Friday 26 December 2014

New dawn, but same old faces set to rule Guinness Pro12

Leinster in pole position to make it three league titles in a row

Published 05/09/2014 | 02:30

Team captains, from left, Scarlets Ken Owens, Benetton Rugby Trevisos Antonio Pavenello, Munsters Peter OMahony, Glasgow Warriors' Al Kellock, Zebres Marco Bortolami, Leinsters Jamie Heaslip, Ulsters Rory Best, Ospreys' Alun Wyn Jones, Connachts John Muldoon, Edinburghs Matthew Scott, Newport Gwent Dragonss Lee Byrne and Cardiff Blues Matthew Rees at the Guinness PRO12 Season Launch, Diageo Head Office, Park Royal, London. Picture credit: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE
Team captains, from left, Scarlets Ken Owens, Benetton Rugby Trevisos Antonio Pavenello, Munsters Peter OMahony, Glasgow Warriors' Al Kellock, Zebres Marco Bortolami, Leinsters Jamie Heaslip, Ulsters Rory Best, Ospreys' Alun Wyn Jones, Connachts John Muldoon, Edinburghs Matthew Scott, Newport Gwent Dragonss Lee Byrne and Cardiff Blues Matthew Rees at the Guinness PRO12 Season Launch, Diageo Head Office, Park Royal, London. Picture credit: Matt Impey / SPORTSFILE

NEW beginnings beckon for the old Celtic League this season.

Fresh sponsors, broadcasters willing to throw their considerable weight behind the competition and yesterday’s confirmation from Leinster that a bone fide star is on his way back all bring good tidings.

Guinness have put the organisation back in the black after a season of doubt, Sky Sports will add polish to the product and the Welsh peace deal bodes well. 

Throw in the fact that European places will be decided on the basis of league finish next May and you begin to see why there is finally something to get excited about.

At certain stages last year it looked as if the tournament might be in real trouble, but now it is peering out on to a new season with a fresh confidence it has rarely had before.

What follows is the important part.

Sponsors, broadcasters and administrators are just the support cast and it is the players and teams who will decide whether this season’s Guinness Pro12 League is to be a success.

Too often in the past, the games have been lopsided and the stars absent. This weekend, the national team managements will have made their calls in the name of player welfare and the teamsheets will lack some lustre.

However, the hope remains that the need for European points will see a more flexible approach to player release as the season goes on. Otherwise, the same old problems will remain.

One thing that is a constant, however, is the balance of power and it looks set to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

While the Irish provinces were often accused of neglecting the Pro12 and its predecessors, they have dominated it in recent seasons.

Leinster have won this competition twice in a row and have been in every Grand Final since the play-offs were introduced in 2009/10, while their successes combined with Munster’s win in 2009 means the trophy has left the island just twice in the last seven seasons.

However, it has been a summer of change in Munster and Ulster, while Connacht appear to have strengthened considerably.  Just where does it leave the Irish provinces ahead of the new campaign?

LEINSTER

Last season: 1st (champions)

Still possessing  the strongest squad in the league by some distance, Matt O’Connor enters his second season in a strong position.

Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen are gone, but neither had a major impact on the domestic campaign last season so their loss will be absorbed comfortably enough even if their absence might be exposed in Europe.

The champions’ burgeoning academy is still delivering talent off the schools conveyor belt and Noel Reid is expected to make further progress this season and Luke McGrath could make a breakthrough.

Ireland commitments will affect them, but new signing Kane Douglas will join Zane Kirchner, Jimmy Gopperth and probably Shane Jennings in guiding the second string around when Joe Schmidt’s men are away.

What impact Johnny Sexton’s return will have on Gopperth and Ian Madigan remains to be seen, but O’Connor will be looking for a positive response.

Results during the international window played a major role in Leinster topping the table last year and they look well-placed to repeat that feat.

MUNSTER

Last season: 3rd (semi-finalists)

Anthony Foley takes over a Munster side who improved their league performance last season but still left with a bad taste in their mouths after a late-season collapse that culminated in a play-off defeat to Glasgow Warriors.

Top of the table for much of the campaign, Rob Penney’s men used their Pro12 form as a springboard for Europe but the top brass at the province have spoken openly about the need to get results in this competition given it now holds the keys to the continent.

