The second instalment of our build-up to the new RaboDirect PRO12 season sees the Scottish and Italian teams profiled.
Coaches: Alan Solomons, Stevie Scott, Omar Mouneimme
Ground: Murrayfield Stadium, capacity 67,144
Key Players In: Ollie Atkins, Grayson Hart (both NSW Warratahs), Wicus Blaauw (Biarritz), James Hilterbrand (Western Force), Jack Cuthbert (Bath), Nikki Walker (Worcester), Alasdair Dickinson (Sale Sharks), Aleki Lutui (Worcester)
Key Players Out: Netani Talei (Newport Gwent Dragons), Richie Rees (Newport Gwent Dragons), Allan Jacobsen (retired), John Yapp (London Irish, loan), Andy Titterrell (London Welsh), Mike Penn (Moseley)
It is a strong squad. The likes of Wicus Blaauw, Matt Scott and David Denton have obvious quality, and the side will be boosted by the return from injury of Ross Rennie. New coach Alan Solomons, too, has proven pedigree at international and club level. Tim Visser opted to extend his contract a year ago through to 2015, and Edinburgh will need him to continue the sort of prolific finishing that has seen him top the league’s try-scoring charts for four consecutive seasons.
The Edinburgh side of last year seemed a disjointed unit. The new signings made by Michael Bradley last summer brought with them real expectation and optimism following an impressive Heineken Cup campaign, but selections were inconsistent, and Bradley’s substitutions – at times – seemed borne of generic repetition rather than tactical rationale. The squad rarely functioned as a cohesive entity, and they were on the receiving end of some real thrashings. Unforced errors and poor defence became recurring themes, as Edinburgh shipped fifty-one tries in the league alone. Though some areas are well-bolstered, others – the fly-half position in particular – appear to suffer from a lack of depth, with the loss of Netani Talei also a blow.
Player to watch
After another season dogged by injury, Ross Rennie will have a huge part to play if Edinburgh are to reverse their recent fortunes. Fit and on form, Rennie is among Europe’s top opensides, and his snaffling work around the tackle area and breakdown were crucial in the capital side’s Heineken Cup run two years ago.
Last year: Desperately disappointing after the high of reaching the last four of the Heineken Cup, finishing 10th.
Prediction: Expect Solomons to bring about improvement, but it will not happen overnight. 10th.
Team: Glasgow Warriors
Coaches: Gregor Townsend, Shade Munro, Matt Taylor
Ground: Scotstoun Stadium, capacity 9,708
Key Players In: Richie Vernon (Sale Sharks), Tyrone Holmes (Petrarca Rugby), Jerry Yanuyanutawa (London Irish), Gabriel Ascarate (US Carcassonne), Leone Nakarawa (Fiji Warriors)
Key Players Out: Graeme Morrison, Rory Lamont (both retired), John Barclay (Llanelli Scarlets), Ofa Fainga’anuku (Worcester), Taylor Paris (Agen)
Glasgow have a real blend of experienced, quality internationals, and raw young talent. The Warriors’ attack and link-up play was superb last season, with the likes of Stuart Hogg, Niko Matawalu and Sean Maitland lighting up the league in spectacular fashion. This offensive prowess saw them finish top of the try-scoring charts with an impressive sixty-six touchdowns. At the other end, their defence was resolute, conceding just thirty tries – a statistic that was bettered only by the Ospreys. With no major losses this summer, and the emergence of several prominent youngsters, there is a renewed and realistic ambition for Glasgow to reach the play-offs for the third year running.
In the past, the depth of Glasgow’s squad has proved problematic – particularly when international duties deprived them of their bigger names. With the player pool now at their disposal, however, there are plenty of options available to him in all positions, and a potentially fierce competition for places. Goal-kicking proved an issue at times last season, but with Duncan Weir set to return early from injury, the Warriors will have both him and fellow Scotland cap Ruaridh Jackson to rely on to land crucial points.
Player to watch
Following a venture into French rugby at Clermont Auvergne, twenty year-old centre Mark Bennett returned to Scotland last season, signing with the Warriors in February. He turned in a number of impressive performances, particularly in attack, and formed a promising pairing with Alex Dunbar. The coming season is a big one, with many tipping him to feature in some form at test match level.
