As reported by Simon Thomas for Wales Online it looks like it will be all change for the PRO14 conferences for 2019/20 with new groupings taking effect for the next two seasons.
The setup that has been leaked features a few more changes than were first expected. So what might the thinking behind the updates be?
Across the first two PRO14 campaigns this is how the original Conference A and Conference B matched up in some key metrics when the performances of all the constituent teams are aggregated:
151 Wins 135
890 Tries 851
777 Points 703
Originally it was expected that the Conferences would keep the same seedings (ie A would have the top Scottish side + the 1st and 4th ranked Irish teams and the 2nd and 3rd ranked Welsh sides). That would have mean the changes for next season would only involve Ospreys and Scarlets swapping pools with everyone else remaining as they were.
This would have done nothing to remedy the disparity between the conferences though as those two Welsh teams have remarkably similar records over the past couple of seasons. Flipping Ospreys and Scarlets would have left the group head to head comparison looking like this based on previous PRO14 seasons:
150 Wins 136
917 Tries 824
779 Points 701
The new pools will have the Irish 1st and 4th seeds and the Welsh 2nd and 3rd seeds swapping from Conference A (as they were for 2017/18 and 2018/19) to Conference B (for 2019/20 and 2020/21). Making these changes has smoothed out a little bit of the imbalance that existed between the groups. Taking the same stats and applying them to the recast format noted above gives aggregates that look like this:
142 Wins 144
876 Tries 865
734 Points 746
Certainly a lot closer overall. That only tells part of the story though. That balance is achieved by offsetting the top-loading of Conference A (which contains 3 of the 4 best teams over the past two years in the shape of Glasgow, Leinster and Ulster) with 3 out of the 4 weakest teams over the past two years (Cheetahs, Zebre and Dragons).
The direct comparison between the top 3 sides in the new Conference A (Glasgow, Leinster and Ulster) and the top 3 in Conference B (Munster, Benetton, Connacht) is pretty clear cut:
87 Wins 79
469 Tries 420
436 Points 395
For the bottom 3 in each group the advantage / differences are reversed:
32 Wins 43
298 Tries 309
186 Points 237
(As mentioned earlier the middle sides – Ospreys in ‘new’ Conference A and Scarlets in ‘new’ Conference B – have very similar records in terms of wins and points across 2017/18 and 2018/19.)
What we’re left with is a pool on one side (A) that contains the teams that have topped the PRO12/14 in 7 of the last 8 campaigns and might be expected to provide 3 of the 4 semi-finalists in a typical season. On the other (B) there will be an absolute cutthroat scramble for the 3 playoff spots with, most likely, everyone bar the Kings in contention.
The joy of rugby of course is that the game is never played on paper and one season is never quite like another – and it’s a World Cup year! We can only wait and see what impact the new conferences have on the PRO14. Ultimately though, no matter the system, the very best teams are still likely to come through.