Cardiff Blues A will kick-off their season with a home clash against the reigning champions Leinster A when the Celtic Cup starts on the weekend of 23-25 August. Gethin Jenkins and Thomas Rhys Thomas will lead the coaching team, assisted by Craig Everett and Aled James.
Gruff Rees, Cardiff Blues Academy Manager said: “The Celtic Cup has become a really important stepping stone for us and proved invaluable last year in terms of development and linking the young guys in the academy alongside senior professionals.
“It allows us to align our rugby philosophy and throughout the academy to the senior squad. You only have to look at the likes of Shane Lewis-Hughes, Keiron Assiratti, Alun Lawrence and Harri Millard to see how the competition can be used as a springboard.
“It’s also really good for the development of coaches, who have the chance to replicate the routines of the professional game and in particular the PRO14. These guys have done it as players but to lead a programme over a sustained period is really beneficial for them.
“Being able to work with our semi-professional clubs, to give some of their players opportunities in the competition is also a really exciting proposition.”
There have been changes made to the organisation of the development tournament for its second season. Last year there were two Conferences, split into Irish and Welsh teams, with the winner of each contesting the final. This year all teams will be ranked in one league and the top two teams will contest the final on Saturday, 12 October. Due to only seven league games, four teams will play four home games, and four teams will play three home games.
Last season’s runners-up, Scarlets A, will also launch their campaign at home, while the Ospreys and Dragons travel to Ireland for their opening round. There are three rounds of regional derbies in Wales – on 6-8 and 13-15 September and 4-6 October.
Scarlets A will be coached by Richard Kelly (head coach) with Paul Fisher and Richie Pugh as his assistants.
Kelly said: “Last season’s competition was hugely beneficial in helping a number of our emerging young players make the step to the PRO14 and Champions Cup.
"There will be some new challenges for us as an A team this year with the Rugby World Cup and our senior squad contributing heavily to international squads having 17 players currently away on international duty.
"From a player development perspective this could mean a lot more of our development players having opportunities with the senior team at different times which is a really exciting prospect for us in terms of development, but also means there is potential to expose more players across our pathway in the A league competition.
“We enjoyed the tournament last season, coming up just short in the final at Parc y Scarlets against a strong Leinster side, but more importantly, we saw the likes of Dan Davis, Josh Helps and Kieran Hardy go on and play key roles for the Scarlets’ senior team.
“Hopefully we will see a similar progression from more of our developing talent this season.”
Ospreys Development begin their campaign away to Munster.
Head coach Richard Fussell said: "This competition provides an exciting opportunity for young players on the pathway to test themselves and experience a higher level of rugby. This year is particularly interesting as the Rugby World Cup means a number of our B Group players will be stepping up to the senior squad. In turn, we will be looking to expose some new players to this standard and have no doubt it will prove hugely beneficial to their ongoing development, as it will to the young coaching team, myself included."
The Dragons will enter the Celtic Cup as Dragons XV.
Matt O’Brien, Dragons academy head coach said, “The Celtic Cup is a fantastic curtain-raiser to the new league season. With the Rugby World Cup going on, the Celtic Cup provides a great opportunity for fans to enjoy rugby close to home and see some of the new faces and young talent we have in the region.”
“We really enjoyed the competition last year and the young players in our squad took a huge amount from it. This season we’ll look to have a mix of young talent and experienced players involved and we’re keen to improve on our record.
“Our academy players will train with the seniors from late July, as we step up preparations ahead of the new campaign, and with seven Celtic Cup games on the bounce it’s an intense period with full training weeks in the professional environment.
“The Irish teams have real depth and strong A sides so they’ll provide a stern test again alongside the Welsh regions.”
The competition will run alongside some of the early rounds of the Indigo Group Premiership and the first round of the Specsavers Cup, in Wales. It will also take place while the Rugby World Cup is being played in Japan.
The opening round of the Guinness PRO14 will be on the weekend of 27-29 September, which means there will be a clash of fixtures over the last two league weekend and for the Final.
CELTIC CUP FIXTURES 2019
Aug 23 - 25
Cardiff Blues v Leinster
Munster v Ospreys
Scarlets v Ulster
Connacht v Dragons
Aug 30 - Sep 1
Leinster v Scarlets
Dragons v Munster
Ulster v Cardiff Blues
Ospreys v Connacht
Sept 6 - 8
Munster v Leinster
Ulster v Connacht
Cardiff Blues v Dragons
Scarlets v Ospreys
Sept 13 - 15
Connacht v Munster
Leinster v Ulster
Dragons v Scarlets
Ospreys v Cardiff Blues
Sept 20 - 22
Ospreys v Leinster
Munster v Cardiff Blues
Dragons v Ulster
Connacht v Scarlets
Sept 27 - 29
Leinster v Dragons
Scarlets v Munster
Ulster v Ospreys
Cardiff Blues v Connacht
Oct 4 - 6
Connacht v Leinster
Ulster v Munster
Cardiff Blues v Scarlets
Dragons v Ospreys
Saturday, Oct 12