By Phil Rice
The newly revamped Guinness Pro14 league got under way at the weekend with three resounding wins for Munster, Leinster and Ulster.
Ulster began their season with an eagerly awaited match against the “new boys” from South Africa, the Cheetahs.
The visitors got off to an encouraging start, looking dangerous when they got front foot ball, despite missing their first choice 10, 12, 13 combination.
Things started to unravel for them when open side flanker Henco Venter was sin-binned and Ulster seized the opportunity to score three tries during the ten minute period he was off the field.
The Cheetahs never got back into the game and Ulster won at a canter 42- 19. It was good to see Tommy Bowe back to full fitness, after a long lay-off.
He played at outside centre and showed his sharpness early on when he burst onto a pass in midfield and ran 60 yards to score the province’s first try.
The Ulster back-line is a potent force and if they can gain at least parity up front they can prove to be contenders this season.
New recruit, former Wallaby, Christian Leali’ifano will prove a valuable threat in midfield and with Charles Piutau’s interventions from fullback, there is no shortage of fire-power.
Munster easily defeated Italian side Benetton Treviso 34-3, without ever breaking sweat.
The Italian team look particularly weak and are likely to continue their tussle with neighbours Zebre to avoid propping up the league again.
Munster scored six tries on their way to a comfortable bonus point win. Leinster rested their Lions contingent when they faced the Dragons in Newport. Ex-Leinsterman Bernard Jackman has taken over the coaching reins at the Welsh club and if he had any doubt as to the size of the task he faces it was clearly underlined against a slick Leinster outfit.
The Leinster pack dominated matters up front and after some early resistance, they got on top and scored five tries against a hard-working but out-classed opposition. Competition for places will be intense for Leo Cullen and his coaching staff to assess.
Their strength in depth is unrivalled in the league. Back-row is particularly strong where Max Deegan, an ex-captain of Ireland under 20’s, made his debut and really looked the part. He has Jamie Heaslip and Jack Conan for competition for the number eight shirt.
Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy were excellent on the flanks and they face Sean O’Brien and a fully recovered Jordi Murphy for competition for their places.
A nice problem for Cullen to have, but he will be anxious to restore some silverware to the Leinster sideboard after a couple of barren years.
Connacht had the most difficult task of the provinces at the weekend, playing host to Glasgow Warriors. It was an intensely fought battle in treacherous conditions.
Glasgow made better use of the strong wind in the second half, Lee Jones scoring a late try to settle matters.
The introduction of the two South African teams to the league couldn’t have got off to a worse start.
In addition to the trouncing Ulster gave the Cheetahs, the Southern Kings took on champions Scarlets in South Wales.
The Welsh side scored eight tries in a 57-10 demolition. It may be early days and their performances will improve when they come to terms with the Northern Hemisphere style of play, but the league administrators must be concerned about the affect such defeats will have on the viewing public back in South Africa.
Munster take on the Cheetahs at Thomond Park this Saturday evening while Connacht will be looking to bounce back against the Southern Kings in Galway on the same evening.
Leinster get things under way this weekend with a home match against the Cardiff Blues on Friday evening. Ulster are away to Benetton Treviso on Saturday.