Connacht signings trump rival provinces’ purchases
Two weeks before kick-off, we investigate how the teams have fared in the transfer market
Off the field, Ireland’s four green fields have had contrasting summers but, whether it has been renewal or revolution in the boardroom, it is only what happens on the playing field that will determine success or failure for the provinces this term.
Matt O’Connor heads into his second season in charge of Leinster emboldened by a Pro12 triumph and positive signs that he has re-energised the attack.
At Munster, Anthony Foley leads an all-Irish coaching staff but question marks remain about the strength of their playing roster.
Ulster have lost a captain, coach and director of rugby, infusing fears that their incipient development may stall.
And Connacht will need all their resources to click from day one as they attempt to qualify by right for the greatest club competition in the game.
The headlines here are hogged by the departures of two giants of Leinster rugby: three-time winning Heineken Cup skipper Leo Cullen, the most successful club captain the professional game has ever seen, and Brian O’Driscoll, arguably the greatest talent to ever grace it.
As has been the recent history, Leinster look mightily impressive up front: new scrum coach Marco Caputo was gently asked this week what exactly he could do to improve a pack amongst which all can boast Ireland caps, even the reserves.
Second-row has been an issue which O’Connor hopes his compatriot Kane Douglas, who has binned an international career for the lucrative opportunity, can solve.
Behind the scrum, the eagerness to repatriate Jonathan Sexton underlines the uneasiness at how the out-half situation was resolved last season – precisely because it wasn’t resolved.
Leinster need a fit Luke Fitzgerald and a younger player to step up to the plate; playmaker Noel Reid may head that queue if his development continues on from last season.
Players in – Kane Douglas (second-row, NSW Waratahs), Ben Te’o (centre, South Sydney Rabbitohs), Sean McCarthy (prop, Jersey), Sam Coghlan-Murray (wing, Academy), Jack Conan (No 8, Academy), Tadhg Furlong (prop, Academy), Luke McGrath (scrum-half, Academy), Colm O’Shea (centre, Academy), James Tracy (hooker, Academy).
Players out – Brian O’Driscoll (centre, retired), Leo Cullen (second-row, retired), John Cooney (scrum-half, Connacht loan), Andrew Goodman (centre, unattached), Darren Hudson (wing, Bristol), Jack O’Connell (prop, Bristol), Quinn Roux (second-row, Connacht loan), Leo Auva’a (No 8, Benetton Treviso). Conor Gilsenan (back-row, London Irish), Andrew Boyle (wing, unattached).
Just when Munster would have hoped that their sweeping revolution amongst the tracksuits could be matched by some stability within the playing pack, suddenly there are hookers and back-three players dropping like flies.
Given that the Munster set-piece faltered at the most inopportune moments last season, having to start this season with rookies at hooker would not have been in the Foley master-plan as he plotted the way forward all summer.
Cast aside any notions that Foley and Co will revert to mere boot and bollock; if he can properly delineate the purpose of his new centre partnership – now that James Downey and Caey Laulala have departed after their fitful stays – that will be a start.
Munster still have pace to burn out wide but it is inside where the difficulties remain; few wanted Andrew Smith and Munster’s financial inability to attract the big names meant they were a perfect match; Tyler Bleyendaal has been in good form but JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley should be dovetailed in the 10/12 role.
Players in – Shane Buckley (back-row, Academy), Robin Copeland (No 8, Cardiff Blues), Johnny Holland (back-row, Academy), Martin Kelly (prop, Dublin University), Andrew Smith (centre, ACT Brumbies), Tyler Bleyendaal (out-half, Crusaders, commences November 1st).
Players out – James Coughlan (No 8, Pau), James Downey (centre, Glasgow Warriors), Gerry Hurley (scrum-half, Unattached), Casey Laulala (centre, Racing Metro), Ian Nagle (second-row, unattached), Niall Ronan (back-row, retired), Quentin McDonald (hooker, Chiefs).