While the recruitment of Robin Copeland adds dynamism, the loss of James Coughlan sees vast experience leave the dressing-room and, when Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray are away with Ireland, there are concerns about leadership.

With Foley promising pragmatism, much will be expected of the pack while Andrew Smith has a lot on his shoulder at centre where they look light on options.

It could well be a challenging first season but he has long desired the job and will be hoping to put this week’s controversy behind him.

ULSTER

Last season: 4th (semi-finalists)

A summer of change means there are major question marks hanging over the northern province who were close to winning this competition in 2013 and threw away the semi-final at the RDS last year.

They have lost their director of rugby, coach, captain and starting props over the summer meaning temporary supremo Les Kiss has a job on hands.

The loss of Johann Muller as a leader will be keenly felt, but the Australian needs the large cadre of Ireland players in his squad to step up and lead while Paddy Jackson needs to step out of Ruan Pienaar’s shadow.

The Springbok’s international commitments mean he has played a lot of rugby in recent years and they need to take the weight off his shoulders.

Franco van der Merwe, Ruaidhri Murphy and Wiehahn Herbst, David Humphreys’ parting gifts, have a lot to do to replace Muller, Tom Court and John Afoa.

Still, the players wanted to see the back of Mark Anscombe and got their way. They retain a talented, if weakened squad and have a respected coach.

It will be interesting, but they will come under pressure.

CONNACHT

Last season: 10th

Perhaps the most fascinating of the provinces going into 2014/15 is Connacht after a summer of heavy recruitment from Pat Lam.

The former Samoa coach has shown that he has a persuasive way about him by luring Mils Muliaiana, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney among others, but now he must make it work on the field as the province talk openly about leapfrogging their way up into the European places.

It’s a huge ask, particularly given the signings won’t be available to play for a number of weeks and international pressures will limit their access to Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw.

Connacht failed to win a derby last season and will be dying for an early scalp, with Leinster’s arrival at the Sportsground in week three looking particularly well-timed.

Having cleared house over the summer to make way for his own players, Lam now knows the squad well and is clear on what they have to do. Getting back into Europe’s elite will be the goal, but achieving it looks an ask.

THE REST

Glasgow Warriors have been the most refreshing side in the league over the past two seasons, but found out how much work they must do to go a step further in last year’s final.

The Scots have lost Chris Cusiter, but retain the canny Gregor Townsend who needs to mend his relationship with Stuart Hogg if they are to go one better.

The Ospreys were disappointing last year and have lost Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Ryan Jones and Ian Evans and will be heavily reliant on the league’s player-of-the-year Dan Biggar, while Cardiff Blues have a new coach and the strongest squad on paper, but the capital club have been notoriously inconsistent in recent campaigns.

The Scarlets and Edinburgh will cause problems without threatening the top placings, while the Dragons, Zebre and Treviso will bring up the rear.

Five things to look forward to in the Pro12

1 PRE-WORLD CUP JOSTLING

Always one of the highlights of the season, this year’s inter-provincial clashes will be all-the-more important with the World Cup looming in a year’s time. Fiery, parochial and often bad-tempered, the all-Irish affairs will give players a chance to get one up on their rivals for a green jersey. It all begins when Connacht host Leinster in three weeks’ time.

2 SKY’S ENTHUSIASM

Removing RTÉ from the equation takes the biggest games out of millions of living rooms, but  the upside comes from the British broadcaster going head-to-head with BT’s coverage of the English Premiership. They are determined to push their product and that can only be positive.

3 A LOOK BEYOND THIS PARISH

There has always been a strange lack of context to the Irish teams’ games in the Pro12 given the fact that the focus here is always on the provinces and rarely on what’s going on elsewhere. The presence of a core broadcaster not swayed by national ties will open a window into the Welsh and Scottish derbies as well as the race for Europe we haven’t seen before.

4 THE CONNACHT REVIVAL

It will be a while before Pat Lam has all of his new signings available, but there is something stirring west of the Shannon where Mils Muliaina and Bundee Aki will spice things up in a backline also containing Ireland prospects Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion. They’ve gotten people talking, now can they deliver?

5 RACE FOR EUROPE

The biggest change this year is that, from the outset, each team knows that European places are up for grabs. In theory, it should liven things up and stir the likes of Cardiff and Edinburgh from their slumber.

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