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GUINNESS PRO14: Round 1 Preview

GUINNESS PRO14: Round 1 Preview

A truly historic chapter will be written this weekend when the first ever GUINNESS PRO14 season kicks off after the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings from South Africa.

As this world-class Championship continues to raise the bar, the introduction of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings makes the GUINNESS PRO14 a global tournament. Round 1 also marks the first games played under the new Conference format which sees each team play home and away against sides in their own Conference and then ‘home or away’ against the other Conference before two more rounds that ensure all derby games are played.
The Cheetahs will be the first team from South Africa to go up against ‘northern’ opposition when they travel to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night to face Ulster, while the Southern Kings face a daunting trip to Parc y Scarlets where the men from Llanelli will play their first Championship game since winning the title at the Aviva Stadium last May.
Once again, all roads will lead to Dublin for the 2018 GUINNESS PRO14 final after the Aviva Stadium won the race to host the first ever Championship decider of the new 14-team era. It promises to be a sensational season with 21 regular rounds to decide who will reach the newly-expanded PRO14 final series with six teams qualifying.

There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the first fixtures of the season with Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh meeting at the Cardiff Arms Park. It will mark the PRO14 debut of Richard Cockerill as Edinburgh head coach, but each team will believe that they have ground to make up for and make a challenge to finish in the top three of their respective Conferences. Former Leicester boss Cockerill will have high hopes for the Scots, but the Blues got off to a fast start last season and Danny Wilson will be aiming for more of the same this year.

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That game is one of three inter-conference fixtures with Ulster hosting the Cheetahs and Munster welcoming Benetton Rugby to Cork’s Irish Independent Park. Benetton have recruited smartly during the off-season and much will be expected from head coach Kieran Crowley in his second year with the Italian team.
Elsewhere, the Ospreys welcome Zebre to Swansea in a repeat of last season’s opening round fixture. Zebre’s new head coach Michael Bradley will be looking to his side to leave Wales with more than they had to show for last year as the Parma-based outfit kick off their first campaign under the guidance of the Italian Federation.

Not far from the Liberty Stadium, the Scarlets will play their first match as defending champions against the Kings, while in Newport the Bernard Jackman era begins at the Dragons where they will welcome their head coach’s old team Leinster. Meanwhile, in Galway, the 2015 champions Glasgow Warriors will take on the 2016 title winners Connacht when Kieran Keane and Dave Rennie (former Super Rugby coaches from the Chiefs) go head-to-head as they take charge of their new teams for the first time.

In the pick of the round, a packed house is expected at Kingspan Stadium where Les Kiss and his Ulster side will be the first team from the northern Hemisphere to take on South African opposition. The game will also mark the arrival of Australian international Christian Lealiifano who has signed for Ulster on a short-term deal to provide cover at out-half.

For the visitors, head coach Rory Duncan has assembled a strong squad for the Cheetahs’ trip to Ireland which also sees them travel to Limerick to face Munster in round 2. The men from Bloemfontein are buoyed by their entry into the PRO14 and hope to transfer that energy into their opening performances.

Conference A: Cardiff Blues, Toyota Cheetahs, CONNACHT, Glasgow Warriors, MUNSTER, Ospreys, Zebre

Conference B: Benetton Rugby, Dragons, Edinburgh, Southern Kings, LEINSTER, Scarlets, ULSTER


Friday, September 1 –

Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh, Cardiff Arms Park, 7.35pm (live BBC 2 Wales/BBC ALBA)

MUNSTER v Benetton Rugby, Irish Independent Park, 7.35pm (live TG4)

ULSTER v Toyota Cheetahs, Kingspan Stadium, 7.35pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)

Saturday, September 2 –

Ospreys v Zebre, Liberty Stadium, 2.30pm

Dragons v LEINSTER, Rodney Parade, 3.15pm (live S4C/Sky Sports Action)

Scarlets v Southern Kings, Parc y Scarlets, 5.30pm (live Sky Sports Action)

CONNACHT v Glasgow Warriors, the Sportsground, 7.35pm (live TG4/BBC ALBA)