Team: Connacht Rugby
Coach: Eric Elwood
Key players in: Danny Poolman (Stormers), Dan Parks (Cardiff), Willie Faloon (Ulster) Connacht has also offered Professional contracts to a number of domestic provincial players this season.
Key players out: Niall O Connor (Ulster)
The men from the west have always been the ‘little province’ of Irish Rugby. However the rugby played at the Sportsground is always hard, and Connacht’s ability to absorb pressure and break is fantastic to witness. They even took the Harlequins out of the Heineken Cup last year.
With the other provinces investing heavily in their support base and attracting big names it’s difficult to see Connacht keeping up. Their stadium holds 7,500 fans, granted loyal, but it means that the income is low.
Willie Faloon will provide solid presence in the scrum. The move to Connacht to guarantee first team rugby is common between them and Ulster. A product of the Ulster Academy and under the tutelage of Brian McLaughlin he made a great addition – expect an explosive season from Willie.
Last season saw Connacht finish eighth. Out of the 22 league games they lost 14 and finished with -112 points difference. Connacht provided four Ireland Under 20s for the recent Junior World Championship.
Bringing in experienced players like Poolman and Parks will provide an extra depth, and I’d expect a top half finish.
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Team: Leinster Rugby
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Ground: RDS Arena
Key players in: Michael Bent (Hurricanes), Tom Denton (Leeds), Quinn Roux (Stormers) and Andrew Goodman (Tasman)
Key players out: (TBC)
Devastating back line speed and very strong front row. A set of backs which include the Kearney brothers, the still world-class Brian O Driscoll, and the first-choice Ireland ten, Jonathon Sexton. This combination tore through European and domestic sides with relative ease last year, and they led this league by ten points and lost narrowly to an on-form Ospreys in the league final.
The recent defeat to Northampton Saints showed that the squad is reliant on their existing ‘big names.’ The younger squad were never competitive running out 43-0 losers to one of the Aviva big guns. Joe Schmidt will be keen to build on knowledge transfer and training to improve the depth.
There are several candidates from this team. The standout player last season was Rob Kearney. The GAA turned Rugby player was the league’s player of the season last year, barely putting a foot wrong. He was one of a handful of Irish players that looked effective against the All Blacks.
Sounds strange but Leinster supporters were disappointed that they ‘lost the league’, in a very narrow defeat by the Ospreys. Winners of the Heineken cup for a record third time, convincingly beating a strong Ulster squad.
It’s difficult not to predict Leinster as challengers for the title again. If they can keep critical players injury-free they will be the top Irish Province. Top 3 finish.
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Team: Munster Rugby
Coach: Rob Penney
Ground: Thomond Park
Key players in: CJ Stander (Bulls), Casey Laulala, (Canterbury)
Key players out: Tomas O’Leary (London Irish)
Munster’s forward power is legendary. Players like Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan would have the technical ability to walk into most teams. Meanwhile, Munster Supporters are some of the most vocal. Fields of Athenry is more than an Anthem to them and in a stadium regularly full, 26,000, Munster fans make a lot of noise.
Weaknesses must include the uncertainty around Paul O’Connell’s injury and the fact he has now relinqushed the Captain’s arm band. The lack of flexibility in the back line last year leaked a few great tries against them.
Simon Zebo. This rapid winger will challenge Tim Visser for the most tries this year. Zebo looked out of his depth at times last season, but a decent preseason and added attention will put more weapons in his arsenal.
Very disappointing by Munster standards, yet most sides would have gladly swapped league positions. The side famous for victories over Australia and New Zealand are always striving to beat Leinster, and yet finished 14 points behind them.
Smarting from a European exit last year, Munster will be pushing hard. Revitalised by a new head coach, Rob Penney, Munster will be a force in the league. Top 3 finish pushing and being pushed by Leinster.
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Team: Ulster Rugby
Coach: Mark Anscombe
Key players in: Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Rob Herring (London Irish), Roger Wilson (Northampton Saints), Nick Williams (Aironi), Michael Heaney (Doncaster).
Key players out: Pedrie Wannenburg (Castre), Stefan Terblanche (Retired), Ian Humphreys (London Irish), Willie Faloon (Connacht), Ian Whitten (Exeter.)
Judging by recent friendlies, Ulster’s strength lies in the forwards – a solid pack under the tutelage of a forward-oriented coach. There is depth in key positions due to the number of full and potential Irish Caps and the necessity for backup options that creates. The partnership of Henry, Ferris and Muller can turn games with their line breaks and defensive capabilities.
Scoring tries at Ravenhill was not a problem for the Ulstermen last season. Their kicking out of hand and at goal was a sore point, but more frustrating was their inability to regroup in defence. They managed it against Munster in a European game, but it was a rare shining light.
Tommy Bowe will be going all out to prove his abilities at Ravenhill. His speed and tackling were crucial for Ospreys last year. A Grand Slam winner, a Lions Player, Six Nations player of the championship, and various Players’ Player awards, Bowe will be a clinical finisher.
Excellent European run finishing runners up to an exemplary Leinster outfit, disappointing season end away from home. Sixth in the league.
With the number of International commitments last season, Ulster struggled to keep up with the other three provinces. Ulster starts the season missing the likes of Ferris and Pienaar through injury and The Rugby Championship, which is likely to provide a slow start to the season. Prediction 5th.
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