A new RaboDirect PRO12 season kicks-off on Friday as eleven teams attempt to wrestle the trophy off the Ospreys. We preview 2012/13.
A new RaboDirect PRO12 season will kick-off this Friday as eleven outfits attempt to wrestle the trophy from the Ospreys' grasp. We preview 2012/13.
Leinster failed to add the cherry of the PRO12 title to the cake of the Heineken Cup after losing 31-30 in the Grand Final to the Ospreys. Victory on home turf would've seen Leinster become the first Celtic team to land a domestic and European double, and the first by any team since London Wasps in 2004. The last of their two Celtic crowns came in 2008, however there is no doubting the talent within Joe Schmidt's squad as they have a group boasting Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and the evergreen Brian O'Driscoll. Overseas talents Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss have also been a boost, whilst the likes of Tom Denton, Michael Bent, Quinn Roux and Andrew Goodman have all been signed to bolster the 2012/13 squad.
The champions will look to add to their three Celtic titles when the PRO12 gets under way this weekend. However they will have to kick on without a host of game-breakers in the form of Shane Williams (the match-winner in the final against Leinster), Huw Bennett, Tommy Bowe and Sonny Parker, who are just a few of the names to have left Swansea. The large exodus of experienced players from the Swansea-based region could hamper their bid to defend their title, but head coach Steve Tandy still boasts a talented squad, including the likes of Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, Ashley Beck, Alun-Wyn Jones and Kahn Fotuali'i.
Munster fans will be hoping new coach Rob Penney can revive the Red Army's fortunes and become Ireland's – and Europe's – leading outfit again after a disappointing 2011/12 term. Penney guided Canterbury to four domestic titles on the trot in New Zealand and will look to give Munster the kind of go-forward that was lacking last season. Although Munster won the domestic crown in 2011, adding to their Heineken Cup titles of 2006 and 2008, they're no longer regarded as the most feared side in the European competition or in the rough and tumble of the Pro12 (that honour now lies with Leinster). As a result they have been busy rebuilding their squad with James Downey, Casey Laulala and CJ Stander the notable arrivals, while Tomas O'Leary and Lifeimi Mafi have left and John Hayes, Mick O'Driscoll, Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Darragh Hurley have all since retired. With what is now a relatively inexperienced group eager to learn and improve, Penney should see his brand of rugby enacted on the field of play. Expect them to challenge for honours.
It has been an off-season of transition at the Blues as new boss Phil Davies arrives looking to turn the region into play-off contenders and maybe more. They are without the likes of Casey Laulala, Paul Tito, Gethin Jenkins this season but have brought in Campese Ma'afu, Andi Kyriacou, BenoÃ®t Bourrust, Jason Tovey and Lou Reed. With stars like Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and also the return from injury of Jamie Roberts, they should be in the mix.
Like the aforementioned Blues, there will be a new coach at the helm as Brian McLaughlin moves to a new role and Mark Anscombe arrives from Auckland. Last year's European run was impressive but now the bar's been set for Anscombe, who has not been overly happy with how his side has faired in pre-season. They lose Pedrie Wannenburg, Ian Humphreys, Andi Kyriacou and a retired Stefan Terblance but pick up Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe.
It was pleasing to see the next Scarlets generation finding their feet in 2011/12 as the likes of Scott Williams, George North, Josh Turnbull, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams all performed strongly. They ended last term in fifth position but a blow to their cause is the departure of head coach Nigel Davies. Leading the charge will now be former player Simon Easterby, who will look to build on the platform Davies laid. Rhys Priestland is key to them.
Middle of the road
Fourth was a colossal improvement on the previous year when they ended up eleventh so many would think there would be a healthy dose of confidence reverberating around Scotstoun Stadium. But with the departure of both coach Sean Lineen and lock Richie Gray, we expect Glasgow to have a teething period. Men they will hope lead their charge will be Sean Lamont, Ruaridh Jackson, John Barclay, Rory Lamont and captain Alastair Kellock.
Treviso proved a tricky opponent last year and away wins over Glasgow, Ulster, Connacht and Dragons were a massive fillip for Italian club rugby. They ended the PRO12 with 7 wins from 22 games while they won and drew one match in the Heineken Cup. Progress is now the buzzword for Franco Smith and he'll look to Tommaso Benvenuti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Luke McLean, Alessandro Zanni, Doppies La Grange and Christian Loamanu to fire them.
Like their Scottish neighbour in 2010/11, Edinburgh ended the RaboDirect PRO12 closest to competition whipping boys Aironi. How their Heineken Cup form differed. By the stage of realising that a shock European triumph had become a possibility, their domestic form took a nosedive – at one stage Edinburgh had lost nine out of ten games – so there is definitely room for improvement this campaign. Michael Bradley has brought in Richie Rees, Andy Titterrell, John Yapp, Greig Tonks, Mike Penn and forwards coach Neil Back, but it is Ben Atiga who is one to watch. Of course Scotland winger Tim Visser will be the strike threat.
Destined for the basement
Aironi's replacement have assembled a coaching structure of Roberto Manghi (director of rugby), Christian Gajan (technical director), Vincenzo Troiani and Alessandro Troncon (coaches) and Fabio Ongaro (team manager). They will be eager to build on their pre-season 30-28 victory over Northampton, with the form of Salvatore Perugini, Tito Tebaldi, Matteo Pratichetti, Giovanbattista Venditti, Mauro Bergamasco and Daniel Halangahu key.
We are afraid that Wales' basement region of 2011/12 could find themselves in a similar position this time around. While they have managed to keep hold of international star Dan Lydiate, the loss of Aled Brew, Martyn Thomas, Luke Charteris and Jason Tovey comes as a blow. Tom Prydie, who performed well in the Junior World Championship is likely to kick from the wing so he is our one to watch, but it is likely that the Dragons will have little puff.
Dan Parks' arrival to replace returning Ulsterman Niall O'Connor will add some solidity that Connacht will hope compliments the running of Fetu'u Vainikolo and new