WITH a round of games to go before the European break, the PRO14 looks more open than it has been for years. That may be in part because there will now be six teams, not four, in the play-offs, but it is also down to some of the results achieved by the less fancied sides.
Only one team, Glasgow Warriors, have won all five of their games to date; and only the Southern Kings have lost all five. Between those two extremes lie some unfancied clubs who have had promising if inconsistent starts. In Conference B, for instance, Edinburgh, the Dragons and Benetton all have two wins, as do Zebre in Conference A. The Cheetahs, meanwhile, have adapted far more quickly to life in the new league than their fellow-South Africans the Kings, and lie third in Conference A with three wins.
So is the greater competitiveness this season because such teams have improved, or because some of the bigger sides are rebuilding? Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson, for one, thinks it could be a bit of both.
“There are maybe a few teams having a bit of a transition period, a few new players in, but I think as a whole the league’s actually getting a bit better as well,” he said. “It’s getting a lot more competitive – and those Italian teams, we always know they can pull off one-off big results, but they’re doing it on a more consistent basis now. I think the league is becoming a lot tougher.
“Splitting into two conferences is something new, and I think the fans will quite like that. I think it’s quite exciting for the clubs, and for the fans watching as well. It changes things up. People sometimes get bored of stuff as well.”
Edinburgh’s home defeat by Benetton was dismal, and there will be no attempt to rewrite history where that is concerned. Nonetheless, the fact that the Italians returned to Scotland and stayed in the match against the Warriors until very late is a sign of their greater and physical toughness. And, as Watson and his team-mates prepare to welcome Zebre to Myreside on Friday, that game at Scotstoun was a timely reminder of how nothing can be taken for granted this season.
“Normally in the past, Zebre at home, sometimes you think you turn up and you’ll get the win, but this season it’s a bit different,” Watson continued. “The league’s very competitive at the moment, they’ve got two very good wins, they’re attacking very well and they play from anywhere.
“They’re coached by Michael Bradley, our old coach, so we know a bit about him. He likes to chuck the ball around. It’s probably one of the best things they do, attack from everywhere – they can catch teams by surprise. But on the flip side you can put a lot of pressure on them if they’re chucking the ball around in their half.
“I think the last few games they have been playing a lot of rugby and scoring a lot of tries, but I think if our defence can get on top of them, bring that line speed, if they want to play in their own half that’s great, it’s up to our defence to put the pressure on them and try and get the ball back.
“They play a lot of attacking rugby, so it’s going to be a very tough game. It’s a must-win game already, this early on, to get this our season back on track.”
“Treviso was a bit of a backward step for us, but if you forget about that Treviso game we’ve had two very tough on the road games which, even if you were flying and had won your first 10 games, are very tough games to go to. Scarlets away, they’re the champions, and Leinster are always very tough.
“Obviously we got a red card at Scarlets, which made it very hard for ourselves, but before that we were playing really well and doing some good things. Leinster we were obviously in the game until the very end and we could have won that game. We might not have been in the fight that long over the last few seasons.
“I think we just need to get our mind set right, because we go to Leinster and put in a performance like that but we couldn’t quite beat Treviso at home. So I think it has been a fairly decent start to the season. If we get a good win this weekend that will hopefully put us back on track.”
Watson and John Hardie have continued their battle for the No 7 jersey so far this season, and head coach Richard Cockerill has given no sign yet that he wants to have a firmly established pecking order at openside. In some games, of course, Watson and Hardie could play alongside each other, but the former accepts that against some opponents Cockerill will deem that inadvisable.
“Obviously me and Hards will tell you it works really well, but that’s up to you guys to decide,” Watson explained. “It just depends what Cockers wants really. You see a few teams doing it, playing two sevens, and sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t because you lose some of that set-piece option. We’ll just leave that to Cockers.
“I think he’s picking on merit, maybe, and obviously there’s a bit of rotation involved as well. It’s a long old season, so I don’t think anyone’s getting too worried just yet. We’re five games in and I don’t think anyone is up to his office just yet to say ‘Why aren’t I playing?’ and stuff like that.
“There’s been a fair amount of game time for both of us at the moment, and the same for the nines: they’ve both got shots, me and Hards have both been given starts as well. I think it’s about trying to keep boys fairly fresh, and rotating a bit, and further down the line he’ll pick on who’s playing well.”