Scarlets vs Leinster
Arguably the opening weekend’s most mouth-watering clash sees reigning champions Leinster travel to face losing semi-finalists the Scarlets on Friday night. The home side wrought havoc upon their visitors in this fixture a year ago, scoring a whopping seven tries, and racking up over forty points. The Llanelli outfit are still a very youthful side overall, and the loss of George North will of course come as a major blow. However, they have recruited Scotland openside John Barclay, and welcome back Lions centre Jonathan Davies from a superb summer tour. Leinster boast a typically star-studded squad despite the departure of Jonny Sexton, and new coach Matt O’Connor will be looking to start the competitive season with a bang. Crucially, the Dublin-based side have the ruthlessness and winning mentality instilled from so many big games and such great success in recent years.
The Scarlets should enjoy another exciting domestic season, but the guile and experience of Leinster should prove a bridge too far on Friday. Leinster by 7.
Dragons vs Ulster
The Dragons endured a rotten season last year, and have lost Lions flanker Dan Lydiate to Parisian side Racing Metro. The statistics were not pretty, with Friday night’s home team conceding more tries than any other Pro12 outfit, and scoring just thirty-one of their own. However, in Richie Rees and Kris Burton, they have obtained a pair of half-backs capable of getting them on the front foot, and playing the game in the right areas of the pitch. The most crucial event of the summer was undoubtedly resigning the outstanding Toby Faletau, whose performances will be key to any success the Dragons are likely to enjoy. Ulster once more fell at the final hurdle last year, but have retained much of the squad that have brought them to the brink of domestic and continental success of late. They have a pack that should dominate their Welsh counterparts on Friday, and a very exciting backline with the likes of Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy vying for starting berths.
It will be a tough opening night for the Dragons, and they seem likely to be overwhelmed by their visitors. Ulster by 15.
Glasgow Warriors vs Cardiff Blues
Glasgow have kept together a squad that tore up the Pro12 last year, topping the try-scoring charts and narrowly missing out on a place in the final. Their back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, DTH van der Merwe is as good as any in the league, and their attacking platform is backed up by solid defence, conceding just thirty tries. The Blues, by contrast, touched down fewer than any other side last season, despite fielding a backline featuring the likes of Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny. They have added some much needed experience and grunt in the front row with the return of Gethin Jenkins, and the acquisition of hooker Matthew Rees. The forward battle will be integral on Friday in determining which set of dangerous backs have the possession and platform from which to do some damage. Halfpenny’s dead-eye goal-kicking will also boost the Blues against a Warriors side that has endured some trouble from tee.
The attacking verve and prowess of Glasgow coupled with dynamic forward play should be enough to see them through here. Glasgow by 9.
Connacht vs Zebre
The Italians, who finished last season without a single league victory, will view Connacht as a team they need to regularly compete with and overcome to shed the “whipping boys” tag. With Brendon Leonard orchestrating proceedings behind a pack stocked with experienced campaigners, they should be able to gain parity with their hosts up front. Connacht have placed well in recent years, and have hired a coach well capable of continuing the upward curve in Pat Lam. This clash promises to be of the forward-orientated variety, with the boot of Dan Parks and guile of Leonard likely to feature heavily in deciding the outcome.
A tight game, particularly if weather conditions are poor, with Connacht grinding a narrow victory. Connacht by 5.
Treviso vs Ospreys
Treviso have proven themselves to be no mugs since joining the Celtic nations, and present a tough prospect for any visiting team. They were inconsistent in the Pro12 last year, but under coach Franco Smith, they play a simple but effective style of rugby. The Ospreys have a superb pack that includes a number of Lions, and recorded the best defensive statistics in the league last season – conceding just twenty-five tries. Though the Italians, too, have an accomplished set of forwards, the Ospreys should gain the upper hand in the tight and at the breakdown, allowing Dan Biggar to control the game and release a backline capable of doing some damage.
Treviso could be a real banana-skin fixture for an Ospreys side with clear title aspirations. However, the quality in their squad should see them through a tricky opening tie. Ospreys by 10.
Munster vs Edinburgh
Munster, despite missing out on domestic success last season, still have a squad bursting with quality. With Peter O’Mahony calling the shots among the forwards, their pack looks too much for an Edinburgh side rebuilding from last year’s disastrous league and Heineken Cup campaigns. New coach Alan Solomons has promised a shift in the capital side’s gameplay from the gung-ho attacking philosophy of recent years to a more pragmatic approach centred on solid defence. Ross Rennie will need to be at his best to stifle the Munster back row, and the Edinburgh backline will need to be on their guard to nullify the attacking threats of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.
A daunting task for Edinburgh in their first competitive game under Solomons, and one that should see their hosts run out comfortable victors. Munster by 14.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images