Sport Rugby

Thursday 29 September 2016

Lesser lights target points, and staying ahead of the game

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

Isa Nacewa’s pre-season form for Leinster has been impressive
Isa Nacewa’s pre-season form for Leinster has been impressive

Overseas signings hold key to Pro12 quartet getting off to a flyer

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It's unlikely that when Guinness were pumping in their cash last year to sponsor the Pro12 they looked at autumn 2015 as the high point of their investment. Kicking off the league in the shadow of the World Cup is like busking outside a concert with 'sold out' signs up. Not too many folks stopping to listen there.

The show must go on, however, even if most minds are elsewhere. And the message is clear: the points harvested in September are the same value as those in subsequent months, so grab as many as you can if you want to go to Murrayfield - the favourite for this season's final - next May.

In any case, once the World Cup is up and running it's possible to have a positive spin-off. Four years ago, for example, when Ireland were playing Australia in Auckland in the second round of World Cup pool games, the match was screened at home at breakfast time on the Saturday morning. We don't know what the walk-up crowd to the RDS was that night but the official attendance was over 14,500. Even allowing for the fact that season-ticket holders were included in that figure - and not all of them might have been there - seemingly there was a cracking atmosphere, with everyone buzzing from the win over the Wallabies that morning.

This time round the World Cup and Pro12 are running in the same time zone, with only a stretch of water separating them, so the best option is for the junior sibling to shut down, where possible, when Big Brother is in the frame. So we get two rounds of the league sorted before a fortnight's break while the World Cup wades through its first two instalments. And then the Pro12 takes another weekend off for the final round of pool games, when Ireland will be playing France.

The negative side is that the proximity of the tournament has lured away a few season-ticket holders - which gives you a feel for the astronomical price of putting your bum on a World Cup seat. Moreover, the staggered start makes it tricky if you're in the business of generating momentum, on or off the field. Certainly if you're a provincial coach the fortnight off after the first two hit-outs is a week too long. Then another break after round three will need to be carefully managed, because thereafter it's an exhausting week-on-week schedule for 16 games straight until the Six Nations kicks off in February.

The target for all is to be ahead of the game, or at least keeping pace with it, when the international contingent come back to domestic duty. In 2011, the big boys missed the first six rounds of the league, and it would have been more if the Pro12 didn't shut down for the semis and final of the World Cup. That won't be happening this time, but the only way the provinces will see their stars before round six is if the Ireland RWC show closes before the semi-final.

So the theme of last week's Pro12 launch was that this is an opportunity for the lesser lights to shine. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?

In Ireland's case those lights feature the academy lads who are the top of their class, and the club players who have been plucked from the All-Ireland League on short-term contracts. That there is upward movement still from the club game illustrates that despite the IRFU's best efforts to put distance between the two tiers - a policy that is indefensible - the traffic continues. There's a message there.

If you wanted three players to watch while the marquee players are away, and beyond, then go with Ulster centre Sam Arnold, Munster outhalf Bill Johnston and Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne. Understandably, however, most interest in Ireland will focus on the big overseas signings who are untroubled by Test rugby and thus, if they stay fit, ideal to give value to their new employers.

Munster lead the pack here with the combination of Tyler Bleyendaal and Auckland's Francis Saili. Bleyendaal's neck surgery meant that although signed last year it was only towards the end of the season that he regained fitness, with the 'A' team, but the prospect of himself and Saili in the same backline has Munster fans expectant.

Saili's start on Friday night against London Irish was excellent, only for him to go off on a stretcher, concussed. The neck brace added to the alarm but Munster are saying that while a scan result is awaited, they are hopeful the injury is nowhere near as bad as it looked.

The overseas star with the highest rating though is Ulster's Charles Piutau. Also out of the Blues, the All Blacks weren't finished handing him caps when after 17 of them the deal offered by Ulster was too hard to resist. Much is expected of a player with explosive pace and stepping ability.

The third of the Auckland trio you could say is Isa Nacewa, for whom the second coming is high-risk stuff. In his first incarnation in Leinster's blue he proved to be outstanding value for money, one of the very best overseas players ever to set foot in this country. His departure two seasons ago left a huge hole in the Leinster side. So if he could do a passable impression of the same player it would be some achievement.

The reports from Belfast last weekend, where he featured in the win over Ulster, were promising. And the evidence from Donnybrook on Friday night confirmed the highly unlikely: that two years off in your early 30s might be more rejuvenating than incapacitating. Naturally enough, Moseley looked like they had landed in the wrong ground, in the wrong era, but Nacewa was doing stuff that would stand up regardless of who were the opposition. Like the league - we hope - it was well worth watching. And more to come.

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