Guinness PRO12 season preview
With a new format and new sponsor, the Guinness PRO12 kicks off this weekend in what promises to be the most exciting season yet.
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Leinster will be aiming for a third title in a row but face some fierce challenges from the likes of Munster, Cardiff Blues and Glasgow. With European places up for grabs every game is crucial as the stakes have been raised even higher.
Here, we look at the movers and shakers in the Guinness PRO12.
They have a new coach in Mark Hammett, a straight talking Kiwi who has some excellent coaching credentials. They have made some excellent signings, too – some real headline names including Adam Jones and Gareth Anscombe - but also the likes of Tavis Knoyle, back in Wales and keen to prove a point. This could be the year for Cardiff Blues if they can pull it all together quickly –the key for them is to get a good start but that goes for every team who will all be grappling to settle in to those first few weeks.
Key player: The signing of Gareth Anscombe has made everyone sit up and take notice – even Wales coach Warren Gatland. However he will only be available in October, once his duties with Auckland and the ITM Cup are over. Until then Rhys Patchell will have a chance to create a selection dilemma for Hammett and his coaching staff.
They have made a big signing in Mils Muliaina – he has probably given his best days on a rugby field but to have his presence within the squad will be a huge boost. He is not the type of character to be going over just to earn some money – he will be giving his absolute all and should mesh very well with Connacht coach Pat Lam. They will really set the standards in terms of goal setting and leadership. Connacht will want to show that they are more than just the team who come up with the headline upset every now and again; they will want to be more consistent this season.
Key player: An elbow injury has ruled Muliaina out until October but his presence at training and in the changing room should have a huge impact on the team.
Alan Solomons should have his feet firmly under the table and this should be much more his squad. He will not accept anything other than his team making positive strides forward and I really expect them to play in the image of their coach more than they did last year. It is going to be intriguing to see his plans implemented on the field.
Key player: Tom Heathcote joining from Bath is a very good signing for them. If he played for any other Premiership side he would have been a regular starter – unfortunately for him, at Bath he was up against George Ford.
You would expect to see them right at the top of the table again this season. They have been moving towards the pot itself in recent times, getting closer and closer. Even though they lost the final last year by a convincing margin it was close for a long, long way. For large parts of that final it was a very good and high quality game of rugby which was not as one sided as the score at the end suggested. Under Gregor Townsend they will get the right platform to develop as the season goes on. They have solid foundations and just maybe they could be champions this year.
Key player: James Downey is a big signing from Munster. He may be heading towards the end of his career but his knowledge and experience of winning may just be the ingredient that has been missing from Glasgow.
Ditto Glasgow, in many respects. You expect to see them challenging at the top of the table and being involved in the key games at the end of the season. They have not made too many signings over the summer but have made some big ones with Ben Te'o and Kane Douglas. The loss of Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen is massive but if anyone can fill those jerseys then Leinster can. They have a very strong academy that keeps on producing wonderful players and that holds them excellent stead.
Key player: New skipper Jamie Heaslip has big boots to fill after the retirement of Cullen. He will need to make sure the pressure of the captaincy does not affect his game.
They did not quite make it last year and their fear this season will be that they once again do not quite get to where they want to be. Getting Anthony Foley in as coach is a very good move and he will have the support of everyone – he is Munster through and through. If they don’t do it then it won’t be for the lack of trying and as usual, they won’t be far away. They need to make that leap again from the team that is almost there to the team that is there. They have done it all before and there is no reason under Foley why they cannot do it again.
Key player: Peter O’Mahony is going from strength to strength as Munster skipper and will play a crucial part in getting his team back where they belong.
Newport Gwent Dragons
After finishing as the lowest-placed Welsh region once again last season, it has been a summer of transition at Rodney Parade. Not only have the Dragons secured a new state-of-the-art training ground in Ystrad Mynach, they have also brought former British and Irish Lion Lee Byrne back to Wales. As well as the recruitment of Byrne as captain, Newport head coach Lyn Jones also welcomes fellow Welsh internationals Ian Gough, Andy Powell and Aled Brew as well as South African front-five dip Rynard Landman and Brok Harris to south Wales. Such acquisitions, combined with the region’s Wales Under 20 contingent rising into double figures, gives the Dragons the ideal platform to erase their status as Welsh rugby’s poor relation.
Key Player: Lee Byrne. The prolific winger is back in his native Wales to play for his third region after a successful three-year spell with Top 14 heavyweights Clermont Auvergne, scoring 11 tries in 58 appearances.
