Gethin Jenkins will dip his toe into the coaching pool next month when the Ospreys face the Scarlets in the Celtic Cup – the new shadow tournament for the Guinness Pro 14 designed primarily for under 23 players.
The Cardiff Blues prop – Wales’ most capped player – will be the defence coach for the Blues’ youngsters.
It’s a first venture into coaching for the Lions forward, who will be 38 in November, but still remains committed to at least one more season as a Blues player.
Derbies between the Ospreys and the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues v the Dragons will kick-off the Celtic Cup.
It’s an attempt by Wales and Ireland’s governing bodies to bridge the gap between academy rugby and the professional game – a function the Welsh Rugby Union consider the Principality Premiership no longer fulfils.
The competition features development squads from Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Blues, Dragons, Scarlets and the Ospreys and aims to provide a learning environment for players, coaches and referees.
Former Wales scrum-half Richie Rees is heading up the Blues coaching team and he will have front row stalwarts Rhys Thomas and Jenkins backing him up.
Thomas will be the forwards coach having returned to the Arms Park from the Dragons, while Jenkins is taking on the defensive duties.
“We start training on Monday and we’ve got a friendly pencilled in against the Scarlets on 26 August to get the players ready. We have got a young group of players and they will be joined by some of the senior pros who need some game time,” said Rees, who is currently in South Africa as backs coach with the Wales U18 team.
“We are hoping to use the Celtic Cup in much the same way as the old Anglo-Welsh tournament in helping to bridge the game between semi-pro and pro levels. With seven successive weekends of action it is going to be a very intense period for the players.
“Many of them won’t have been used to coming under the level of scrutiny that they will be exposed to and it will be a sharp learning curve for them. But it will be great exposure for them.
“The competition is going to be very competitive and it will be down to the players to prove their worth.”
The tournament starts in the second weekend of the new season with matches played between Thursday and Saturday. The first round will see the four regions, who make up the Welsh Conference, go head to head in two derby clashes – Ospreys v Scarlets and Dragons v Blues.
Each team will play six matches on consecutive weekends, two against domestic opposition and four against the sides in the opposite conference. The two teams at the top of each Conference will then face off in a final.
“The newly formed Celtic Cup is a very exciting competition for us as a region. It will bridge the gap between the Premiership and senior rugby now that the Anglo-Welsh Cup and British & Irish Cup are no longer on the fixture calendar,” said Scarlets pathway manager, Kevin George.
“The higher level of competition will help to prepare young players for the rigours of senior professional rugby whilst also helping the continuation of the region’s development pathway, playing the Scarlets way.”
Richard Kelly will be the head coach of the Scarlets side, with Dai Flanagan assisting him. The Scarlets reached the Champions Cup semi-finals last season and made it back-to-back PRO14 finals before going down to Leinster in both competitions.
They also provided Wales with up to 17 international players for Wales over the course of the season and their Under 18 team won the WRU Regional Age-Grade title.
They open their Celtic Cup campaign against the Ospreys, whose Rugby General Manager, Dan Griffiths, is looking forward to testing the strength and depth of his young squad in the new competition.
“We have a proud record of developing talent to represent both region and country and see this new competition playing a big role in that process going forward. This is an exciting competition that will only grow year on year,” said Griffiths.
“It will provide players and coaches on the Ospreys pathway with an opportunity to test themselves against quality opposition, allowing them to accelerate their development on and off the field. They will get to experience the structure of professional rugby and get a better understanding of the level of preparation, training and analysis required to become an Osprey.”
Bernard Jackman is another regional head coach who is excited at the prospect of the new competition.
“We’re committed to ensuring we produce young home grown players with high potential to succeed for the Dragons and for Wales, so creating the right structure and standard of competition is crucial,” he said.
“The Celtic Cup is an exciting development and a positive step in helping the Welsh regions develop their players. The match-ups with the other Welsh regions and the Irish provinces will give players a chance to get their own little PRO14 experience at a high standard of rugby.
“We’re fortunate to have a number of good young players coming through and we could comfortably pick match day squads for the Celtic Cup consisting solely of under 23 year olds. We gave 64 players a game last season, with 21 players making their PRO14 debut for us and 17 of those have come through from clubs within our region.
“The step up to regional rugby is a big one and it takes players time to adapt to the level required. I’m confident that the Celtic Cup will help prepare players for professional rugby.”
Welsh Conference: Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Ospreys, Scarlets
Irish Conference: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster
Weekend 1 – Sep 6-8
Munster v Connacht
Ulster v Leinster
Ospreys v Scarlets
Dragons v Cardiff Blues
Weekend 2 – Sep 14-16
Leinster v Cardiff Blues
Ospreys v Munster
Ulster v Scarlets
Dragons v Connacht
Weekend 3 – Sep 21-23
Scarlets v Leinster
Munster v Dragons
Cardiff Blues v Ulster
Connacht v Ospreys
Weekend 4 – Sep 28-30
Leinster v Ospreys
Cardiff Blues v Munster
Ulster v Dragons
Scarlets v Connacht
Weekend 5 – Oct 5-7
Dragons v Leinster
Munster v Scarlets
Ospreys v Ulster
Connacht v Cardiff Blues
Weekend 6 – Oct 12-14
Leinster v Munster
Connacht v Ulster
Cardiff Blues v Ospreys
Scarlets v Dragons
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