Toughest test yet for Irish provinces
WITH the World Cup just over a year away, and Ireland's frontline players operating under a carefully managed protection policy, the provinces face into their most challenging season since the inception of the Magners League a decade ago.
Squad strength, particularly in Munster and Leinster, will be tested like never before and the respective coaches find themselves in the difficult position of trying to create cohesion without having the luxury of consistent team selection.
Injuries do not help matters, with only Ulster heading into the campaign close to full strength. Leinster have captain and second-row Leo Cullen, prop Stan Wright and flanker Kevin McLaughlin on the long-term injury list while Munster are without twin totems Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls.
Connacht, the province who can least afford an extensive casualty list, have captain John Muldoon, fellow international back-row Johnny O'Connor and prop Robbie Morris all unavailable for the foreseeable future.
On the plus side, there is the return to fitness of a clutch of players who were forced to miss Ireland's summer tour, which is excellent news for their provinces and national coach Declan Kidney. Sean O'Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Denis Leamy, Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best bounce into the new campaign bursting with pent-up energy and enthusiasm and it is safe to expect eye-catching displays from this sextet in the early rounds of the league.
The combination of injury and enforced rest also opens the door for the next generation of Ireland players. Although large chunks of Ireland's World Cup squad already appear to be set in stone, there is the possibility of several bolters emerging from the provinces.
The likes of Ulster flanker Willie Faloon, Munster prop Dave Ryan and a collection of talented Leinster backs will hopefully get the opportunity to demonstrate their talents, while the responsibility resting on the shoulders of Connacht tight-head Jamie Hagan is good news for Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal.
Wright's injury also provides the opportunity for Mike Ross to get the run of games he was denied last season and strengthen Smal's hand further by proving his undoubted worth as a destructive scrummager.
Equally, the performances of the foreign contingent will be hugely significant in how the provinces fare. In this regard, Ulster have had the most productive summer recruitment-wise. Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller are serious South African operators while the Irish qualified Adam D'Arcy has the makings of an Australian gem who has fallen fortuitously from the Waratahs into the laps of Ulster and Irish rugby.
Ideally, from an Irish perspective, a first-choice Ulster back-row would include Ferris, Faloon and Chris Henry (when he returns from injury) but, while Wannenburg and fellow South African Robbie Diack reduce the chances of that happening, Brian McLaughlin's side should benefit from their overseas injection.
Leinster will look to another South African, prop Heinke Van der Merwe, to front up in Wright's absence while, after the hit-and-miss contributions of Nick Williams and Jean De Villiers, Munster's acquisitions of prop Wian Du Preez and centre Sam Tuitupou look to be well thought out.
Connacht have a giant void in the middle of their back row following George Naoupu's switch to Japan and Ezra Taylor has been brought in to fill the gap. The indications are that Taylor is more of a footballer and less of an enforcer than Naoupu but Eric Elwood will be hoping he can have just as profound an influence.
Much to ponder then, not least the perception among the competing coaches that the Irish provinces are no longer on a pedestal and that teams now travel to Ireland with expectation of gaining something tangible for their troubles.
The validity of such assertions will be put to the test over the opening two weekends of league action when Ulster host the title-holding Ospreys, Munster entertain Aironi's Italian front five, Connacht face a resurgent Dragons outfit at the Sportsground and Leinster face Cardiff Blues .
As Leinster's new coach Joe Schmidt pointed out last week, the play-off system means the requirement is to be within striking distance of the top four come the spring and then time your run to the knock-out stages and such a scenario is well within the capabilities of Leinster, Munster and Ulster.
Their main competition will come from the Blues and Ospreys but the Scottish sides and the Dragons have top-four potential also. It is an intriguing prospect, with the Italian flavour adding spice to a competition that has been making steady upward progress.
There has been much talk of a downturn in Irish rugby, of a fading 'golden generation', but there is still plenty of punch in Ireland's established internationals and when they are not available, encouraging signs of fresh-faced talent eager to become the next group to acquire the golden mantle. The challenge may be greater than before, but it is far from insurmountable.