As 2020 hobbles to a close and 2021 hints at a better year, we look at what’s left of a discarded leftover from a time that seems long ago: the Guinness Pro14.
The Pro12-cum-Pro14-cum-Pro12 again, began the 2020/21 season in October but in March it will end early, and the Rainbow Cup will begin April 17. The South African Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, and Lions will join Dragons, Ospreys, and Zebras amongst nine other teams in what might’ve been better named the Zoo Cup.
It’s unknown whether the additional Cup will encourage growth, or damage the teams involved but, it certainly changes what’s left of this variant of the Pro14 season.
Who could win? Irish sides looking like favourites
The remaining Pro14 fixtures have been cut down to 16 rounds, leaving seven rounds left for those who’ve played all their scheduled games thus far. With eight-ish rounds remaining for most, the season seems null and void for every fan that isn’t Irish.
Ulster top conference A with 42 points, whilst Leinster stalk two games behind with a perfect 35 points. Ospreys and Dragons lag behind in third and fourth, 28 points behind Ulster. Munster top conference B with 32 points, 12 ahead of Connacht and Scarlets in second and third respectively.
Conference A is effectively over when Leinster play Ulster at the RDS Arena on January 8. The Ulster team has a chance but remains underdogs against a side that’s already broken a record for winning all seven games this season with a bonus point (plus two more in Europe).
Conference B is somewhat more open but, Munster is yet to lose any of their games in the Pro14 and Europe. Any which way it might go, it’s certain to be an all-Irish affair and [most] likely another Leinster versus Munster final. That is made all the more likely since the knock-outs have been axed.
Fans will miss Pro14 knock-outs
The cutting of rounds has meant quarter-finals and semi-finals are gone from the Pro14. Instead, the winners of each conference ‘Pass Go and Collect $200’ going straight into the Grand Final. Although all four Irish clubs top the tables, there must still be a disappointment for the runners up.
The hard work that Ulster has done to be at the top of pool B will mean nothing if Leinster reschedules the two games they’ve missed and continue their perfect start.
The mid-table teams that are commonly battling it out for the play-off spots have been cut adrift completely. They now face an empty end to the season. The most exciting period in the Pro14 for teams and fans, were when astonishing wildcard upsets occurred. Sadly, they are all but gone.
The Pro14 will end in a predictable whimper and seems pretty meaningless for most clubs.
What’s left to keep teams encouraged?
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There’s no rainbow without a little rain and a new competition is waiting. The unknown quantity of the four South African sides may ‘shake up the Pro14’s usual winning suspects’ during the Rainbow Cup and later, in the 2021/22 Guinness Pro16.
With new dynamic rivalries, it could provide the opportunity for some low and mid-table teams to, in fact, challenge. For the rest of the Pro14 season, the losing teams are going to try to win for pride and still prized Champion’s Cup places. The remaining fixtures can also be a platform to match-practice new tactics to remedy that which hasn’t worked in the Pro14 so far.
Teams like Cardiff Blues top the Pro14 statistics in defense, kicking, scrums, and place second in lineouts. The Blues have a technically solid platform to attack from and the no.1 attacker for defenders beaten in their fly-half, Jarrod Evans. Yet their attack hasn’t gelled and they’ve struggled to grasp enough meaningful wins. Their signing of Ulster’s attack coach Dwayne Peel signifies that they know it.
Jarrod Evans with a fine piece of play against Dragons in October 2017, looking inside at Alex Cuthbert and outside at Rey Lee-Lo before gliding through a gap in defence and securing the win at the Arms Park.
Such a good player flat to the line. pic.twitter.com/ltmc4p8fCL
— Cardiff Rugby Life (@CardiffRugbyWeb) July 10, 2020
Similar cases can be made for the other mid-table teams like Connacht, Scarlets, and even last year’s conference B winners Edinburgh, who currently sit in second last. There’s nothing terribly wrong with their set-ups but they haven’t quite got the formula right to compete in this season. If they can gain confidence from those encounters.
The remaining Guinness Pro14 season might be considered a competitive training ground for teams to go into the Rainbow Cup more concentrated and revitalized. Where’s there’s Champion’s Cup places up for grabs for high-rankers, there ought to still be some edge to the games.
There is something left to play for, and hopefully, we can turn our backs on 2020 and look forward to 2021 as a better year for the Pro16 – for rugby, for everyone.
“Main photo credit”
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