It has been just over two months since that historic day at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin when the Scarlets were more than worthy winners of the Pro12 title. Despite whispers and rumours, no one could have imagined the summer of uncertainty that followed resulting in the Scarlets being crowned Pro12 Champions for eternity due to the birth of the new Pro14 League.
Whilst normal pre-season has continued in the clubs, Pro14 chiefs have been working tirelesly to accommodate the arrival of the 2 new South African clubs joining the League this season….the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs. Both teams have enjoyed little success in Super Rugby and the South African Rugby Union have expressed an interest in joining Northern Hemisphere rugby for a while. Following their exclusion from next season’s Super Rugby competition, it made sense from them to accept the somewhat rushed invitation to join the Pro12.
Despite supporters still awaiting a formal fixture list at this late stage of the summer, it has been confirmed that the Scarlets will host Southern Kings for the first round of the new Pro14 during the first weekend in September as the league takes on a whole new format.
The league will now be split into two seven team conferences, with 2 Irish, 2 Welsh, a Scottish, Italian and South African team included in each. The make up of these conferences will change each year depending on the league position of each team.
For this season, the Scarlets, as top seeds, are drawn in Conference B, along with the 4th seeded Dragons, Leinster and Ulster, who are seeded 2nd and 3rd in Ireland, 2nd seeded Edinburgh from Scotland, Italy’s top seeds Treviso and 2nd seeds Southern Kings from South Africa.
Despite welcoming two new teams into the league, there will be one less round of matches during the regular season. Each team will play the other teams in their Conference both home and away. They will also play each team in the other conference either home or away….this will alternate each season. The ever-popular derby matches have been secured and will be probably be played during the Christmas period along with the continuation of Judgement Day. The Scottish, Italian and South African teams will play an extra derby fixture to ensure the same number of derby games as their Welsh and Irish counterparts during the 21 round competition.
The top 3 teams from each conference will then qualify for the end of season play-offs with the top placed team securing a home semi final spot and the second placed teams hosting the third placed teams from the other conference in the new quarter finals round. The venue for next season’s final has yet to be announced, however the WRU have already ruled themselves out stating the fact that a number of concerts have already been booked for the Principality Stadium. Whoever wins the bid to host the final, it is hoped that unlike last season, there would be more than a week before the semi final and final to enable as many supporters as possible to support their teams.
Pro14 organisers have announced that in order to ensure player welfare, if there are two away games against the South African teams, these will be played back to back, as a ‘mini tour’ and have assured clubs that suitable facilities will be secured during their stay.
At this time, the South African teams are ineligable for the European competitions. The top 3 teams in each conference will qualify along with the seventh seeded team over all. Should one of these teams be one of the South Africans then the next placed team will take their place.
The organising of this new format, along with the inclusion of the South African teams, along with the reported problems with Zebre have resutled in a lengthy delay in the release of next season’s fixtures and has split the opinion of both fans and rugby pundits alike, however despite the uncertainty, this new format could prove to be very exciting and open up a whole new opportunity with talk of next season welcoming teams from America, Canada, Germany and Georgia as the league becomes global. There is, of course, the increased financial side also which can only be a good thing as Welsh Rugby attempts to compete with it’s English and French counterparts.
Whilst all this has been ongoing, the hard work has also been ongoing in Parc y Scarlets with the aims for this season to end as Champions once more and to make the play-off stages of the Champions Cup. But also to do this, playing the brand of rugby that swept top teams away towards the end of last season.
Head Coach, Wayne Pivac has challenged his squad to target becoming fitter, faster and stronger than last season. This will enable the players to play with a higher intensity and for longer periods than previous seasons and hopefully, start off better than last season’s three consecutive losses during the opening rounds.
Of course, the big news that has come out of Parc y Scarlets during the off season is the signing of British Lions and possibly one of the most famous names in Welsh Rugby – Leigh Halfpenny. Chairman, Nigel Short stated in the Crys16 Supporters’ Trust AGM that Halfpenny would not be joining the region……however, it seems that the WRU has pulled out all the stops to get Halfpenny home on a National Dual Contract. With crowd favourite Liam Williams about to embark on his Saracens career, few believed he would actually have been replaced by Halfpenny.
As a player in his current form, Halfpenny doesn’t quite ‘fit’ with the flair that is Scarlets rugby. Yes, he probably has the deadliest boot in the business, but his attacking game is not that of Liam, so on a personal level, a move to the Scarlets, under the guidance of Stephen Jones, could well be huge for him – we could well see a whole new side to the player. The other new signings for the coming season include Tom Prydie and Geraint Rhys Jones from the Dragons, Tom Grabham from the Ospreys and Paul Asquith from Western Sydney Rams.
As always, the pre-season friendlies will continue this season with the Scarlets announcing fixtures against a Premier Select XV in Llandovery RFC this coming Saturday, before away fixtures against Bristol on August 19th 2017 and Gloucester on Friday 25th August 2017…and then the new season will be underway once more….bring it on!!
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