Gareth Hughes rounds up the news from various corners of the RaboDirect Pro12.
The Ospreys have announced the re-signing of twice-capped centre Jonathan Spratt, who has returned to his local region after two seasons at London Irish. Spratt was seen as potentially an international centre and an exciting prospect after a successful spell playing for Taranaki in the ITM cup, where Spratt looked for the best way to expand his rugby experience.
His time at London Irish augmented his natural skills as he adapted successfully to the attritional nature of the Aviva Premiership, adding a steelier edge to his game.
Whilst Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop are perhaps the first-choice centres for the Ospreys Spreatt was not deterred, who said, “I’m very excited to be back here. It’s where I’m from; I was brought up playing rugby in Ospreylia, so clearly when the opportunity arose to come back I jumped at the chance.”
For Steve Tandy and his other coaches, Spratt brings valuable experience, and more significantly real competition and depth to the squad.
The noises are very encouraging for Blues supporters, already happy at the prospect of the return to their beloved Cardiff Arms Park. Players have a smile on their faces and there is a real sense of purpose and determination emanating from the group in pre-season training.
New signing Andy Kyriacou is most impressed and has no regrets about leaving the defeated Heineken finalists Ulster, “The facilities here are incredible, absolutely brilliant. They cater for us 100 per cent. Everything is here for us with regards to strength, conditioning and recovery with ice baths and massages so there’s no excuses not to train.”
Phil Davies has already made his mark on the Blues, who now have six fitness advisers and are making extensive use of Glamorgan University’s sports science department. An astute coach with a vast store of experience to draw upon, he has taken his time to create a well-balanced programme and build the squad’s togetherness for the challenges ahead in rebuilding the team’s reputation.
The signing of the retiring Xavier Rush as Defence coach is another sign of Davies’ influence. Rush has been one of the best Southern Hemisphere signings in Welsh rugby since Gary Teichmann – he will have the ear of the players and the support of the dressing room and will be a great help to Davies in getting his ideas across. There are promising signs that Cardiff is putting the problems of last year behind them.
The disappointment of losing the championship by one point to the Ospreys has made Leinster take a long look at their strategy towards the league this season. The retention of the mercurial Luke Fitzgerald despite him being let go by the myopic IRFU is a clear sign of intent.
Fitzgerald has plenty of gas, plays heads up rugby and is an excellent link with Nacewa and Rob Kearney, keeping the opposition guessing and honest. If he is not wanted by Ireland, that is very good news indeed as far as Head Coach Joe Schmidt is concerned. “We are delighted that Luke has committed to the province for another year.” He knows that this is a good bit of business for Leinster.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations over the shape and composition of the Heineken Cup, it is clear that Leinster and their fellow provinces intend to take the league more seriously this season and not just as an opportunity to try out players and rest the established stars. Leinster have moved wisely to strengthen both the squad and vulnerable pack with the signing of Western Province lock Quinn Roux and the hard-nosed Kiwi flanker Andrew Goodman on one year deals.
Looking ahead to the new season, the publication of the RaboDirect Pro12 fixture list allows a little bit of wallowing anticipation during the summer and somehow brings the season that little bit closer.
Here are a selection of dates for the diary:
31/08: Scarlets vs. Leinster
07/09: Ospreys vs. Ulster
14/09: Ulster vs. Munster
29/09: Ospreys vs. Munster
02/11: Ospreys vs. Leinster
21/12: Ulster vs. Leinster
28/12: Edinburgh vs. Glasgow
1/03: Munster vs. Ospreys
29/03: Blues vs. Ospreys
29/03: Leinster vs. Ulster
12/04: Munster vs. Leinster
3/05: Leinster vs. Ospreys
It is a reflection of the great strengths and weaknesses of the Rabo that the top teams tend to name themselves. The Irish provinces are still the teams to beat, but last season the Ospreys were able to beat them all.
This season can Edinburgh use the experience of their journey in the Heineken Cup to make a serious assault on the league? Can Glasgow kick on from just being a hard side to beat?
Scarlets will need to show that the loss of Coach Nigel Davies is not a fatal wound, but can the sleeping giant of the Blues finally rouse itself to actually play like a team?
Then there is the intriguing prospect of the “Zebre”: for the sake of the credibility of Italian rugby they need to show that there is another team in Italy, other than Treviso.