The Guinness PRO14 conferences for the next two seasons have been announced seeing Ulster placed in Conference A with Glasgow, Leinster, Ospreys, Dragons, Zebre and Cheetahs.
Despite being reigning champions, Leinster are ranked as the second Irish side behind Munster due to the rankings being based on the regular season rather than the knockout phase. As Munster won more match points, they were ranked as the first Irish seeds.
Based on the form at the end of the season, Ulster have been thrown into a very difficult conference and will be battling it out with Leinster and Glasgow.
On paper Ulster should be aiming for a third place finish as I currently think Leinster and Glasgow have better, well-rounded squads. This isn’t factoring in it being a World Cup year which presents its own trials and tribulations. Who can forget that Connacht won the league in 2016, defeating Glasgow and Leinster in the semi final and final respectively.
Some of Ulster’s performances this season have shown that Ulster are capable of beating any side on their day and should be defeating Dragons and Ospreys home and away. I would throw Cheetahs into that category however altitude plays a factor and that was something Ulster didn’t deal with well in September.
Zebre have signed well in the off season. After a successful stint at Ulster, Ian Nagle joins the Parma outfit along with Leinster team mate Mick Kearney. Charlie Walker joins from Harlequins while they’ve recruited Italian international Luca Bigi from rivals Benetton. They’ll be hard to beat this year especially in the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Next season could see a return to Kingspan Stadium for Ruan Pienaar if he opts to continue playing rugby. The World Cup winner left Montpellier at the start of June and has been linked with the Cheetahs ahead of next season. The Bloemfontein outfit have already seen the departure of Shaun Venter to the Ospreys on Sunday opening up a gap at scrum half for Pienaar to fill.
On the other hand, rumours indicate that Pienaar could be taking up a coaching role at the province ahead of next season.