Principality Premiership fixtures and new format
Principality Premiership champions Merthyr will launch the defence of their title at The Wern against Cross Keys when the new season kicks-off on the weekend of 26 August.
The Ironmen made it back-to-back titles as they added the Premiership crown to the WRU National Championship victory they secured in 2015/16 to firmly establish themselves among the elite clubs at the top end of the community game in Wales.
They also reached the semi-finals of the WRU National Cup, losing in the last minute to eventual winners RGC 1404, and also reached the semi-finals of the Foster’s Challenge Cup in their first season in the top-flight.
Last season they finished third in the first phase of the Premiership campaign before coming out on top of the Tier 1 teams in phase two. They then beat RGC 1404 35-7 in the semi-final play-off before pipping Aberavon 22-18 in the final.
This season they start in the East Wales section of the new-look competition, where they will play home and away against seven other clubs before all 16 clubs come together to play each other once with the table topping team crowned Principality Premiership champion (see below for more details of new season structure).
The champions face some tough away trips in September with games against Cardiff, Pontypridd and Ebbw Vale. They have two home fixtures over the Christmas and New Year period, with Bargoed at home to complete the first stage of the season and then Bedwas to kick off the second phase of the Premiership campaign.
They will meet their first West Wales opposition on 17 March, when they travel to Parc y Scarlets to face Llanelli, and then meet Aberavon in a re-run of last season’s final at The Wern on 7 April. They head to Colwyn Bay to meet RGC 1404 on 5 May in the penultimate round of fixtures.
Last season’s runners-up, Aberavon, kick-off at home against Bridgend and will head north to face RGC 1404 on 16 September. Jason Hyatt’s men ended the first phase of last year’s tournament at the top of the table and were second in the Tier 1 section, earning a home semi-final against Bedwas, which they won 31-24.
They face a tough start to the second phase next season, with four of their first five matches on the road, but Hyatt is determined to push on from last season and learn from the mistakes that ended up with his side falling just short of a first title.
“It is a difficult league and any team is capable of beating any of the other sides’ on their day. There will be no margin for error throughout the season this time because it is a straight league with the top team taking the title,” said Hyatt.
“We really want to win something next season and apart from a few retirements we have got largely the same squad. We have given the players a six week break this summer after reaching the final and they will be back into training on 4 July for a programme that will involve three sessions a week.
“When we got into the second phase last season we found that all the games in Tier 1 were really intense. We want to get off to a good start and build momentum because every single game is going to be vital in the new season.
“Last year you could afford to finish fourth in Tier 1 and still have a shot at the title, but all that has changed now. We want to continue our game plan and try to build on some impressive stats from last season.
“We scored 90 tries throughout the season, double the amount of two years earlier, and our average ball in play time was just short of 34 minutes. That said, we almost reached 40 minutes in our home game against RGC.
“We want our players to have the freedom to express themselves, enjoy their rugby and score tries. That won’t change this season.”
Cup winners RGC 1404 kick off their season away to Llandovery on August Bank Holiday weekend before welcoming Llanelli to Parc Eirias on September 2 and then travelling to Neath on September 9.
Tier 2 champions Newport will face their oldest and fiercest rivals Cardiff in their opening day fixture at Rodney Parade, before making the short trip to Bedwas and then welcoming Pontypridd to Newport on September 9.
Sustainability key to Principality Premiership format changes:
The WRU Board has confirmed changes to the Principality Premiership for the next two seasons in order to meet the changing needs of the clubs.
In the first half of the season, the 16-team semi-professional league will be split geographically into two east and west eight-team leagues, with the clubs playing each other home and away. The clubs will be split into east and west Wales leagues with RGC 1404 joining the west Wales league. This will guarantee more meaningful local derbies up to the New Year before all teams come together for the second half of the season.
Each club will then play the other 15 teams either home or away. At the split, points will be allocated to clubs based on league positions so the winners of the east and west leagues will go into the second half of the season with eight points, the clubs in second place will carry seven points into the 16-team league down to the eighth placed clubs who will carry one point, this will ensure all clubs remain in the race to be crowned Premier Division Winners. Every club will have a guaranteed 29 league matches during the season. Principality Premiership clubs will continue to work with the Regions to select Regional Premiership Select XVs for the British & Irish Cup, while the Foster’s Challenge Cup will not take place.
Following an extensive consultation process with the Principality Premiership clubs, the changes have been made in order to help support the clubs from a rugby, financial and supporters’ experience perspective and to fit into the national and regional pathway programme. There will be no play-offs, with the table-topping club at the end of the season crowned Principality Premiership champion in a straight-forward league system.
WRU Head of Rugby Operations Julie Paterson said, “We have taken on board the views expressed by the Principality Premiership clubs, particularly in respect of the number and regularity of fixtures required to enable the clubs to be sustainable. A number of surveys, workshops and meetings have been held with all club stakeholders – administrators, supporters, coaches and players, looking at different areas of the club game at this level.
“We hope the east and west Wales leagues will build on the history and heritage of the Principality Premiership clubs while maximising the pride and ability to attract community support that comes from traditional local derbies. The geographical split will also help reduce travel costs for clubs and supporters.
WRU Head of Rugby Performance Geraint John said, “The Principality Premiership is a vital competition in underpinning the professional game in Wales, providing a crucial stepping stone for our potential future professional players in addition to the British & Irish and Anglo-Welsh Cup competitions. We believe the new format and in particular, the additional, guaranteed local derbies in the first half of the season will further support the work of the Regions to establish the place of the Principality Premiership within the regional and national pathway in order to underpin player, coach and referee development, and at this time we feel this solution meets the vast majority of those needs.
“We will continue to assess the outcomes of this new format but there will be no further structural changes to the Principality Premiership until at least the 2019/20 season.”
Chris Clarke, Principality Premiership clubs chairman added, “The format of the league has been amended this coming season in line with the suggestions of supporters and clubs and we look forward to another challenging and competitive Season.”
Broadcast partners S4C and BBC will continue their live and highlights coverage of the Principality Premiership, S4C committing to 15 live Principality Premiership and WRU National Cup, Plate and Bowl matches.
Principality Premiership East:
Principality Premiership West: