The Guinness Pro14 is an unusual league. Teams from five different countries competing across several continents, all fighting for one major prize.
The lack of relegation, along with the opportunity that provides for squad rotation, means it is often looked down on by fans of other leagues. On the other hand, there are fiercely contested national derbies, some of rugby’s biggest stars and its most exciting young talent, given the chance to watch teams take risks in development. It can be an exciting league to follow, and one that deserves the attention of Last Word on Rugby readers.
This season’s Guinness Pro14 is shaping up to be one of the most competitive yet. The four Irish provinces are all competing fiercely. Glasgow Warriors remain one of the most thrilling teams in Europe. The Italian sides continue to improve, and the Welsh regions are stuffed with talent (albeit performing inconsistently so far).
The recently included South African sides might have disappointed so far but, both are capable of an upset on home turf. That unknown is part of the reason many still taken notice of results and the quality of rugby played by all.
Rhiannon Garth Jones presents the current standings and the half-way league report.
Guinness Pro14 – Latest Standings 2018/19
Right now it’s all Leinster!
The two conference standings of @PRO14Official seem to indicate that, besides @RugbyGlasgow #Warriors it is 'All Irish Teams' in 2018/19
Only just 12 rounds in though, so how will the #NewYear treat the Celtic League teams? #rugbychat @LWOSRugby
Next round is on Jan 6 pic.twitter.com/xtLWKZX3mI
— scott hornell (@scotthornell73) December 31, 2018
No hiding it, Leinster are 16 points clear in Conference B and have already won a number of their games with teams packed full of academy prospects. It’s hard to see them relinquishing top spot on this kind of form, even with the Six Nations distracting some of their leading names.
Beneath them, Conference B is far more closely contested than last season. Benetton, Edinburgh, Scarlets, and Ulster are all fighting for the two final play-off spots. Benetton might be a surprise name for some but Head Coach Kieran Crowley has been steadily improving his side for a while now. Players such as Monty Ioane, Sebastian Negri, and Tommaso Allan have been doing very well.
A fine display in front of the home fans at Stadio Monigo from @BenettonRugby ? ?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) December 29, 2018
Scarlets are the other surprise package in the Guinness Pro14 but they are heading in the wrong direction. They have lost five in a row, including two at home (where they had previously been unbeaten for more than two years), and have slipped to fourth place, ahead of Edinburgh only on points difference. The team that played such mesmerising, seemingly unstoppable rugby for the past two years is nowhere to be found. It has been replaced by one that struggles to get over the gain-line, struggles to defend, struggles at the breakdown, struggles everywhere.
PRO14 Conference A teams all ‘within touching distance’
In Conference A, Glasgow Warriors lead the Irish contingent. They were the clear leaders last season but tailed off towards the end of the calendar. They are not quite as dominant this season, which was proven by a loss at home to inter-conference rivals, Edinburgh.
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) December 29, 2018
After that loss, Munster are now right on their tails [after they defeated Leinster]. It has given the ‘red army’ hope, even while Connacht and Ospreys are also within touching distance of both sides.
Just below that quartet are Cardiff Blues, who have shown flashes of brilliance this season. However, they can also be inconsistent when it matters most. The talent at the Blues, both in the backs and the back-five, mean they shouldn’t be taken for granted and they will still be targeting that third play-off spot.
2018 highlights, standouts, and Guinness Pro14 statistics
Lies, damned lies, and statistics – beware player stats, as they aren’t always what they seem. This can be especially true in the Guinness Pro14, where the involvement of national unions mean players are often rested and rotated, skewing individual stats. But there are few players in the official stats that are worth highlighting.
Duhan van der Merwe
DTH is no longer the only superstar winger named Van Der Merwe in Scotland. Duhan VDM has rapidly become a fan favourite at Edinburgh, winning the club’s Best Newcomer award last season. His stats this season continue to impress: the most defenders beaten, the most clean breaks, 646m made, and six tries already.
?| What a moment of magic this was from Jordan Williams ?
— Premier Sports ? (@PremierSportsTV) September 15, 2018
Top of the league for metres made, six tries including an absolute scorcher, and consistently at the top of the “defenders beaten” stats. That’s impressive in its own right: achieving it in a struggling Dragons team (albeit one slowly improving) is truly excellent. A joy to watch.
Given England’s well-documented problems at openside, you’d think Olly Robinson would have got a look-in. However, England’s loss is Cardiff Blues’ gain. The flanker ranks in the top three on turnovers won and tackles made and has chipped in two tries as well. Robinson is usually in the thick of it when the Blues play well.
Who to watch? What to expect in 2019
Whether they’re starting their academy prospects or bringing out the big guns, Leinster nearly always win and usually put in a performance to boot. It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where they don’t get a home semi-final in the playoffs. Glasgow Warriors and Munster are the two other stand-out teams this season, although they aren’t consistently at Leinster’s level.
After that, it gets a bit trickier. Andy Friend is working wonders over in West Ireland and Connacht could be a surprise package for the play-offs. Both Ospreys and Cardiff Blues will be trying to overhaul them, though, especially as the last play-off spot also guarantees a spot in the Champions Cup next season.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) December 28, 2018
Scarlets have such a talented squad that you wouldn’t want to write them off but the injuries list over in West Wales is becoming difficult to wrap your head around. At a certain point, there might just be too much ground to make up.
At the other end of the table, it looks like Zebre and Southern Kings will struggle again. Even the occasional win can’t hide the fact their inconsistency will not see either lenter the knockout stages [to be honest].
FT: Dragons 23-22 Ospreys
What a win for the Dragons! Rodney Parade celebrates a monumental effort to defeat the Ospreys by a solitary point. pic.twitter.com/ylDsbr9iS5
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) December 30, 2018
Dragons are improving – they picked up their fourth win this season in the second Christmas derby (see above)…… twice what they achieved last time round. However, they remain 12 points off fifth place, and will likely struggle again in 2019.
Cheetahs made the play-offs last season but the ‘player drain’ they suffered over the summer has affected them badly. They could end up rooted to the bottom this season.
It’s tricky to predict the final places in any league, especially one as closely fought as the Guinness Pro14. It seems very likely that Leinster will be in the final play-off spots but the remaining five are still up for grabs. The Six Nations period, when the international players are away, will prove crucial to the hopes of the chasing teams in 2019.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images