Pro 12 Preview
We preview the new season and Paul Wallace gives his verdict on the teams in the RaboDirect PRO12.
Last Updated: 05/09/13 10:42am
This weekend the best teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy will do battle as the RaboDirect PRO12 kicks off.
Reigning champions Leinster may have lost influential fly-half Jonathan Sexton and their coach Joe Schmidt but still have plenty of leaders and talent to successfully defend their title. Munster will also be looking to get back to winning ways but it is runners-up Ulster who look like the best bet to keep the title is Ireland.
The Ospreys will be looking at their impressive tight five to build a solid platform for their campaign while Glasgow with the likes of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in their ranks may also be pushing for the title come the play-offs.
Last season finish: 9th
Predicted finish this season: 6th
Director of rugby: Phil Davies
Captain: Matthew Rees
Ground: Cardiff Arms Park
Sky Bet odds: 25/1
Players in: Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Richard Smith (Cardiff RFC), Miles Normandale (UWIC), Aled Summerhill, Ellis Jenkins, Tom Pascoe, Will Thomas (all academy).
Players out: Jason Tovey, Matthew Screech (both Dragons), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), Andy Kyriacou (retired), Ceri Sweeney, Tom James (both Exeter Chiefs), Campese Ma'afu (Nottingham), Nathan Trevett (London Welsh), Cory Hill (Moseley), Jake Cooper (Wasps), Petru Tamba (unattached).
Key men: Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny.
Overview: The Blues may have lost Jamie Roberts but they have added international quality to their front row in the shape of Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees. Big things are expected of Rhys Patchell, who will be first-choice fly-half following the departures of Jason Tovey and Ceri Sweeney. Cardiff were the lowest try-scorers in last season's PRO12 (28 in 22 matches) but the introduction of an artificial surface at Cardiff Arms Park should help remedy that, and also give them an edge over visiting sides.
Paul Wallace says: Cardiff really need to get into the winning habit. They are a side who have never really played to their top of their ability. The Blues have installed an artificial pitch at Arms park and I am really interested to see how they develop on it. They have boosted their pack with the return of Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees, they have lost Jamie Roberts but how many times did he play for Cardiff? Leigh Halfpenny, the star of the Lions show, is their key man and Rhys Patchell at fly-half is coming through very nicely. Another player to look out for is Harry Robinson on the wing.
Last season finish: 8th
Predicted finish this season: 10th
Director of rugby: Pat Lam
Captains: Gavin Duffy, John Muldoon, Michael Swift
Sky Bet odds: 100/1
Players in: Craig Clarke (Waikato Chiefs), Fionn Carr (Leinster), James So'oialo (Wellington Norths), Jake Heenan (Auckland Blues), Sean Henry, James Rael (both Munster), Aly Muldowney (Exeter Chiefs), Craig Ronaldson (Lansdowne).
Players out: Mike McCarthy (Leinster), Adrian Flavin, Johnny O'Connor (both retired), Thomas Anderson (Ealing Trailfinders), David Gannon, James Loxton, David Moore, Ethienne Reynecke (all released), Eoghan Grace (Plymouth Albion), Matthew Jarvis (Nottingham), Mark McCrea (Jersey), Fetu'u Vainikolo (Exeter Chiefs).
Key men: Craig Clarke, Robbie Henshaw
Overview: A new era begins at Connacht under Pat Lam, who has made some astute signings such as double Super Rugby winner Craig Clarke and former New Zealand U21 skipper Jake Heenan. Full-back Robbie Henshaw is a great prospect but Connacht need to develop a killer instinct and learn how to close out games. Their away form also requires major improvement.
Paul Wallace says: They will always struggle on their shoestring budget but I am looking forward to seeing what Pat Lam does. They have some real leadership with Craig Clarke coming in from Waikato Chiefs though and have some good young players. Jake Heenan is another kiwi who looks very promising - he captained New Zealand U20s and is highly rated. They will be tough to beat in Galway and while I don't think they are play-off material, but I don't think they will be too far off.
Last season finish: 11th
Predicted finish this season: 11th
Director of rugby: Lyn Jones
Captain: Andrew Coombs
Ground: Rodney Parade
Sky Bet odds: 200/1
Players in: Kris Burton (Treviso), Richie Rees, Netani Talei (both Edinburgh), Matthew Screech, Jason Tovey (both Cardiff Blues), Tetaz Chapparo (Stade Francais), Thomas Rhys Thomas (Wasps).
