Magners League ins and outs
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Leo Cullen
Key question: The departure of CJ van der Linde and six-month injury to Stan Wright leaves Leinster vulnerable in the front row. It's a big opportunity for Mike Ross at tight-head with extra pressure attached to new prop Heinke van der Merwe. With plenty of talent and a coach who has a proven record of getting the best of his three-quarters, it is up to the pack to provide a platform.
One to watch -- Sean O'Brien: On the scene for a while now but after injury disrupted his progress last season, the young Carlow man is bulling for action. Can operate across the back-row and, with the World Cup serving as a dangling carrot, O'Brien looks like a rallying figure for Leinster where his status has been demonstrated by his pre-season captaincy role in Leo Cullen's absence.
IN: Ben Prescott (Nottingham), Ed O'Donoghue (Ulster), Isaac Boss (Ulster), Heinke van der Merwe (Golden Lions), Mariano Galarza (Univ de La Plata), Joe Schmidt (head coach -- Clermont), Guy Easterby (team manager), Greg Feek (scrum coach), Richie Murphy (senior skills and kicking coach).
OUT: CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs), Simon Keogh, Chris Keane (both released), Malcolm O'Kelly, Girvan Dempsey, Bernard Jackman (all retired), Michael Cheika (coach -- Stade Francais), Chris Whittaker (team manager -- Stade Francais), Alan Gaffney (backs coach -- IRFU), Kurt McQuilkin (defence coach -- NZ), Kyle Tonetti (Sale).
Last season: first in league, beaten finalist
Coach: Tony McGahan
Captain: Paul O'Connell
Key question: There have been encouraging signs in pre-season that Munster are developing the set-piece solidity that has eluded them in recent seasons and, although captain Paul O'Connell is sidelined for a while yet, the return of Denis Leamy and Donnacha Ryan adds to an undoubted pack potency. The question now is whether Sam Tuitupou, Johne Murphy and the rest of the Munster backline can produce the verve to go with the forward vigour.
One to watch -- Damien Varley: Has made rapid progress since returning from Wasps and was one of the stand-out successes on Ireland's tough summer trip to New Zealand and Australia. Dynamic and physical, Varley has the all-round game to force the international selectors to continue to take interest even when their frontline hookers are available.
IN: Johne Murphy (Leicester), Sam Tuitupou (Worcester), Wian du Preez (Cheetahs), Peter Borlase (Crusaders), Corey Hircock (Bedford), Anthony Foley (assistant/defence coach), Paul McCarthy (full-time scrum coach).
OUT: Nick Williams (Aironi), Jeremy Manning (Newcastle), Julien Brugnaut (Racing Metro), Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Ciaran O'Boyle (released).
Last season: fourth in league, beaten semi-finalist
Coach: Brian McLaughin
Captain: Rory Best
Key question: While comparisons to Man City have been over the top, Ulster have recruited well from South Africa but it remains to be seen whether they can return Ravenhill to its intimidating past and cure their travel sickness. A purple patch around Christmas and subsequent collapse is not acceptable this season.
One to watch -- Willie Faloon: A talented and heretofore under-rated openside who should get a chance to prove his worth to a wider audience.
IN: Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Johann Muller (Sharks), Pedrie Wannenburg (Bulls), Adam D'Arcy (Waratahs)
OUT: Ed O'Donoghue (Leinster), Isaac Boss (Leinster), Timoci Nagusa (Montpellier), Cillian Willis (Connacht).
Last season: eighth
Coach: Eric Elwood
Captain: John Muldoon
Key question: There is no doubting the desire, but their squad looks ill-equipped to cope with a 22-match schedule, particularly given their current injury woes. However, the main issue for Connacht is whether they will be given a path to follow for a viable future from next season on.
One to watch -- Jamie Hagan: The tight-head made huge progress last season and has gone from an afterthought at Leinster to a position of responsibility with Connacht given their limited front-row resources.
IN: Shane Monahan (Leinster), Darragh Fanning (Leinster), Cillian Willis (Ulster), Ezra Taylor (Queensland Reds), Eric Elwood (head coach), Mike Forshaw (defence coach), Brian Melrose (backs coach).
OUT: George Naoupu (Kobe Kobelco Steelers), Kieran Campbell (retired), Michael Bradley
Last season: 10th
Team to watch -- Cardiff Blues: The Ospreys will be flashy and are favourites to retain their title but their Welsh rivals could be the team to beat. There is strength throughout their squad with Sam Warburton, Xavier Rush, Leigh Halfpenny and Tom Shanklin central figures. Throw in the points-accumulation qualities of canny acquisition Dan Parks and you have a squad with few weaknesses.
Surprise packages -- Aironi: The bookies rate them as 200/1 outsiders but the Italian newcomers have the capacity to irritate the powerhouses. Having recruited extensively from the 'Who's Who' of Italian rugby, Aironi have considerable power in their front five and will seek to out-muscle opponents and produce opportunities for Ludovic Mercier to demonstrate his place-kicking prowess.
Shooting star --Tim Visser: The Dutch-born Edinburgh winger was superb last season and has the size, strength, pace and eye for the tryline to enhance his reputation this time around. Still only 23, 'Billy Vizz' has to wait two more years before he qualifies to play for Scotland but Edinburgh should benefit from his frustration in the meantime.
Compiled by Hugh Farrelly