Last season: Another very impressive showing in the league, finishing 3rd, and were just three points away from reaching the final after a narrow defeat to Leinster.
Prediction: Have retained virtually all of their key players, and added lightly to an established and accomplished squad. 3rd
Director of Rugby: Roberto Manghi
Coaches: Andrea Cavinato, Vincenzo Troiani, Umberto Casellato
Ground: Stadio XXV Aprile, capacticy 3,500
Key Players In: Brendan Leonard (Chiefs), Kameli Ratuvou (Saracens), Dario Chistolini (Gloucester), Samuela Vunisa, Guglielmo Palazzani (both Rugby Calvisano), Tommaso Iannone, Guilio Toniolatti (both Benetton Treviso), Dion Berryman (Rugby Club I Cavalieri Prato), George Biagi (Bristol)
Key Players Out: Tito Tebaldi (Ospreys), Sinoti Sinoti (Wellington), Daniel Halangahu (Narbonne), Alberto Chiesa, Nicola Belardo (both Rugby Calvisano), Luca Martinelli (Fiamme Oro Rugby), Josh Sole (Bay of Plenty Steamers), Samuele Pace (Rugby Colomo), Flavio Tripodi, Alberto Benettin (both released)
Zebre do boast a number of well-known international names, and with that, a degree of experience and guile that could prove invaluable when the chips are down. From the start of their Pro12 involvement last year, the importance of fielding Italian individuals, and the focus on youth and development have been highlighted, with plenty of IRF Academy players being introduced to pro rugby via the Zebre squad.
The problem with stocking a squad with home-grown players and youth graduates is that results are likely to suffer in the short-term. Zebre were the Pro12 whipping boys last season, and failed to record a single victory, conceding a whopping sixty-one tries in the process. Unsurprisingly, they were somewhat blunt in attack too, scoring just twenty-nine tries.
Player to watch
The performances of Kiwi Brendon Leonard will be key to any success Zebre are likely to enjoy. Having notched up around seven years of Super Rugby experience, and spent time under the tutelage of Sir Graham Henry with the New Zealand squad, the scrum-half has much to offer last season’s Pro12 basement boys. Leonard won many plaudits for his attacking play with the Chiefs, and he should prove a guiding figure to Zebre’s young and emerging half-backs.
Last season: Ten points in the season saw them finish comfortably last.
Prediction: Although they have added quality to their squad, it won’t be enough to place any higher than bottom of the pile. 12th
Team: Benetton Treviso
Coaches: Franco Smith, Marius Goosen
Ground: Stade Comunale di Monigo, capacity 6,700
Key Players In: Matt Berquist (Biarritz Olympique)
Key Players Out: Tommaso Iannone, Giulio Toniolatti (both Zebre), Tomasso Benvenutti (USA Perpignan), Kris Burton (Dragons)
Treviso have the look of a settled side, with few comings and goings this summer. There is plenty of grunt in the tight with the likes of Leonardo Ghiraldini, Valerio Bernabo and captain Antonio Pavanello set to provide a firm set-piece platform. There is also genuine quality among the back row in the form of energetic flanker Alessandro Zanni, and the dynamic Manoa Vosawai, who will offer much go-forward.
Though he does not fall into the “playmaker” category, stand-off Kris Burton will be missed by Treviso, with his kicking from hand and at goal proving invaluable to their relative success in the league last year. With this in mind, much pressure will rest on the shoulders of Alberto di Bernardo, and new recruit Matt Berquist, who is seeking to revive a career marred by injury. If they are to further build upon last season’s showing, Treviso will also need to cut down on their unforced errors, as mistakes and poor execution cost them in a number of tight clashes.
Player to watch
With a decidedly chequered past, including a positive marijuana test and a late-night “altercation” involving a female wrestler, Christian Loamanu is seeking to get a career that initially promised so much back on track. The hulking Japanese winger, who became the youngest player to represent his country eight years ago, scored five tries for Treviso last season, and showed in patches the kind of physical attacking play that won him so many plaudits when he first burst onto the scene.
Last season: Progress, but inconsistency cost them a higher league finish. 7th
Prediction: Will be a thorn in the side to many with play-off aspirations, but will ultimately struggle to better last year’s placing. 9th.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images