Players out: Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro), Tom Brown (Jersey), Tonderai Chavhanga (Cheetahs), Steve Jones, Dan Watchurst (both retired), Jamie Smith, Andy Tuilagi, Hywel Stoddart, Josh Tyler (all released).
Key men: Toby Faletau, Jason Tovey.
Overview: Toby Faletau has opted against following the Welsh exodus to France and penned a two-year contract, which is a huge boost to new coach Lyn Jones. Fly-half Jason Tovey is back at Rodney Parade following a stint with Cardiff but Jones' primary goal will be to plug a porous defence that conceded 72 tries last season.
Paul Wallace says: I expect them to do better than last year and they have done well to hold onto Toby Faletau. They have also signed Fijian backrower Netani Talei who is a big powerful runner and they have Jason Tovey back at fly-half. They were strong at home but were very disappointing on the road and will want to improve on that. I think they need to aim for a mid-table finish.
Last season finish: 10th
Predicted finish this season: 9th
Director of rugby: Alan Solomons
Captain: Greig Laidlaw
Sky Bet odds: 50/1
Players in: Ollie Atkins, Grayson Hart (both Waratahs), Jack Cuthbert (Bath), Alasdair Dickinson (Sale), Aleki Lutui, Nikki Walker (both Worcester).
Players out: John Houston (Scotland Sevens), Mike Penn (Moseley), Richie Rees, Netani Talei (both Dragons), Andy Titterrell (London Welsh), James King, Steven Turnbull (both retired), Sep Visser (released).
Key men: Tim Visser, Grant Gilchrist
Overview: After last season's shambolic slump, the only way is up for Edinburgh. In Tim Visser they possess the PRO12's top try-scorer for the past four seasons, and their squad boasts a host of experienced international players. So why are they performing so poorly? Playing in front of paltry crowds at Murrayfield remains a problem, but a change in style under coach Alan Solomons could help lift the gloom.
Paul Wallace says: They are still a very fickle side and I think they should be a lot further along the road than they are. Generally there is not too much between them and Glasgow but for some reason - whether it be the culture, the lack of the winning habit - they have fallen behind. I think they will have another tough season.
Last season finish: 3rd
Predicted finish this season: 2nd
Director of rugby: Gregor Townsend
Captain: Al Kellock
Ground: Scotstoun Stadium
Sky Bet odds: 5/1
Players out: John Barclay (Scarlets), Ofa Fainga'anuku (Worcester), Nick Campbell (Jersey), Rory Lamont, Graeme Morrison (both retired), Taylor Paris (released).
Key men: Ryan Grant, Stuart Hogg
Overview: The west is best in Scotland at the moment. While Edinburgh languished at the foot of table last season, Glasgow were challenging at the other end and were unlucky to not reach last year's final. The Warriors' first season at Scotstoun was a successs and with Lions trio Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Ryan Grant in their squad, they will again challenge.
Paul Wallace says: They could very well be a challenger for the league this year. They are a very underrated side and are very consistent. Under Gregor Townsend they have done very well and have developed that winning habit which is vital. They have lost the likes of John Barclay and Rory Lamont but they have a big solid pack with a very strong lineout. They may not have the big stand out stars but they have a strong core of excellent players and lock Alastair Kellock is probably the most underrated player in the league.
Last season finish: 2nd (Champions)
Predicted finish this season: 3rd
Director of rugby: Matt O'Connor
Captain: Leo Cullen
Ground: Royal Dublin Showground
Sky Bet odds: 7/4
Players in: Zane Kirchner (Blue Bulls), Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle), Mike McCarthy (Connacht).
Players out: Jonathan Sexton (Racing Metro), Damian Browne (Oyonnax), Fionn Carr (Connacht), Andrew Conway (Munster), Jamie Hagan (London Irish), Thomas Sexton (Melbourne Rebels), Heinke van der Merwe (Stade Francais), Isa Nacewa (retired), Mark Flanagan (released).
Key men: Ian Madigan, Mike Ross
Overview: Despite losing the influential trio of Joe Schmidt, Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, Leinster remain favourites to retain their crown. Ian Madigan excelled when filling Sexton's sizeable shoes during parts of last season but can he do it on a consistent basis? The arrival of Mike McCarthy strengthens their lineout and Springbok Zane Kirchner adds competition to their backline, while Jimmy Gopperth will provide Madigan will healthy competition. Brian O'Driscoll enters his final season and will be determined to sign off with some silverware.
