After a five-month layoff, the 2019/20 Guinness PRO14 finally returns this weekend with a series of regional derbies. The league’s two Italian sides, Benetton and Zebre, will kick things off on Friday night before a bundle of Scottish, Welsh and Irish derbies follow across the weekend.
In Ireland, the four provinces will take part in a weekend PRO14 double-header of closed doors interprovincial derbies at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. It will be a strange return for all four teams, not least because of the amount of change that has taken place at each province since they were last on the pitch.
Watch out, Leinster ? https://t.co/7O9SpCpaOB
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 22, 2020
Their signatures were confirmed in January and the World Cup winners are both in line to make their Munster debuts against Leinster this weekend. The long-term plan is that the duo will provide the extra muscle to turn Munster from perennial nearly-men into champions.
Europe remains the ultimate goal, but a PRO14 medal would be greeted with much enthusiasm by the Munster faithful – they last won the league in 2011, losing four semi-finals and two finals in the years since.
Munster have also recruited well beyond those headline signings. Irish-qualified full-back Matt Gallagher joins from Saracens while the capture of highly-rated tighthead Roman Salanoa from Leinster could prove significant down the line.
The province have released a number of squad players, while Tyler Bleyendaal has been forced to retire due to a neck injury, an absence exacerbated by Joey Carbery’s continuing injury problems.
RG Snyman (Honda Heat)
Damian de Allende (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Matt Gallagher (Saracens)
Roman Salanoa (Leinster)
Alex Wootton (Connacht)
Arno Botha (Bulls)
Sammy Arnold (Connacht)
Conor Oliver (Connacht)
Alan Tynan (released)
Sean O’Connor (Jersey Reds)
Ciaran Parker (Jersey Reds)
Darren O’Shea (Vannes)
Jack Stafford (Harlequins)
Tyler Bleyendaal (retired)
'It's weird going straight into big games after so long away.' ??
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) August 19, 2020
Leinster are the only Irish team who haven’t welcomed any new signings from outside the country, although the province have once again promoted a number of players from their academy to first-team contracts. That is no surprise given Leo Cullen’s side had won all 13 of their PRO14 outings and another six games in Europe before the season was put on ice.
Few sides in world rugby boast the kind of resources Leinster enjoy and there are no obvious areas where they need to strengthen in the short term. Yet those riches can come at a cost, Leinster losing more and more young talent to rival provinces as players seek game time.
The most notable departee during the lockdown period was tighthead Salanoa, whose path was blocked by Ireland internationals Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter. Having invested so much time and energy into the Hawaii native’s progress, Leinster are now resigned to watching the 22-year-old progress at Munster.
He wasn’t the only young talent to pack his bags. Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling both moved to Connacht, Joe Tomane finished his disappointing two-year stay, while hooker Bryan Byrne made his loan switch to Bristol permanent.
Veteran back Fergus McFadden postponed his retirement to see out the remainder of the season but he could have played his last game after suffering a calf injury.
Joe Tomane (released)
Roman Salanoa (Munster)
Jack Aungier (Connacht)
Oisín Dowling (Connacht)
Bryan Byrne (Bristol)
Gavin Mullin (released)
Barry Daly (retired)
There’s no shortage of new faces in the west of Ireland, with Andy Friend welcoming seven new singings on board. Five have come from within the Irish system, so the aim for Connacht is to turn squad players from other teams into valuable first-team assets of their own.
Alex Wootton joins on a year-long loan from Munster and will hope to find more consistency in his game. Former Bay of Plenty No8 Abraham Papali’i and Dublin-born Munster academy product Conor Oliver could prove valuable signings but will have to earn opportunities in the back row, while Ireland midfielder Sammy Arnold finds himself in the same boat.
Ben O’Donnell – Australian Sevens player of the year in 2018 – is an exciting addition to the backline. Connacht head coach Friend handed him his sevens debut in 2017 and the 25-year old went on to score 47 tries in 95 appearances for his country. With a nickname like ‘BOD’, expectations will be high. Connacht fans, though, will have to wait to see second row Oisin Dowling, as he continues to rehab a back injury.
The departures could prove as telling as the incomings at the Sportsground. Connacht have let go more players than any other Irish province since the PRO14 season was suspended and handling such a significant turnover of players will be a challenge for Friend.
Alex Wootton (Munster)
Ben O’Donnell (Australia Sevens)
Abraham Papali’i (Bay of Plenty)
Sammy Arnold (Munster)
Conor Oliver (Munster)
Jack Aungier (Leinster)
Oisin Dowling (Leinster)
Colby Fainga’a (Lyon)
Tom McCartney (retired)
Robin Copeland (Soyaux-Angouleme)
Niyi Adeolokun (released)
Rory Burke (released)
David Horwitz (released)
Darragh Leader (released)
Angus Lloyd (retired)
Peter McCabe (released)
Eoin McKeon (released)
Luke Carty (released)
Conor Hayes (released)
Hugh Lane (released)
Mikey Wilson (released)
Kyle Godwin (Western Force)
Joe Maksymiw (Dragons)
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 18, 2019
Ulster’s new signings may not grab many headlines, but they seem to have recruited smartly. Former All Black Alby Mathewson was a hugely popular figure on and off the field during his time with Munster – having initially signed on a four-month deal he ended up staying at Thomond Park for 15 months – and the experienced scrum-half will provide quality cover to the main man, John Cooney.
The versatile Madigan returns to Irish rugby after four years away and will hope to nail down a spot at out-half, although the improving Billy Burns won’t be pushed out quietly.
Madigan will feel he has a point to prove on the PRO14 pitch and may find it difficult to wrestle kicking duties away from Cooney, but Ulster boss Dan McFarland will also hope his experience rubs off on his teammates. At 31, Madigan is the comfortably the senior 10 out of himself, Burns (26) and Bill Johnson (23).
Ian Madigan (Bristol)
Alby Mathewson (Free agent)
Zack McCall (released)
Clive Ross (released)
Tommy O’Hagan (released)
Angus Kernohan (Ealing Trailfinders)
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