Just 38 days before the Guinness Pro14’s 2018/19 season gets underway at Cardiff Arms Park, the blazers in charge of the league finally got round to releasing the fixtures to the rugby watching public.
In Cardiff Blues terms the fixtures themselves have their plus and minus points. The start could be easier, with defending champions Leinster coming to the Welsh capital, albeit likely without their Irish stars, before two increasingly tricky games in Italy.
Playing Munster and Cheetahs at home, and Dragons away, with a full strength side before the European games is a positive, but travelling straight to South Africa after the first two Heineken Cup pool games will be tough, especially on the players who will go straight into Wales camp following that game.
Facing Glasgow during the international periods both home and away is a result for Cardiff Blues, as is playing their Scottish counterparts Edinburgh during the Six Nations, but the trip to Ulster immediately following the Autumn Internationals will be a tough encounter.
December will be busy as ever with the Heineken Cup back-to-back games being followed by three straight Welsh derbies into January and then the final two Heineken Cup pool games, but the Anglo-Welsh Cup ending means two precious weeks off are scheduled as January turns to February.
The run-in will be tough for John Mulvihill’s men, with away games in Ireland against Munster and Connacht before what is likely to be the Judgement Day game against the Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium, but on the whole the management will be happy with the fixtures giving the team the opportunity to generate momentum at key times in the season.
If I could stop there in my opinion piece that would be great, but once again the Pro14 fixtures come with a whole host of side-stories and plotlines that cloud the entire fixture release as a point of excitement for supporters ahead of the new season.
Firstly, I will start with a positive, and that is the TV deal and coverage that the matches will have this coming season.
Every single game will be broadcast on Premier Sports, with a game per week on their free-to-air arm Free Sports, and it was also revealed yesterday that S4C would retain one game a week during the new campaign.
For Cardiff Blues this means that five of our 17 confirmed fixtures, another positive in itself having games through to next March confirmed, so far will be broadcast free-to-air, resulting in a decent amount of exposure while benefitting from the increased money that the new television deal brings.
However, once again there are gripes with the powers that be in the Pro14 offices.
For yet another summer we, the supporters, have been kept in the dark about fixture release dates, left to watch as every other league in Northern Hemisphere professional rugby had their fixtures and Super Rugby even managed to organise their schedule for the 2019 season! Only the Welsh Premiership are still waiting, not a surprise with the WRU in charge.
Obviously aware of the criticism they have received for the fixture release date, the Pro14 decided to publish a Q+A style article along with the fixtures detailing the complications around organising a cross-border competition involving numerous broadcasters amongst other issues.
Now, I think the vast majority of supporters are aware how difficult it must be to put the league’s fixture list together, and aren’t necessarily expecting the announcement to be made in early June. What we’re after though is vastly improved communication. Give supporters a specific date at the start of the summer and we have something to look forward to.
Aside from that annual gripe, there is also an issue with the scheduling itself, particularly in terms of the kick-off times and days.
I don’t particularly want to get into the ‘what day is better for professional rugby in Wales’ argument, mainly because the truth is there is no one day or time that suits everyone. Friday and Saturday nights can rule families out, Saturday afternoons can rule people who play or attend amateur club rugby matches out, while Sundays are pretty much universally unpopular.
What we are really after is firstly a consistency, with three different kick-off time across three different games during the first half of the season, and secondly some fairness between clubs.
Dragons have plenty of family friendly kick-off times in their opening few home games, while Cardiff Blues start with three Friday night games. We know that Cardiff’s data shows supporters preferring Saturday afternoon games, while Dragons opt for Friday nights to correspond with their very regional approach. Something doesn’t make sense.
Finally, there are some one-off issues with Cardiff Blues games.
Having to shift the home game against Zebre to Sunday isn’t ideal, when we could be playing away during November to avoid a clash with Wales Autumn Internationals, like we are throughout October.
It is also disappointing to lose the ever popular traditional festive games on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, especially when the Dragons game is moved to Saturday 22nd December to overlap with the time that Cardiff City v Manchester City is currently scheduled to take place in Leckwith.
Hopefully one day we’ll be able to celebrate the arrival of the Guinness Pro14 fixtures normally. That day still seems some distance off at the moment. God help us if even more South African teams join and the league format takes another, more complicated, turn. Maybe we’ll just resort to a random draw?