Today marks 100 days until the Guinness Pro14’s 2019/20 season is due to get underway, with the weekend of the 27/28/29th September earmarked as when the campaign kicks off.
With that in mind, I’ve had a look at what there is to look forward to, or in some cases what we’re still waiting for, as attention starts to switch to next season after the culmination of the 2018/19 campaign.
The season structure
Of course, I say that it is 100 days until the start of the season, but that is not yet officially confirmed with the Pro14 not having released any official information regarding the 2019/20 campaign.
An Irish Times report from March stated that the league was set to get underway a month later than normal due to the Rugby World Cup, with the teams having been informed of the structure, but supporters are still left in the dark when looking at official channels.
League and European fixtures
One thing we do know, after yesterday’s draw, is who Cardiff Blues will face in the Challenge Cup pool stages next season, with Leicester Tigers, Pau and Calvisano joining us in pool 5.
However, there will likely be a lengthy wait for fixture confirmation with EPCR generally waiting until each of the three top European leagues have announced their fixtures for the season in question.
As we have come to expect, the Pro14 is generally the last to announce our fixtures, with last year’s being released on the 24th July. The European fixtures then followed on the 17th August.
The Celtic Cup
There is no official confirmation as of yet that the development competition for Welsh and Irish A sides, the Celtic Cup, will return for a second edition in the 2019/20 season.
Last year’s campaign appeared to be a success, with players generally in the U23 age bracket getting a chance to play high quality rugby in a competitive professional setting, while there was also out of favour first team players, or those returning from injury, getting game time under their belts.
The format saw a Welsh and Irish conference, with each team playing two teams in their conference and all four teams in the opposing conference, for a total of six games. The two conference winners then played off and Leinster A were crowned inaugural champions.
It is rumoured that this year’s competition will run from mid-August until the end of September, feeding into the proposed delayed start to the Pro14, however we await confirmation of this and any fixtures.
As of yet there is no news on what Cardiff Blues plan to do in regards to pre-season, and it appears options may be somewhat limited due to the disruption caused by the Rugby World Cup.
For example, many Gallagher Premiership teams are opting not to play official pre-season friendlies, as their season sees four rounds of the Premiership Cup, the Anglo-Welsh Cup successor, lead into the first round of the league. Therefore they will use those games to replace pre-season friendlies.
Cardiff Blues could opt to do this with the Celtic Cup, or follow the suit of other Pro14 teams who have organised friendlies against each other, with Ospreys taking on Edinburgh, and Glasgow and Ulster organising back-to-back games. Alternatively, the Greene King Championship could provide some opposition.
Confirming the squad
It is well known that money is extremely tight at the Arms Park currently, but despite that John Mulvihill has confirmed that they are working ‘hard behind the scenes to strengthen the right areas’, and ‘there will hopefully be some exciting announcements in the coming weeks’.
Since then we have completed the signings of Jason Tovey and Will Boyde, as well as brought in Rory Thornton on a permanent deal, but there is more than a feeling of discontent amongst supporters over the depth in certain parts of the squad.
Time is ticking on, and waiting to see if players become available post-World Cup is a risky strategy. Hopefully we’ll see one more body arrive to bulk up specifically the engine room over the next few weeks.