The Cheetahs and Kings will face challenging starts to the Pro14 this weekend, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
ULSTER vs CHEETAHS (Friday, 20:35)
It will be a historic occasion in Belfast on Friday night when the Cheetahs become the first southern hemisphere team to compete in a European tournament.
Ulster finished just outside the top four last season, and will be determined to make a meaningful start to their new campaign.
It should be a fascinating contest, considering that the Cheetahs have opted to take their strongest possible squad to Ireland, while leaving a vastly weakened team to face the Sharks in the Currie Cup.
It points to an agreement for the South African sides to compete in this new-look competition with full-strength sides, but there is no doubt that the Cheetahs will have a serious point to prove.
There is every reason to believe that the free-styling Cheetahs could be a force to be reckoned with in the Pro14, and their first-choice XV has built up some handy momentum after a strong start to the Currie Cup.
The Cheetahs will hope to catch Ulster off guard with a high-intensity approach, while looking to dynamic game-breakers such as Sergeal Petersen, Rosko Specman and Makazole Mapimpi to make an impact.
However, it’s just as crucial that they produce a powerful performance up front against a disciplined and organised Ulster side that will aim to put the competition newcomers in their place.
Interestingly, regular fullback Clayton Blommetjies has been named to start at flyhalf, but otherwise the Cheetahs have named a powerful team that should give a decent account of themselves on Friday. It’s the settled home side, though, that will come into this clash as favourites.
Ulster – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Tommy Bowe, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Louis Ludik, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Chris Henry (c), 6 Jean Deysel, 5 Alan O’Connor, 4 Robbie Diack, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Kyle McCall.
Subs: 16 John Andrew, 17 Callum Black, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Matthew Rea, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Peter Nelson, 23 Darren Cave.
Cheetahs – 15 Sergeal Petersen, 14 Rosco Speckman, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Ali Mgijima, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Clayton Blommetjies, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Jacques du Toit, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Gerhard Olivier, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Cecil Afrika, 23 Ryno Benjamin.
SCARLETS vs KINGS (Saturday, 18:30)
The Kings couldn’t face a more challenging opening-round encounter as they get set to face reigning champions, the Scarlets, in front of what is set to be a passionate home crowd in Llanelli.
As the Kings have become so accustomed to, they have once again had to start pretty much from scratch as a largely new-look squad has been assembled for the Pro14.
Star backline players Malcolm Jaer and Mapimpi are now with the Cheetahs, while forwards Tyler Paul and Ross Geldenhuys have joined the Sharks. Influential flanker Chris Cloete is with the Pumas, regular captain Lionel Cronjé has headed to Japan, while lock Wilhelm van der Sluys has agreed to a deal with the Exeter Chiefs.
The good news is that astute coach Deon Davids remains at the helm, and he has worked tirelessly to put together a squad that boasts a decent blend between youth and experience.
Davids has said that the Kings will be determined to adopt the sort of fearless approach that worked wonders in this year’s Super Rugby campaign, but they do need to temper this ambition with some much-needed pragmatism.
The Scarlets are a champion side filled with quality players, while they will be only too happy to attack from turnover ball, should the clash turn into a broken-field contest.
The Kings have now turned to Kurt Coleman at flyhalf, while hooker Michael Willemse will captain a new-look, but relatively experienced side.
‘I will encourage the guys to play the way we are used to playing – that is playing towards where our pace is, making good decisions and recognising and using areas of space,’ Davids commented. ‘We also need to be wary of the fact that games are not only won with ball in hand. Our biggest challenge will be our work rate, intensity and physicality without the ball. That will be a big ask for us.’
The start of the Pro 14 will be viewed as a learning experience for the new-look Kings, and there is no doubt that they are set to face a baptism of fire.
Scarlets – TBC
Kings – 15 Masixole Banda, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Berton Klaasen, 12 Luzuko Vulindlu, 11 Sibusiso Sithole, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Rudi van Rooyen, 8 Andisa Ntsila, 7 Victor Sekekete, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Dries van Schalkwyk, 4 Jurie van Vuuren, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Michael Willemse (c), 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Bench: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Luvuyo Pupuma, 18 Entienne Swanepoel, 19 Bobby de Wee, 20 Siyabulela Mdaka, 21 Godlen Masimla, 22 Ntabeni Dukisa, 23 Jacques Nel.
In other fixtures this weekend, the Cardiff Blues will host Edinburgh, who have a new coach in Richard Cockerill. Zebre also have a new man at the helm, Michael Bradley, who will be expecting a testing start for his team against the Ospreys, while Rassie Erasmus’ Munster will host Treviso in Limerick.
On Saturday, Bernard Jackman’s Dragons will intriguingly welcome their head coach’s former team, Leinster, to Newport. Meanwhile, 2015 champions, the Glasgow Warriors, will take on 2016 title winners, Connacht, in Galway.
Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images
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