The start of January is traditionally a time to take stock, make resolutions, and look to the future. That’s as true for professional rugby sides as it is for us mere mortals. So who in the Guinness PRO14 is starting the new year feeling good and who might be looking over their shoulder?
RugbyPass presents the PRO14 power rankings for January 2020.
Cream of the crop: Leinster, Ulster
Leinster are ten wins from ten, eleven points clear in their conference, and have already qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup knockout stage. The records keep tumbling and they continue to look effortless as they knock them down. They might not go unbeaten this season but it will take some team to stop them in full flow and they are definitely top of the power rankings.
That said, Ulster must also be feeling pretty good. A 38-17 victory over a strong Munster side and the form of John Cooney will do that for you and, while they might be eleven points behind Leinster, they are also twelve points clear of their nearest challenger in Conference A. Their loss away to Leinster will keep them on their toes but they definitely have more to be positive about than most.
Feelin’ good: Edinburgh, Scarlets
Conference B is looking considerably more competitive than Conference A this time around – there are only four points between first and third and only two between fourth and sixth – but Edinburgh will be more than happy to top the table as the new year starts, especially on the back of such a comprehensive win.
Scarlets have had to contend with the imminent loss of their new – and already very popular – coach, Brad Mooar so you’d forgive them for feeling a touch of January Blues. So far, however, the team seem galvanised to see out the season under Mooar, and they sit second in Conference B. They hammered their bitter rivals, Ospreys, overcame Cardiff Blues away, and, while they will not be happy about that last minute loss to Dragons, Liam Williams is coming home (perhaps sooner than later).
Work to do: Glasgow Warriors, Munster
Both sides have high expectations and neither will be satisfied with being third place in their respective conferences. Glasgow had a slightly better festive season, finishing up with an enjoyable win away to Benetton, but both teams will feel frustrated at losing to Leinster at home, although it will undoubtedly hurt more for Munster, and losing a game each to Edinburgh will worry fans looking to the business end of the season.
More injuries to key players will worsen the mood at Munster and an improvement will be needed by both sides if they are to meet their expectations: the chasing pack are awfully close in both conferences. The return of the Heineken Champions Cup, for which they are both in the running, and the Six Nations will test their squad depth considerably. There’s as much to be nervous about as optimistic for fans of these two teams.
Plenty to play for: Benetton, Cardiff Blues, Connacht, Toyota Cheetahs
It says a lot for the increased competitiveness of the PRO14 that there are four sides in this category and that, while all four experienced a chastening loss in the last round, they can feel reasonably positive about their chances of a play-off spot. Cheetahs have the most room for optimism, with two games in hand (both against local rivals Southern Kings) and may be able to put last season’s disappointment behind them, especially as the weather improves.
Connacht will be understandably shell-shocked after their comprehensive defeat at Leinster but their injury list is arguably the worst in the league and they are still the best of the rest in Conference B despite losing all their festive derbies. If they can get enough players back fit, they may find the Six Nations period allows them to catch up with their rivals.
Both Benetton and Blues have slightly less cause to feel cheerful about the playoffs but they won’t be giving up on domestic aspirations just yet and a Heineken Champions Cup spot is well within their respective reach. Both sides have effective game plans when executed and would benefit from a little more consistency.
Making progress: Dragons, Zebre
For so long the worst two sides in the league, both teams have cause to feel better than usual at this stage, although they benefit somewhat from the lopsided nature of Conference A. Dragons picked up two wins out of three in the festive derbies and have plenty of talent to come back into the ranks. They can expect to lose more players than ever to the national side in the Six Nations but it should be a cause for pride – as their fellow regions have learned in the past, they can win without those players and, in some areas, may have the depth to cover the loss.
Zebre have had a less convincing campaign but they are still five points clear of bottom spot in their conference and a convincing 41-13 win over a team with Cheetahs attacking options would be enough to cheer anyone up. They are very much a work in progress but one seemingly on the right track.
Disappointed and disaffected: Ospreys, Isuzu Southern Kings
Performance-wise, Kings appear to be improving on their disappointing first two seasons but their discipline continues to ruin their chances of converting that improvement into points. The end of the season, as the weather gets warmer and some teams are distracted by European obligations, may hold some promise for their determined coach but they need to fix the disciplinary issue first. Them ending the game with 12 men on the field against Edinburgh was not the surprise it should have been.
Of all the teams at the lower end of the conferences, Ospreys must feel the worst. They were once one of the dominant sides in the league, with a team of genuine stars. Even last season, they could claim to be the best region in Wales. Now they seem rooted to the bottom of the division, having lost all three festive derbies, are bereft of ideas on the pitch and beset by issues off it, as Alun-Wyn Jones noted in his very honest press conference. Their injury list is a difficult one but it is not the root of their issues. Only the return of Rhys Webb provides much current cheer and, as talented as he is, he can’t solve their problems.
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