Nabbing Bundee Aki is one statement of intent – and more significantly paying the necessary €120,000 extra over the three years that Leinster and Munster were reputedly unwilling, or unable to shell out.
So too the global coup of securing the signature of All Black legend Mils Muliaina; the 33-year-old may have to draw on memory to reproduce his best rugby out west, but boy is it a treasure trove of memories.
With Robbie Henshaw established in attack, with defensive improvement presumably to follow, and youngsters like Darragh Leader and Jack Carty making a great leap forward, the relative weakness of so many others in the Pro12 opens a door for Connacht.
Players in – Darragh Leader (full-back, Academy), Jack Carty (out-half, Academy), Conor Finn (wing, Academy), Finlay Bealham (prop, Academy), Ian Porter (scrum-half, Ulster), Shane O’Leary (out-half/centre, Grenoble), Mils Muliaina (full-back, Chiefs), Bundee Aki (centre, Chiefs), Tom McCartney (hooker, Blues), Niyi Adeolokun (wing, DUFC), John Cooney (scrum-half, Leinster on loan), Quinn Roux (second-row, Leinster on loan), Shane Layden (wing/full-back, Academy).
Players out – Eoin Griffin (centre, London Irish), Dave Nolan (second-row, Bourgoin), Aaron Conneely (back-row, unattached), Brian Murphy (centre, unattached), James Rael (hooker, unattached), Brett Wilkinson (prop, retired), Gavin Duffy (full-back, retired), Frank Murphy (scrum-half, retired), Dan Parks (out-half, retired), Paul O’Donohue (scrum-half, retired), Kyle Tonetti (out-half/centre, Retired), Craig Clarke (second-row, Retired), Conor Gilsenan (back-row, back to Leinster, then London Irish on loan.)
It was a case of last out shutting off the lights up North this summer; losing a captain was awkward enough, but ceding David ‘Mr Ulster’ Humphreys and head coach Mark Anscombe escaped even Wildean description.
John Afoa may have given the impression last season that he preferred the departure gates of George Best international rather than the arrivals hall but, given Tom Court’s departure too, Ulster will be weakened in the front-row.
They have recruited as best as they could to prop up the, erm, prop situation and they are well stocked in the second-row, particularly if Joe Schmidt wants Iain Henderson to maintain his progression there ahead of the World Cup.
The dominance of Ruan Pienaar at 9 is at once a boon and a difficulty; Michael Heaney’s progression to challenge Paul Marshall will be eagerly awaited, while Stuart Olding’s welcome return will whet the appetite of rugby lovers all over the country.
Players in – Franco van der Merwe (second-row, Lions), Ian Humphreys (out-half, London Irish), Ruaidhri Murphy (prop, ACT Brumbies), Dave Ryan (prop, Zebre), Wiehahn Herbst (prop, Sharks), Louis Ludik (full-back, Sharks), Sean Reidy (back-row, Counties Manukau Steelers), Charlie Butterworth and Clive Ross (back-row, Lansdowne), Conor Joyce (back-row, Academy), Stuart McCloskey (centre, Academy), Kyle McCall (prop, Academy), Peter Nelson (full-back, Academy), Bronson Ross (prop, Academy), Rory Scholes (wing, Academy), James Simpson (second-row, Academy), Andrew Warwick (prop, Academy).
Players out – John Afoa (prop, Gloucester), Johann Muller (second-row, retired), Niall Annett (hooker, Worcester), Chris Cochrane (wing, retired), Tom Court (prop, London Irish), Sean Doyle (flanker, ACT Brumbies), Chris Farrell (centre, Grenoble), Stephen Ferris (flanker, retired), Adam Macklin (prop, Rotherham Titans), Paddy McAllister (prop, Stade Aurilliac), James McKinney (out-half, Rotherham Titans), David McIlwaine (wing, Leeds), Ian Porter (scrum-half, Connacht), Paddy Wallace (out-half/centre, retired).