The Cheetahs and the Kings both come into the league on the back of a Super Rugby campaign in 2017.
Based on that form, and some of the performances from the existing Guinness PRO14 teams, we’ve highlighted some ones to watch.
Name: Ox Nché Position: Prop Age: 22
Bloemfontein local Ox Nché is a pacey and powerful prop seemingly designed for the modern game. Early in his career he was heralded as a force in the scrum, but as he’s developed he has shown that he is more than capable of impressing going forward. His pace, ball-carrying skills and ability to break tackles makes him a joy to watch as an archetypal modern prop. If you love watching a big man break through the lines whilst simultaneously putting at least two backs on the floor with stars in their eyes, then look no further.
Name: Makazole Mapimpi Position: Wing Age: 27
Mapimpi recently transferred from the other Guinness PRO14 debutants, the Kings. He was recently called up to the Boks senior squad, though he didn’t make an appearance on this occasion. Scorer of 11 tries in Super Rugby last season, Mapimpi is known for his exceptional acceleration, dazzling flair, and uncompromising finishing. He is also known to get creative when celebrating his tries, and fortunately enough for him, he scores enough to show how well versed he is in this particularly arbitrary field. Watch this space.
Name: Schalk Ferreira Position: Prop Age: 33
Southern Kings captain Ferreira may be known to European Rugby fans for his two-year stint at Toulouse. Ferreira can be found being a rock in the breakdown, creating turnover opportunities or just about anywhere his team needs him the most, with aggression to match. The captain and defensive leader of his team, his experience of the game up north should be a major asset for the Kings this season.
Name: Yax Penxe Position: Winger Age: 20
One of the youngest members of the Kings squad, Penxe is a very promising winger who impressed both for South Africa Under-20s and also the Kings last season. He scored three tries at this summer’s World Rugby Under-20s Championships in Georgia, and will be looking to build on those performances this season, particularly with Mapimpi having moved on.
Name: Carlo Canna Position: Fly-half Age: 24
Zebre enjoyed a difficult campaign last season, but Canna was one of the shining lights. Still just 24, the prolific fly-half still has a lot of room to grow. Zebre will need him to continue his steady improvement as they look to improve on last season’s campaign.
Benneton Rugby Treviso
Name: Tommaso Allan Position: Fly-half Age: 24
Having already mentioned one Italian fly-half in Canna, Allan will similarly be crucial for Benetton Treviso this season. Allan’s eclectic upbringing reaches into all styles of European rugby. The wealth of different rugby experiences that Allan has could be decisive for Treviso as he becomes a leader in the dressing room, while he will be pushed hard by Ian McKinley at club level, and possibly international level as well.
Name: Huw Jones Position: Centre Age: 23
He might still be recovering from a torn hamstring, but new signing Huw Jones is one of the most exciting arrivals in the Guinness PRO14 this season. Unheralded when he was first capped by Vern Cotter, when still playing for the Stormers, Jones has been a revelation for the national side and looked to be a possible Lions contender had he not been injured when he did. A powerful runner, his partnership with Alex Dunbar has already flourished at international level, now it could do the same at Scotstoun.
Name: Robbie Fruean Position: Centre Age: 29
One of the biggest name arrivals for new coach Richard Cockerill was Kiwi centre Fruean, and his power running could be central to the way they play under the former England hooker. While Edinburgh fans will have to wait to see Fruean and fellow newcomer Mark Bennett link up in midfield, with the latter recovering from a torn ACL, Fruean should make an immediate impact. With the reliable Phil Burleigh alongside him, expect Fruean to have a big impact this season.
Name: Gavin Henson Position: Fly-half/Fullback/Centre Age: 35
The mercurial talents of Henson will be making their way to Rodney Parade next season as he joins the Dragons from Bristol. Having already plied his trade for the Ospreys and the Blues, Henson adds another Welsh region to his resume, and will provide a little magic for Bernard Jackman’s team. Vastly experienced and one of the most gifted playmakers of his generation, it will be interesting to see what he can offer his new team.
Name: Alun Wyn-Jones Positon: Lock Age: 31
Warren Gatland’s persistence to play Jones during the Lions tour, despite some dissenting voices, was quickly proven to be a masterstroke. Alongside Maro Itoje, Jones underlined his status as one of the great leaders of the game, and the Wales skipper is equally important for the Ospreys. Absent through injury at the end of last season, he will be making up for lost time this year.
Name: James Davies Position: Flanker Age: 26
It’s not easy being an openside in Wales, with Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric ahead of you in the pecking order, but Davies has been a star for the Scarlets in recent seasons. The Olympic silver-medallist was arguably the key man in their play-off run last season, grabbing a try in the final to cap a memorable day in Dublin, a week after a man-of-the-match display in the semi-final against Leinster. His breakdown work is second to none, and while he might not displace those ahead of him in the Wales hierarchy, expect him to continue to impress in the Guinness PRO14.
Name: Sam Warburton Position: Flanker Age: 28
The returning Lions captain needs no introduction. Another man who seems like a veteran but is still not even 30, Warburton re-established himself as one of the best flankers in the game this summer. His leadership skills have been bolstered by his experiences in New Zealand. A menace at the breakdown, Warburton’s strength in the ruck is incredible, and while he might not be as flashy as some, when it comes to the biggest games, he always seems to be able to produce his best rugby.
Name: Tiernan O’Halloran Position: Full-back Age: 26
After being called up to the senior Irish squad for the first time in June 2016, O’Halloran enjoyed the best season of his career last time out. He made the league team of the season ahead of some others mentioned on this list which speaks volumes of his ability. A constant menace with ball in hand, he racked up more metres made than anyone else last season and will again be a threat as he looks to become a more regular fixture in the Ireland set-up.
Name: Marcell Coetzee Position: Flanker Age: 26
Coetzee is just the sort of back row that purists and casual fans love to watch. He possesses unparalleled aggression, consummate athleticism and one of the hardest hits in the Guinness PRO14. His ability to wear teams down with just his strength is a valuable asset to Ulster and after a first season in Belfast that was ruined by injury, he will be eager to bounce back even stronger this year.
Name: Tadhg Furlong Position: Prop Age: 24
Another model modern prop, Furlong enjoyed a successful Lions tour, starting all three Tests against the All Blacks. He will come back hoping to help his team outshine their rivals Munster at the top of the league, who narrowly toppled them during the regular season, and likewise with conference rivals Scarlets, who knocked them out of the play-offs. Physicality, athleticism, and ball-carrying are all the prerequisite attributes of the modern prop and Furlong has all these in excess. He just doesn’t go down.
Name: Conor Murray Position: Scrum-Half Age: 28
Murray started all three of the Lions Tests against New Zealand over the summer and was instrumental in the historic drawn series, and is now a veteran of two Lions tours. His ability to quickly recycle the ball, and think quickly at the breakdown was crucial in the summer and his box-kicking is about as good as it gets in the global game. Injured towards the end of last season, he will be keen to show he is back up to full speed in the red of Munster, as well as for the Lions.
Name: Chris Cloete Position: Flanker Age: 26
Cloete isn’t necessarily the best-known player in this list, but his tale is an intriguing one having just transferred to Munster from their new league rivals, Southern Kings. General havoc should be expected when Cloete is on the field and he’s not shy of a spicy tackle. Possessing a relatively low centre of gravity for a flanker, he is great over the ball, though his height is by no means restrictive to his strength. Unfortunately, Munster are not in the same conference as the Kings, but restricting Cloete to one meeting in the regular season with his old team-mates makes it all the more special.
Bring it on…