"There is a tool box there. It is up to the players to select the right tool for the right moment based on the picture that they see."

CONFERENCE A

LEINSTER

Last year: Champions & 1st in B.

One To Watch: Ryan Baird – The superior athleticism of the lock or loose forward make for must see TV.

Odds: 6/5.

Prediction: 1st in A & Champions.


ULSTER

Last year: Semi-finalist & 2nd in B.

One To Watch: Sam Carter – The Wallaby lock will stoke up the engine room with his commitment.

Odds: 14/1.

Prediction: 4th in A.


GLASGOW WARRIORS

Last year: Runners-Up & 1st in A.

One To Watch: Kyle Steyn – The Scotland qualified South African has the speed and size to cause trouble out wide.

Odds: 4/1.

Prediction: 2nd in A & Finalists.


OSPREYS

Last year: 4th in A.

One To Watch: Gareth Anscombe – The replacement for Dan Biggar might just cause a rebound this season.

Odds: 20/1.

Prediction: 3rd in A.


CHEETAHS

Last year: 6th in A.

One To Watch: Ruan Pienaar - The 35-year-old's brain was always his best asset and that won't have slowed.

Odds: 66/1.

Prediction: 6th in A.


DRAGONS

Last year: 6th in B.

One To Watch: Sam Davies – The wand of a left foot will be used to tease and tear defences apart.

Odds: 300/1.

Prediction: 5th in A.


ZEBRE

Last year: 7th in A.

One To Watch: Charlie Walker – The rapid ex-Quins wing will probably be one of the most entertaining sights in the PRO14.

Odds: 300/1.

Prediction: 7th in A.


CONFERENCE B

MUNSTER

Last year: Semi-finalist & 2nd in A.

One To Watch: Jack O'Sullivan – The long-term lay-off with injury might just work out in favour of the explosive loose forward.

Odds: 100/30.

Prediction: 1st in B & Semi-final.


CONNACHT

Last year: Quarter-finalist & 3rd in A.

One To Watch: Conor Fitzgerald – Backs coach Nigel Carolan is confident the out-half will step up on his first senior contract.

Odds: 22/1.

Prediction: 4th in B.


SCARLETS

Last year: 4th in B.

One To Watch: Tevita Retuva – The free-spirited Fijian lock has the perfect home to for those off-the-cuff moments.

Odds: 20/1.

Prediction: 3rd in B.


CARDIFF BLUES

Last year: 5th in A.

One To Watch: Will Boyde – The former-Scarlet and exceptional groundhog will be a pest at the breakdown.

Odds: 25/1.

Prediction: 6th in B.


EDINBURGH

Last year: 5th in B.

One To Watch: Mike Willemse – The bruising lock is a Richard Cockerill signing, if ever there was one.

Odds: 18/1.

Prediction: 2nd in B.


BENETTON

Last year: Quarter-finalist & 3rd in B.

One To Watch: Ian Keatley – It will be interesting to see how much the Ireland international has left to give at this level.

Odds: 50/1.

Prediction: 5th in B.


SOUTHERN KINGS

Last year: 7th in B.

One To Watch: Jerry Sexton – There will be strong Irish interest in how Jonathan's younger brother takes to life in South Africa.

Odds: 300/1.

Prediction: 7th in B.


GUINNESS PRO14 LEAGUE

ROUND 1.

FRIDAY: Cheetahs v Glasgow, Toyota Stadium 6.05; Ulster v Ospreys, 7.35 Eirsport 1.

SATURDAY: Munster v Dragons, Thomond Park 3.0 TG4 & Eirsport 1; Southern Kings v Cardiff Blues, Nelson Mandela Bay; Scarlets v Connacht, Parc Y Scarlets 5.15 TG4; Benetton v Leinster, 5.15 Eirsport 1; Edinburgh v Zebre, Murrayfield 7.35.

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