Paul Wallace says: This will be a slightly tough season for the defending champions. In my opinion Joe Schmidt was the best coach in world rugby and his loss will be huge. They have also lost the leadership of Jonathan Sexton - which could be crucial. Yes they have got the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen and Gordon D'Arcy but another year on how many games are they going to play? Leinster have also lost that strength in depth with Isa Nacewa retiring and the likes Heinke van der Merwe and Jamie Hagan moving on. They have got some big name signings with the likes of Zane Kirchner and will be looking for the likes of Sean O'Brien - who in my opinion was the pick of the British and Irish Lions backrowers - to really step up into the leadership role. I expect a slow start from them but still expect them to make the play-offs.
Last season finish: 6th
Predicted finish this season: 5th
Director of rugby: Rob Penney
Captain: Peter O'Mahony
Ground: Thomond Park
Sky Bet odds: 13/2
Players in: Andrew Conway (Leinster), Gerhard van den Heever (Stormers), Gerry Hurley (Cork Constitution).
Players out: Danny Barnes (Newcastle), Sean Henry, James Rael (both Connacht), Doug Howlett, Ronan O'Gara (both retired).
Key men: Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray
Overview: Munster's European exertions hindered their PRO12 play-off hopes last season as they failed to finish in the top four for the first time in five years. Club greats Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett have hung up their boots but big things are predicted of young guns JJ Hanrahan and Andrew Conway, who they signed from rivals Leinster. If Conor Murray can maintain the form he showed for the Lions, and the colossal Paul O'Connell stays fit, Rob Penney's side will be firmly in the mix come the business end of the campaign.
Paul Wallace says: They have also lost some key players in Dougie Howlett and Ronan O'Gara who have been instrumental in their success - O'Gara more so but Howlett did help Munster develop their attacking game. In the last few years we have seen Munster trying to adapt their traditional game into a more wider attacking game and with two good players at 10 in Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan plus the pace of Simon Zebo, Felix Jones and Andrew Conway, they could well make that move this season. It is a big opportunity for Keatley and Hanrahan to be a really running threat at 10 and could be the key for Munster to successfully change their game plan.
Last season finish: 5th
Predicted finish this season: 4th
Director of rugby: Steve Tandy
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Sky Bet odds: 6/1
Players in: Tito Tebaldi (Zebre), Jess Hassler (Prairie Wolf Pack), Tyler Ardron (Ontario Blues), Aisea Natoga (Nadroga).
Players out: Kahn Fotuali'I (Northampton), Jonathan Thomas (Worcester), George Stowers (Tasman).
Key man/men: Dan Biggar, Adam Jones
Overview: The departure of influential scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'I is a blow, but with five Lions in their squad the Ospreys will be quietly confident of adding to their record haul of four PRO12 titles. IRB Junior Player of the Year Sam Davies will challenge Dan Biggar for the fly-half berth, but the loss of tight-head Dimitri Arhip to a long-term injury increases their reliance on Adam Jones. Their pack includes Wales stars Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans and Justin Tipuric and is an area of real strength for Steve Tandy.
Paul Wallace says: They have a Lions front five and I think if they get to the play-offs they will be tough to beat. They will miss Kahn Fotuali'I who was their main playmaker this year - I think he is the biggest loss in any team in the Rabo. However they have a lot of strength upfront and plenty of ability in the backline and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Ashley Beck and Eli Walker. A big key will be keeping the likes of Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric fit after their mammoth season last year.
Last season finish: 4th
Predicted finish this season: 7th
Director of rugby: Simon Easterby
Captain: Rob McCusker, Jonathan Davies
Ground: Parc y Scarlets
Sky Bet odds: 18/1
Players in: John Barclay (Glasgow), Kyle Evans, Craig Price (both Llanelli RFC), Darran Harris (Pontypridd), Aaron Warren (Llandovery RFC).
Players out: George North (Northampton Saints), Matthew Rees (Cardiff Blues), Morgan Stoddart (retired), Peter Edwards (London Welsh), Jonathan Edwards (Cardiff RFC), Andy Fenby (London Irish), Dale Ford (Neath), Tavis Knoyle (Gloucester), Lee Williams (Carmarthen Quins), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers), Craig Hawkins, Rhys Jones, Richie Pugh (all released).
