The new RaboDirect PRO12 season kicks off this weekend, with Leinster entering as reigning champions aiming to defend their crown. In the first of our series of preview articles, we take a look at the Irish provinces and their chances this year.
Team: Connacht Rugby
Coach: Pat Lam
Ground: The Sportsground, Galway (capacity 7,500)
Key players in: Aly Muldowney (Exeter Chiefs) Craig Clarke (Waikato Chiefs) James So’oialo (Wellington Norths) Fionn Carr (Leinster) Craig Ronaldson (Lansdowne) Sean Henry (Munster) Jake Heenan (Auckland Blues development squad) James Rael (Munster) Dave Heffernan, Danny Qualter, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Aaron Conneely (Academy graduates)
Key players out: Mike McCarthy (Leinster) Johnny O’Connor (retired) Thomas Anderson (Ealing Trailfinders) David Gannon (released) Eoghan Grace (Plymouth Albion) Matthew Jarvis (Nottingham) James Loxton (released) Mark McCrea (Jersey) David Moore (released) Ethienne Reynecke (released) Fetu’u Vainikolo (Exeter Chiefs) Adrian Flavin (retired)
Pat Lam’s Connacht squad can be quietly optimistic about their chances of climbing the Pro12 table. This is possibly the strongest Connacht squad in recent years, with young starlets like Keiran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw amongst the most talented in Ireland and experienced stalwarts such as Dan Parks and the recently announced trio of club captains John Muldoon, Michael Swift and Gavin Duffy. The appointment of Dave Ellis as skills coach looks like a clever acquisition too.
Front Up, Rise Up is the message to the Connacht clan. However, in the front-row Connacht struggled at times last season and the larger packs in the league tend to give them a rough ride up front. They’re also guilty of lacking composure in winning positions, at times last season Connacht rattled opponents in fast-paced opening quarters but regularly let games slip from their grasp.
Player to Watch
The former Waikato Chief Craig Clarke arrives at Connacht with a reputation for an exemplary work ethic and a wealth of experience having shared the Chiefs captaincy with Liam Messam for the past two seasons, the second of which saw the Chiefs successfully defend the Super Rugby title they won in 2012. Clarke also captained Taranaki in the ITM Cup, so there can be no doubting his leadership credentials, but he’s also a terrific rugby player who can consider himself incredibly unfortunate not to have been an All Black.
Last Season: 8th
Team: Leinster Rugby
Coach: Matt O’Connor
Ground: RDS, Dublin (capacity 18,500)
Key players in: Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle Falcons) Mike McCarthy (Connacht) Zane Kirchner (Blue Bulls) John Cooney, Brendan Macken, Ben Marshall, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Darren Hudson, Martin Moore, Jack O’Connell, Noel Reid (Academy graduates)
Key players out: Jonathan Sexton (Racing Metro 92) Isa Nacewa (retired) Heinke van der Merwe (Stade Francais) Andrew Conway (Munster) Fionn Carr (Connacht) Damian Browne (Oyonnax) Jamie Hagan (London Irish) Mark Flanagan (released) Tom Sexton (Melbourne Rebels) Eoin O’Malley (retired)
Leinster’s strengths should be well known to everyone by now, they’ve got great depth throughout the squad but it’s their work at the breakdown which can be really devastating at times. Not content with letting the backrow take all the plaudits, it could be any number of players creating havoc. And if denying their opponents quick ball is a facet of the game Leinster do well, then with it their backs are consistently the most clinical in the pro12. They might have a new head coach at the helm but expect the same #Leinstertainment
There aren’t too many, but if we were to look for potential weaknesses then saying au revoir to Sexton and Isa Nacewa this summer leaves Leinster without two match winners. There are plenty of others for sure, a certain O’Driscoll is still around, but the loss of Isa particularly shouldn’t be underestimated. Mike McCarthy will add depth to a potentially vulnerable second-row.
Player to Watch
It doesn’t take a genius to identify Ian Madigan as a key player for Leinster with Sexton having left. For so long Sexton’s understudy, Ian ‘Maddog’ Madigan has been just as influential in some of Leinster’s best performances in the Rabo in recent years and he certainly deserves an opportunity to stake a claim for a regular Ireland place.
Last Season: Champions
Team: Munster Rugby
Coach: Rob Penney
Ground: Thomond Park, Limerick (26,500) / Musgrave Park, Cork (capacity 9,251)
Key players in: Andrew Conway (Leinster) Cian Bohane, Duncan Casey, James Cronin, Ronan O’Mahony, Niall Scannell (Academy graduates) Gerhard van den Heever (Stormers)
Key players out: Ronan O’Gara (retired) Doug Howlett (retired) Marcus Horan (retired) Peter Stringer (Bath) Wian du Preez (released) Danny Barnes (Newcastle Falcons) Sean Henry (Connacht) Scott Deasy (released) Christy Condon (released) Sean Scanlon (Rotherham Titans)
The great Munster sides of yesteryear seem to always be built on a strong pack, but Rob Penney has encouraged a fresh approach, not necessarily the Munster way, but one which could reap handsome rewards if the revolution is completed. Munster will look to hurt sides in the wide channels with Simon Zebo and new recruits Andrew Conway and Gerhard van den Heever key to that successful transition.
It remains to be seen whether Ian Keatley has the capabilities to execute Penney’s grand plans for Munster, the former Connacht player started last season brightly but couldn’t quite wrestle the number ten shirt from O’Gara at the business end of the season. The 2012/13 season saw Munster lose four games at home, practically unheard of in recent years. Don’t expect them to be so generous this term.
Player to watch
You could name any one of Munster’s mobile back-row as posing a major threat to opponents but CJ Stander will be a man on a mission after missing large chunks of last term through injury. The explosive South African is equally adept at blindside and no.8 and the perfect foil for Tommy O’Donnell, a young openside with a rapidly rising stock in Ireland.
Last Season: 6th
Team: Ulster Rugby
Coach: Mark Anscombe
Ground: Ravenhill, Belfast (capacity 13,500)
Key players in: James McKinney (Rotherham Titans) David McIlwaine (Bristol) Bronson Ross (Coventry)
Key players out: Niall O’Connor (Jersey) Nigel Brady (Aurillac) Ali Birch (Rotherham Titans) Adam D’Arcy, Blane McIlroy
The Ulster squad was stretched to its limits last season. At one point they were missing 22 frontline players, but now that the injury list has cleared somewhat they have a positive blend of young players with experience, and old heads in the key positions. Any team which can call upon the likes of Pienaar and John Afoa has everything chance of being in the mix come May.
Ulster were slow starters last year, and regularly found themselves trailing in the first quarter. Paddy Jackson is still under pressure to come up trumps at fly-half. Impressive at the RDS final last year, but you get the feeling that the early stages of this season could be pivotal. Just like the Lions and Ireland, Ulster’s lineout fell apart at key times last season – the common dominator? Rory Best. He’ll want a solid start when he returns to action.
Player to Watch
Last season’s surprise package, Stuart Olding, was a revelation at Ravenhill and fully deserved to join Ireland’s two match tour of North America. There’s plenty of competition in the centre at Ulster with Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace and a returning Chris Farrell keen to make an impression. Jared Payne might also be eyeing a move to the midfield so Olding might find himself shifting from twelve to ten, or even fullback, but if he carries his form into the new season then none at Ravenhill would have the slightest concern.
Last Season: Runners up
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images