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 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 clubs 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 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 Aviva Stadium last May.
Once again, all roads will lead to Dublin for the 2018 Guinness PRO14 Final after 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 Guinness PRO14 Final Series with six clubs 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 coach, but each team will believe that they have ground to make up for and make a challenge to finish in the Top 3 of their respective Conferences. Former Leicester boss Cockerill will have high hopes for the Scots, but Blues got off to a fast start last season and Danny Wilson will be aiming for more of the same this year.
That game is one of three inter-conference fixtures with Ulster hosting 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 coach Kieran Crowley in his second year with the Italian team.
Elsewhere, Ospreys welcome Zebre Rugby Club to Swansea in a repeat of last season’s opening round fixture. Zebre’s new coach Michael Bradley will be looking to his side to leave Wales with more than they had to show for last year as they Parma-based outfit kick off their first campaign under the guidance of the Italian Federation.
Not far from Liberty Stadium, Scarlets will play their first match as defending Champions against the Kings while in Newport the Bernard Jackman era begins at 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.
Ulster Rugby v Toyota Cheetahs
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 hosts are no strangers to welcoming South Africans with players like Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Franco van der Merwe all becoming folk heroes at Ulster.
The game will also mark the arrival of Australian international Christian Lealiifano who has signed 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 Guinness PRO14 and hope to transfer that energy into their opening performances.