Irish Pro12 quartet have point to prove
Published 03/09/2015 | 02:30
Away from the bright lights of the World Cup, each of the four Irish provinces will be eager to ensure that their international players will be returning to a winning environment as the Pro12 campaign kicks off tomorrow.
For those who are on the fringes of Joe Schmidt's squad, it is an opportunity to show the Ireland coach what he is missing, while for others it's a chance to stake their claim for further down the line.
Schmidt has already made it clear that he will be keeping a close eye on the Pro12 and with the attritional nature of the game, injuries are sure to open the door for some.
None of the four provinces will be entirely happy with last season's league campaign. Munster fell at the final hurdle, Ulster came up short to the eventual winners Glasgow Warriors while Leinster (fifth) and Connacht (seventh) missed out on a play-off spot.
There are six rounds of the Pro12 scheduled until the World Cup has concluded at the end of October. Depending on Ireland's progress, the provinces can expect to be without their front-line players for the majority of that period.
It's a challenge that all four coaches will have been preparing for over the last three months and it leaves opportunities for younger players to put their hand up for selection ahead of what is a long and arduous season.
With several fresh faces and indeed new coaches, there is plenty to look forward to in what promises to be another fascinating season.
For the next two months, the World Cup may be the only show in town but the thrills and spills of the Pro12 are set to provide a magic of their own.
Into his third season now as coach, Pat Lam has taken Connacht to new heights and will be expected to push on again this season.
Lam has been busy this summer and has brought in two more New Zealanders in Nepia Fox-Matamua (openside flanker) and Api Pewhairangi (out-half) who represented Ireland in rugby league earlier in his career. Ben Marshall (second-row) also arrives from Leinster.
Connacht improved three places on Lam's first season in charge. Similar progress would see them make the top four this season. A lot will depend on their home form but Connacht are less affected by the number of World Cup absentees than others. They will be desperate to make that count early on.
It will be a baptism of fire for Leo Cullen as he faces the challenge of being without 16 players named in the Ireland squad and Zane Kirchner who is away with South Africa.
After a massively underwhelming domestic campaign last season, there is a renewed sense of belief around Dublin 4 that Cullen and his new-look coaching ticket can bring Leinster back to the top table.
The return of Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa will unquestionably make them a stronger outfit but it is crucial that they hit the ground running.
The honeymoon period is over for Anthony Foley and the Munster faithful will expect silverware come May, especially if, as expected, the Pro12 final is held at Thomond Park.
Last season, there was enough to suggest that Munster could kick on but the loss of Paul O'Connell to Toulon cannot be understated. With Donncha O'Callaghan also set to leave the province for Worcester, it's very much the end of an era down south.
Former Australia international Mark Chisholm has been signed in the hope that his experience can help fill the void, while Francis Saili is exactly the kind of centre that Munster have been crying out for in recent years.
Munster are without a trophy for four years - another barren year wouldn't sit well with their supporters.
It was a case of deja-vu last season as Ulster again failed to deliver when it mattered. Having crashed out of Europe early on, they were left with the sole focus of the Pro12 but conceded a late try in their semi-final to compound what was another disappointing season.
Les Kiss will link up with Neil Doak following the World Cup and his experience will be crucial.
Ulster supporters will have to wait until April 2016 to see their marquee signing Charles Piutau but a crowd favourite in Willie Faloon has returned.
On paper, Ulster have a side capable of challenging for the title but, as they have shown so often in the past, they lack that killer instinct. They will be hoping that the influence of Kiss is the missing piece of the jigsaw.