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Friday, 16 November, 2018

Scarlets and Glasgow the key threats to champions

Leinster could feel effect of summer departures

Scarlets winger Johnny McNicholl scores in the corner against Leinster in last season's Pro 14 final
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Season preview

Pro14 champions Leinster are unlikely to have gone too far backwards over the summer but there still looks to be value in taking on the European kings for back-to-back Pro14 titles with Scarlets and Glasgow.

Scarlets, runners-up to their chief Conference B rivals at the Aviva Stadium three months ago, were the last Pro12 winners in 2017.

Head coach Wayne Pivac may find his focus drifting occasionally to taking over as Wales chief after next year's World Cup and they do have a busy treatment room. But the major playing exits in west Wales - centre Scott Williams, scrum-half Aled Davies and versatile forwards Tadhg Beirne and John Barclay - were signalled early.

Replacements Keiron Fonotia, Blade Thomson, Uzair Cassam and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne are not a huge step down in quality and influence. 

Back-division signings Clayton Blommetjies and Angus O'Brien have huge promise too while Ed Kennedy could be a bolter in the back row from the Sydney backwaters of Randwick.   

The Scarlets are the only outfit who will have home games this regular season against all five of the weakest-looking sides - the Kings, Dragons, Zebre, Benetton and the Cheetahs. Last season,  Leinster edged them out for top spot in their section on points difference.

Glasgow, who lost a home semi-final to the Scarlets, would love to lift the trophy at Celtic Park this coming May. They romped to top spot in Conference A last season after starting the campaign with ten straight wins and completed a full set of successes at Scotstoun.

Warriors head coach Dave Rennie was new to the northern hemisphere last September and his Chiefs sides kept evolving without letting their standards slip much from a stunning first-season Super Rugby success in 2012. They followed up in 2013 and then after back-to-back quarter-final eliminations, they were twice semi-finalists.

Finn Russell would not have been allowed to leave for Paris if Rennie was not happy with his fly-half stocks while Aussie Nick Frisby is a nuggety replacement for scrum-half Henry Pyrgos and George Turner and Kevin Bryce are crafty pack captures from Edinburgh.   

Munster, the fourth semi-finalists last season after finishing second in Conference A, should be on the last-four scene again after making astute signings in Beirne, fly-half Joey Carbery from Leinster, full-back Mike Haley from Sale and flanker Arno Botha from London Irish.

Simon Zebo's switch to Racing 92 was known well in advance, while Beirne is a step up in class in terms of second and back-row quality to the departing Robin Copeland and Gerbrandt Grobler. A long injury list counts against them though.

Most of the players who stood out for the Cheetahs when they grabbed third spot in Conference A have been lured away from Bloemfontein. 

As well as Blommetjies and Cassiem, freescoring hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld has left for Bayonne, strong scrummager Tom Botha has opted for the Ospreys, seven-cap centre Francois Venter has gone to Worcester and lock Rynier Bernardo is one of a number heading to Japan.

South Africa winger Makazole Mapimpi was nabbed mid-campaign by the Sharks for Super Rugby after ten tries and it would not be a surprise if a move like that happenes again with a World Cup on the horizon.

It may seem unwise to oppose Leinster after their academy and back-up boys did brilliantly when called upon for much of the regular season and they blitzed the Scarlets when it mattered in May's final with Johnny Sexton purring at the controls.

Livewire Kiwi James Lowe and Barry Daly, who bagged 12-tries last term, deserve to head the top tryscorer lists and out-of-favour Wallaby centre Joe Tomane adds to the firepower in all departments.

But talismans Isa Nacewa, Jamie Heaslip and Richardt Strauss have all departed the playing ranks and keeping hold of both continental and domestic prizes is an incredibly tough ask, whatever the talent in the squad.

Toulon failed to keep the Top 14 title in June 2015 after claiming a Champions Cup hat-trick and Saracens' bid for a double-double was ended sensationally at Exeter in the 2016-17 Premiership semi-finals by a last-minute try.   

Recommendations
Scarlets to win Pro14 Grand Final
2pts 11-2 BoyleSports
Glasgow to win Pro 14 Grand Final
2pts 6-1 Sky Bet


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The Scarlets are the only outfit who will have home games this regular season against all five of the weakest-looking sides
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