The bitter dispute which has been engulfing Welsh rugby for the majority of the summer has hit hard at Ospreys. Although a so-called peace deal has now been struck between the national side and Welsh regions, Steve Tandy’s side have suffered significant losses over the close-season. Seasoned internationals Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans have gone through the Liberty Stadium exit, though the retention of British and Irish Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones has been a major plus point for Ospreys. The talismanic second-row continues in a formidable pack alongside fellow Wales international Justin Tipuric and much will be expected from fly-half Dan Biggar if they are to challenge for a top-four finish.
Key Player: Alun Wyn Jones. Remains one of the leading locks in world rugby and his commitment to the Ospreys cause provides a much-needed boost in a troubled time for the region.
There have been plenty of comings and goings in Llanelli this summer, most notably Jonathan Davies’ joining the Welsh exodus to France and coach Simon Easterby leaving to become part of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland coaching team. While Davies flies the nest to join Top 14 heavyweights Clermont, Regan King comes in the opposite direction and returns to his home club charged with the unenviable task of filling the void left by the Lions centre. Wayne Pivac assumes coaching duties from Easterby and will look to nurture Scarlets’ attacking flair, though the 2003/04 Celtic League winners must retain their physicality up front if they are to stand up to the tests posed by the likes of Leinster and Munster. The arrival of Harry Robinson has filled the air with optimism, while established players Rhys Priestland and Scott Williams will be asked to step up to the plate this term.
Key Player: Harry Robinson. The 21-year-old winger is one of the most highly-rated Welsh rugby prodigies and comes to Parc y Scarlets from rivals Cardiff Blues with great expectations.
Following last season’s 11th-place finish, head coach Umberto Casellato has spent the summer reshaping his squad, bringing in no less than 24 players from all around the globe. The Stadio Comunale di Monigo has been a hive of activity throughout the close-season, but the main question facing Treviso is whether Casellato has enough time to create a united squad ahead of the PRO12 season. Few would deny wholesale changes were necessary for Treviso if they are to push on in the PRO12 and challenge for European qualification and the club’s heavy spending looks set to breath a new lease of life into the Italian club. Albert Anae, Salesi Manu, Jayden Hayward and Sam Christie all arrive with Super Rugby experience under their belt, while the acquisitions of Joe Carlisle from Wasps and Leo Auva’a from Leinster have helped significantly bolster Casellato’s squad.
Key Player: Michele Campagnaro. He lit up the 2014 Six Nations with Italy and the explosive centre will hope to translate his international form into PRO12 progress for Treviso.
Few could have predicted the upheaval which was to hit Ulster at the climax of the 2013/14 season, with head coach Mark Anscombe following director of rugby David Humphreys through the Ravenhill exit turnstile. Anscombe has been replaced by Les Kiss on an interim basis, but Ireland’s defence coach will be without former captain Johann Muller, Paddy Wallace or Stephen Ferris following their retirements.
That said, expectation remains high in Ulster after five years of constant improvement; where the Ravenhill faithful may have entered previous seasons with wishful thinking, there is now an assumption the Irish province will be in the upper echelons of PRO12 rugby. If they are to challenge fellow provinces Leinster and Munster they will have to overcome the inconsistency issue which proved to be their downfall last term.
Key Player: Chris Henry. After being a mainstay in Ireland’s 2014 Six Nations campaign, the uncompromising flanker has a big year ahead as he bids to secure a place in Ireland’s 2015 Rugby World Cup plans.
The Italians found themselves rock bottom last term after winning just five of their 22 matches, with a disappointing 15 defeats to their name. It is a record few Zebre players will want reminding of, but one they will be desperate to overturn this season. Andrea Cavinato has made 10 signings from fellow Italian clubs with Hennie Daniller and Andries Ferreira completing their summer activity from South African Super Rugby franchise the Cheetahs. If Zebre are to press on this term they will need to ensure Parma is a daunting place to visit and their progress in this department will be tested from the off, with Cardiff Blues making the trip to Stadio XXV Aprile on the opening weekend.
Key Player: Luciano Orquera. Has shown glimmers of potential on the international stage with Italy but the fly-half will be after a strong season with Zebre as he looks to nail down a World Cup spot.
Sky Sports will show 30 live matches from the Guinness PRO12, plus the semi-finals and final from the tournament.