Provinces playing catch-up as rivals hit ground running
Published 13/09/2016 | 02:30
You only have to look at the Guinness Pro12 table from this time last year to know that early-season form is no guarantee of success.
After two games, Scarlets, Edinburgh, Munster and Connacht made up the top four, and only one of those would still be there at the end of the season as other teams got their act together and the campaign balanced out.
Yet there is a definite sense that the early stakes have been raised in this year's competition as teams take advantage of the lack of international distraction to make fast starts, and the Irish provinces are in danger of falling behind as they attempt to build into the season in their own good time.
Glasgow Warriors already look the team to beat, although their performance at home against a mix-and-match Leinster side last Saturday was far less impressive than their hammering of an underdone Connacht team a week before.
Still, maximum points from their opening games against last year's top two is exactly what Gregor Townsend would have wanted from his charges as they look to reclaim their title.
While Leo Cullen, Pat Lam, Rassie Erasmus and Les Kiss have had to wait until this week to call on the players who featured heavily on Ireland's summer tour to South Africa, the Scots have been stealing a march, with Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Jonny Gray all starring.
For all that Leinster played well for 50 minutes on Saturday, they lacked the experienced heads to cope with their lead and made crucial errors.
Yesterday, scrum coach John Fogarty talked of players "building into the season", but they are doing so in an increasingly competitive environment that has seen at least two of the Welsh sides join the Pro12 party.
The Ospreys, who like Glasgow have maximum points, have never been far away but it's been a while since Cardiff Blues were a team to take seriously in the Celtic League.
Sure, they've had a who's who of Welsh internationals and some tasty imports to choose from, but they never seemed able to get it together and always fell short of their potential.
On Friday night at Irish Independent Park, they showed the kind of steel not seen from a Blues side for some time and, after finishing last season strongly, there are real signs that they are firmly among the contenders this time around.
Cardiff called on their Wales internationals against Munster - who will have Conor Murray and Keith Earls back this week - but Ospreys looked strong without Dan Biggar and Alun-Wyn Jones, which is an indication of their strength this year.
Before the season, Cullen suggested that eight teams could mount a challenge and, while Scarlets have joined Connacht in the slow-starters' corner, his prediction is looking accurate.
It's all good for the league, but with European qualification emanating from league placings and the play-offs so important to the end-of-year balance sheet, it puts the squeeze on the provinces to keep pace.
Of all of the provinces, Ulster caught the best break by drawing Dragons and Treviso in their opening games, but they lent further credence to the theory that the Italians are stronger this year by failing to pick up a bonus point last weekend.
The return of the rest of their internationals should see them past Scarlets at home on Friday and they should be hitting their stride by the time they face Glasgow away a week later.
With two away games in their next three, Leinster's schedule is less forgiving, which is why the loss of three potential bonus points in the opening two games is so galling for Cullen.
The return of Jamie Heaslip, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Sean Cronin certainly strengthens last year's finalists but backline injuries mean they are stretched.
Munster have a chance to put some daylight between themselves and their great rivals by the time the round six interprovincials get the season really going, if Erasmus can lift the mood after Friday's disappointment.
Last season they lost to Dragons away and Edinburgh at home, but both results are reversable, while Zebre at home is a five-point banker.
For Connacht, who simply must kick-start their campaign with a win over Zebre this weekend, there are tricky ties against Scarlets and Edinburgh before they host Ulster and begin their European campaign.
In an increasingly competitive league, the margins have tightened. It may only be week three, but the pressure is already coming on.