Scarlets in the pink to retain crown in revamped Pro14
Irish giants face tough campaigns
Just one month after rumours were confirmed that the two South African franchises dropped from Super Rugby would join the Pro12, the Guinness Pro14 swings into action on Thursday night.
The framework for the revamped competition was settled on comprehensively and quickly. The league will be played in two conferences of seven teams, with the top three in each conference progressing to a playoff.
The two top seeds go straight to the semis and face the winners of two quarter-finals for a place in the Grand Final in Dublin on May 26.
The regular season consists of 21 rounds with 12 home-and-away games between teams in the same conference and nine cross-conference clashes.
All same-country derbies are retained as home-and-away contests so the Italian, Scottish and South African outfits play each other three times.
Putting the flesh on the bones of the fixture list took a bit longer as organisers hoped northern hemisphere teams could play back-to-back games in South Africa if they were due to visit both Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, and for the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to embark on mini-tours when possible.
The qualification criteria for the Champions Cup has also changed. There are no guaranteed places for each country any more so it is now the top seven teams across the conferences, barring the South African teams who are not yet eligible.
Scarlets won the last Pro12 final and they look worth a wager at 11-2 to bag the spoils in the inaugural Pro14 final, such was the style of not just their stunning knockout wins over Leinster at the RDS and then Munster at the Aviva Stadium in May but also their finish to the regular season of ten victories in 11 outings.
That run included away wins at Munster, Glasgow, Connacht and Dragons and was often not simply about swagger but having a pack with pace in the breakdown and tackle area and solidity at the set-piece.
The likes of Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Lewis Rawlins, Tadgh Beirne and Will Boyde are no longer mere back-up boys for use during international windows. They are intense performers who will be pushing for honours themselves.
It was a remarkable turnaround just to reach the playoffs for a first time in four years after the campaign began with defeats at home to Munster and then at Edinburgh and Ulster.
If Scarlets have to make the final the hard way again, then it looks like the whole camp are prepared and primed to do so.
Lions and Wales full-back Liam Williams, Canadian finishing-machine DTH van der Merwe and lively utility-back Gareth Owen have left for Premiership pastures new but head coach Wayne Pivac spent the first two years stabilising life at Parc y Scarlets and does not look to have panicked with his replacements.
Another Wales and Lions ace, Leigh Halfpenny, is the headline recruit. Tom Prydie and Tom Grabham are seasoned-performers who could well be inspired by their switches from the Dragons and Ospreys. Pivac has worked wonders with previous Wales Sevens starlets so it would be no surprise if Morgan Williams makes waves.
Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and other international-class colleagues have stayed in west Wales too.
Scarlets will hope for progress in the Champions Cup from a group containing Toulon, Bath and Treviso but playing in the tournament is not a new demand and unlike at Leinster and Munster there are no burdens of expectancy.
Extra knockout games could well electrify as could a trip to South Africa during the autumn internationals and home-and-away duels with Leinster during the Six Nations.
Leinster are understandable 2-1 favourites for the title given their sensational home regular-season record and the addition of livewire James Lowe from the Chiefs and back-row brute Scott Fardy from the Brumbies to the squad.
Also, Academy graduates Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery, Rory O'Loughlin, Andrew Porter and James Ryan distinguished themselves last season so retirees and ex-Springbok Zane Kirchner are unlikely to be missed too much.
However, as well as their 27-15 loss to Scarlets in last year's semi-final, Leinster lost the 2016 Grand Final to Connacht 20-10 and they are in a Champions Cup group with grinding encounters likely against Montpellier, Exeter and Glasgow.
The same arguments apply when considering last season's runners-up and regular-campaign victors Munster even though they were largely magnificent after the death of their legendary head coach Anthony Foley in October.
Munster's 46-22 loss to Scarlets was their second Grand Final reverse on the spin and they are in for more titanic tussles with Leicester and Racing 92 in the Champions Cup. Saracens raided Thomond Park with a 26-10 success in April's semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition.
The challenges of Glasgow, Pro12 champions in 2015 after losing out to Leinster in 2014, Ulster, runners-up to Leinster in 2013 and Ospreys, Pro12 kings in 2012 against Leinster, are all respected but passed over.
It will surely be too tough an ask for the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to be competitive enough for long enough spells in their campaign, especially as they have already trotted around the southern hemisphere for months this year.
Cardiff, Connacht and Edinburgh will be focusing on nabbing a Champions Cup berth rather than outright glory.
Scarlets to win Grand Final
2pts each-way 11-2 Betfair, Betway, Paddy Power