Understrength phase of PRO14 ratchets up importance of South African players

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Rugby ball (Getty Images)
Rugby ball (Getty Images)

All the teams in the  PRO14 will go into their fixtures this weekend under-strength due to international call-ups but that just increases the responsibilities of the experienced South Africans and other overseas players playing for the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian clubs.

Some of those South Africans of course are no longer considered South Africans any longer and won’t be there - referring to Edinburgh’s wing Duhan van der Merwe and the Glasgow Warriors’ former Junior Springbok prop Ollie Kebble, both of whom have been pulled into the Scottish squad now that they are qualified for their adopted country.

Whether or not Van der Merwe’s absence will please Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill though is anyone’s guess. On one hand he will surely be pleased for the player, but on another he might not be blamed for thinking that it is precisely in this stage of the season, when Six Nations and other international calls decimate the squads, that you need your so-called foreign legion. And right now Edinburgh need all the help they can get.

Of course, Cockerill does still have the likes of the ebullient former Bulls loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman and there should be a big role to play for the South African halfback combination of Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt ahead of their team’s clash with Connacht on Sunday. But it is a backs-to- the-wall scenario for Cockerill and his team now as they have lost four Guinness PRO14 games on the bounce and five matches consecutively across all competitions they have played in since the last phase of the previous season.

Certainly the mood at Edinburgh must have changed significantly, and for the worse, in the time that has elapsed since they beat the Warriors in the Scottish derby to make sure of their place in the semi-final of the 2019/2020 edition of the competition. They lost a dead rubber return game against the Glasgow team a week later and were then pipped in the final seconds of the play-off game against Ulster.

Edinburgh cannot waste any time in regaining some kind of winning form or they are going to be also-rans in the competition. It is early days still, but they won’t be happy with fifth position in Conference B, and they will hope that the understrength phase will bring them better luck, although the loss of no less than 10 players to international duty will be hugely challenging for them.

Fortunately for them, Connacht aren’t a great traveling team. In fact, the only win they have scored on the road since this time last year was against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth immediately before lockdown in March. The last time these two teams met, Edinburgh won 41-14 so if they struggle on Sunday it will be a clear sign of regression.

The weekend’s PRO14 action starts on Friday at the RDS Arena in Dublin with a clash between two teams who are in diametrically opposite positions - champions Leinster are the only side not have dropped a point so far this season and have a one-point lead over Ulster at the top of Conference A, a familiar position for them, while Zebre from Italy haven’t picked up a point yet.

Both sides have lost swathes of players to international action, with Ireland and Italy squaring up to each other in the Six Nations this weekend, but the Leinster depth is legendary and is the reason they are so dominant in PRO14. They will see this as a chance to stretch that depth further, with four players making their debuts on Friday.

This week we see the action concluded on Monday, with Johan van Graan’s Munster set to host Cardiff Blues quite late at night (22.15) at Thormond Park.

Weekend PRO14 fixtures

Leinster v Zebre (Dublin, Friday 20:35)

Benetton v Scarlets (Treviso, Friday 21:15)

Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors (Swansea, Saturday 18:30)

Ulster v Dragons (Belfast, Sunday 17:00)

Edinburgh v Connacht (Edinburgh, Sunday 21:35)

Munster v Cardiff Blues (Limerick, Monday 22:15)

- PRO14 Media

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