Key men: Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland
Overview: The Scarlets pipped Welsh rivals the Ospreys into the final play-off position last season, but their hand is severely weakened by the departure of Lions wing George North to Northampton. Jonathan Davies remains in the midfield and Simon Easterby will hope for a consistent campaign from fly-half Rhys Priestland. Ken Owens becomes first-choice hooker following Matthew Rees' switch to Cardiff, but a lack of depth and experience is a concern.
Paul Wallace says: They have some good talent among their ranks - Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and Rhys Priestland. They will be full of attacking rugby again but you have to wonder if they have the physicality upfront to mix it with the big teams. Flanker John Barclay is a great signing for them especially if they can up the temp and get him working hard at the breakdown and linking.
Last season finish: 7th
Predicted finish this season: 8th
Director of rugby: Franco Smith
Captain: Antonio Pavanello
Ground: Stadio Comunale di Monigo
Sky Bet odds: 66/1
Players in: Matthew Berquist (Biarritz)
Players out: Kris Burton (Dragons), Tommaso Benvenuti (Perpignan), Tommaso Iannone, Giulio Toniolatti (both Zebre), Jacobus Roux (released)
Key man: Alessandro Zanni
Overview: The PRO12 needs a competitive Italian side and in Treviso, they've got one. Franco Smith's side clinched a best-ever finish of seventh last season, which included impressive wins over Munster and Scarlets. The departures of Kris Burton and Tommaso Benvenuti is a blow, and they will struggle during the autumn internationals and Six Nations due to call-ups, but no side will be taking a trip to Stadio Comunale di Monigo for granted.
Paul Wallace says: They got mid table last season which was excellent for them and I think Treviso will be a tough place to go. They have signed Matt Berquist who should be a good acquisition for them. They will be very competitive and another midtable finish would be good for them
Last season finish: 1st (runners-up)
Predicted finish this season: Winners
Director of rugby: Mark Anscombe
Captain: Johan Muller
Sky Bet odds: 3/1
Players in: Bronson Ross (Coventry), James McKinney (Rotherham), David McIlwaine (Bristol).
Players out: Niall O'Connor (Jersey), Nigel Brady (Aurillac), Ali Birch (Rotherham), Adam D'Arcy (Manly).
Key men: Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson.
Overview: After suffering final heartbreak to Leinster in the past two seasons - Heineken Cup in 2012 and PRO12 in 2013 - Ulster look well-placed to make it third time lucky and capture their first piece of silverware since 2006. Injuries to key players during the last campaign allowed young guns such as Stuart Olding and Iain Henderson to make the breakthrough, and if they can keep their big names off the treatment table they will again be in contention.
Paul Wallace says: On paper they look like a very strong side with plenty of young players coming through. They still have the same conundrum at fly-half though. When it comes to knock-out rugby, does Paddy Jackson have the leadership to get them through? Sometimes when they have Ruan Pienaar at 10 they can sometimes play a very staid game which does not open up the opportunities out wide. I think Jackson really needs to put his stamp on fly-half if Ulster want to make the most of their very strong squad. Keep an eye out for centre Chris Farrell - a fantastic prospect.
Last season finish: 12th
Predicted finish this season: 12th
Director of rugby: Andrea Cavinato
Captain: Gonzalo Garcia
Ground: Stadio XXV Aprile
Sky Bet odds: 1000/1
Players in: Tommaso Iannone, Giulio Toniolatti (both Treviso), Deon Berryman (Cavalieri Prato), George Biagi (Bristol), Dario Chistolini (Gloucester), Brendon Leonard (Waikato Chiefs), Guglielmo Palazzani, Samuel Vunisa (both Calvisano).
Players out: Tito Tebaldi (Ospreys), Sinoti Sinoti (Wellington), Nicola Belardo, Alberto Chiesa (both Calvisano), Daniel Halangahu (Narbonne), Josh Sole (Bay of Plenty).
Key men: Marco Bortolami, Giovanbattista Venditti.
Overview: The Parma club lost all 22 games in their debut season, which overshadowed some competitive performances that warranted nine losing bonus points. Zebre have a number of experienced names such as Mauro Bergamasco and Marco Bortolami, while Kiwi scum-half Brendon Leonard is a good addition, but unless they break their losing streak in the opening rounds it could another long season.
Paul Wallace says: I think they will definitely get a win or two but they have lost some of their key players like Josh Sole and Tito Tebaldi. They have signed All Blacks scrum-half Brendon Leonard but one man cannot turn a team around.