Coach: Anthony Foley
Key players in: Robin Copeland (Cardiff Blues), Andrew Smith (Brumbies), Tyler Bleyendaal (Crusaders), Eusebio Guiñazú (Bath)
Key players out: James Coughlan (Pau), James Downey (Glasgow Warriors), Casey Laulala (Racing Metro)
Strengths: Munster have a large, strong squad, with great depth in almost every position. Competition for places should be fierce, although any coach should welcome this amongst their squad. The sheer size of their squad will be of importance in the long run that includes next year’s World Cup.
Weaknesses: A squad assessment was allegedly erroneously sent out to all players recently, meaning everyone could see everyone else’s assessment, including who was first choice in each position. If true, it’s a hammer blow for morale. There’s also the question of whether they know their best team – especially in the playmaking roles, where Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan and new signing Tyler Bleyendaal will all be vying for positions. Can Foley fit them all in and make them click?
Last season: 3rd
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS
Coach: Kingsley Jones
Key players in: Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), Ian Gough (London Irish), Andy Powell (Wigan Warriors), Aled Brew (Biarritz), Boris Stankovich (Leicester),
Key players out: Will Harries (Released), Dan Evans (Ospreys), Rob Sidoli (retired), Kris Burton (released)
Strengths: Kingsley Jones has stepped into the main role this season, having left his position as head coach of Russia. Working alongside Director of Rugby Lyn Jones, the Dragons have been dealt a good hand behind the scenes, with arguably one of the strongest coaching duos in the league.
Weaknesses: They have often been criticised for their weaknesses up front, and despite reinforcing with a few signings this season, they’re still not quite on the same page as some of the other teams in the league. They will need to work hard on their set pieces, and particularly the rolling maul which proved effective against them last season.
Last season: 9th
Coach: Steve Tandy
Key players in: Dan Evans (Newport Gwent Dragons), Cai Griffiths (London Welsh), Martin Roberts (Bath), Josh Matavesi (Worcester)
Key players out: Ian Evans (Bristol), Richard Hibbard (Gloucester), Ryan Jones (Bristol), Adam Jones (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Morgan (Bristol)
Strengths: It’s a shame that Leigh Halfpenny has become Wales’ beloved son from his performance with the boot, as Dan Biggar deserves recognition for this as well. Winning Players’ Player of the Year, as well as racking up the most points in the league last year, Biggar really is a class no. 10, in all aspects of his game.
Weaknesses: They have been dealt a heavy blow throughout the civil dispute in Welsh rugby – arguably more so than any other region – as their formidable looking pack of old has completely disintegrated. Credit is due for holding on to skipper Alun-Wyn Jones, but with the loss of four Lions in Ryan Jones, Ian Evans, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, you feel they may be a whole lot weaker up front this year.
Last season: 5th
Coach: Wayne Pivac
Key players in: Regan King (Clermont Auvergne), Harry Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Chris Hala’ufia (London Irish), Michael Tagicakibau (Saracens)
Key players out: Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Blues), Deacon Manu (Hong Kong Cricket Club – Coach), Aled Thomas (Gloucester), Olly Barkley (London Welsh), Gareth Maule (Bristol)
Strengths: The Scarlets boast a relatively young side; proven internationals such as Liam Williams, Scott Williams and Samson Lee are all under 25. As these players hit their prime, the Scarlets will be hoping that these players will be the ones to carry them toward the playoff spots come the end of the season.
Weaknesses: They are one of the weaker side in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup this season, and with a tough pool of Toulon, Leicester Tigers and Ulster, it’s unlikely they’ll make it far. Heavy losses in Europe could have an effect on the Scarlets’ domestic campaign too, with morale, fatigue and injuries playing a part.
Last season: 6th
Coach: Les Kiss
Key players in: Ian Humphreys (London Irish), Wiehahn Herbst (Sharks), Franco van der Merwe (Lions), Ruaidhrí Murphy (Brumbies), Louis Ludik (Agen)
Key players out: Tom Court (London Irish), John Afoa (Gloucester), Paddy Wallace, Stephen Ferris, Johan Muller (all retiring)
Strengths: Ulster arguably have the strongest set of backs this season; Bowe and Trimble are lethal on the wings, Pienaar is so versatile and excellent to watch, and Paddy Jackson has all the qualities that will make him a great no. 10 for Ireland if Johnny Sexton is absent. If they get enough ball they will be lethal
Weaknesses: They certainly have the firepower and experience within their ranks to regularly cross the tryline in a game, as they did many times last season. However, they were guilty of grinding out wins with fine margins (look at the games against the Italian sides) and need to do more in order to pick up bonus points which will be vital come next May.
Last season: 4th
Coach: Andrea Cavinato
Key players in: Andrea Lovotti (Calvisano), Mirco Bergamasco (Rovigo Delta), Valerio Bernabo (Benetton Treviso), Hennie Daniller (Cheetahs)
Key players out: Dave Ryan (Ulster), Salvatore Perugini (retired), Davide Giazzon (Benetton Treviso)
Strengths: Zebre should go into this season with high confidence given their performance last season. Despite finishing bottom of the PRO12 (only by a point), they picked up their first official victory, with a total of five wins come May. If Zebre can replicate some of that form again, they have a chance of climbing the table.
Weaknesses: Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to criticise the attacking threat of Zebre’s backs, as it is down to the forwards too, but there’s a reason that most PRO12 teams see them as an easy win. Despite pulling off the odd shock last year, and boasting some highly capped internationals, they just look short on established quality across the board.
Last season: 12th
By Jack Hoare (@jackhoare)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images