Sunday 25 February 2018

Irish provinces under pressure to deliver in revamped PRO14

Settled squad best placed of Irish provinces to succeed

Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The long road to the PRO14 final in Dublin next summer begins this weekend and the winners will clock up more mileage than ever before.

With the prospect of 20,000-mile round trips to the new South African franchises within a clunky conference system, much uncertainty attends European rugby's poor relation as it begins its latest attempt to ratchet up credibility and commercial gains.

Uncertainty reigns, too, amidst so many of the leading contenders, not to mention the bottom feeders who have failed to contribute to the league in recent seasons, with many coaches coming and going, or else dithering about when they may eventually leave.

Some familiar precepts will hold true however.

The season-long clamour for the play-off spots will inevitably sort wheat from so much chaff; the greatest intrigue will be in seeing if the South African Cheetahs can justify some optimistic noises that they can bring more than just a few Rand to the table.

The PRO14 needed their input for commercial reasons and they will hope that investment is matched on the field also; the competition is already lopsided enough and an expansion that leads to contraction could be fatally damaging to its image.

Click to view full sized graphic
Click to view full sized graphic

While league chiefs trumpet their fair play and try-scoring statistics, chiefly due to the absence of relegation, the regular disappearance of marquee names for high-profile fixtures - particularly festive Irish derbies - continues to undermine.

For many within the sport, never mind the occasional onlookers from beyond whose hearts and minds organisers hope to capture, interest in the caviar of European and Six Nations is a far tastier prospect than the often dreary bread and butter of weekly league combat.

The last three seasons have demonstrated two incontrovertible truths; teams playing expansive rugby will profit once the hard ground returns in the spring following the winter slog.

Read more: Cullen buoyed by 'more optimistic mood' in Leinster

And, as Glasgow, Connacht and Scarlets demonstrated, their title successes were back-boned by patient adherence to a long-term strategy in terms of playing style, coaching stability and clever recruitment.

Leinster possess all these qualities and after three win-less seasons, there is an impatience within the capital that they finally justify their status as a big club by actually annexing some silverware.

There are question marks about their Irish rivals with Connacht bedding a new coach, Ulster shifting the coaching chairs for the umpteenth time while Munster, last season's leading domestic lights, seem to have little idea who will be their main man next week, never mind next December.

Along with Ulster, Munster and Connacht, there are new exciting coaching appointments at both Scottish and Italian clubs.

Peripheral Irish interest alights upon Michael Bradley pitching up at Zebre while Bernard Jackman helms Dragons; both will focus on winning hearts and minds as winning games will be difficult.

Leinster

The big hitters need to produce a definitive statement of intent this season after slipping up at vital stages of both domestic and European competition last term, when an incoherent game-plan scuppered title chances.

A huge hole in midfield must be filled early on in the piece and the absence of a raft of injured and unavailable internationals, added to an unwieldy double-header in South Africa, will test their early season resolve.

Munster

The turmoil that has enveloped them this summer is nothing compared to the tragedy that afflicted them last season; Munster showed then they could overcome unimaginable obstacles so they are intimate with the mental pressures that will exist.

The coaching conundrum is a mess, not all of their departing coach's making and Felix Jones will be keen to impress in the early weeks as Munster cast their lonely eyes globally for someone they may feel is better than him.

The longer Rassie Erasmus stays on, the less likely it seems Munster can escape from his shadow and move on. They will need to develop their game-plan to overcome the final hurdles that tripped them up last campaign and recruitment suggests they are intent on doing so, so they really need to hit the ground running.

Ulster

The perennial under-achievers will test the resolve of their fanatical fan base should they come up short once again, after Les Kiss finally shifted out the coaches he didn't need.

Jono Gibbes will add steel to their pack and Marcell Coetzee's fitness may help their often under-powered eight to provide the ballast for a thrilling back-line; but two of their number are absent for an indeterminate time, causing more uncertainty.

Ulster's now 11-year trophy drought is a blight on an otherwise successful decade for Irish rugby and, yet again, heads will roll if they don't make a decent fist of this season.

Connacht

Connacht's title defence was undermined by injury last term and the saga of Pat Lam's departure which, it now seems, had led his side to become robotic in their approach.

Kieran Keane will be a hard task master and, while tinkering with their approach, he will demand that this squad regain the standards that slipped far too often last campaign.

Irish Independent

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