After one of the most memorable campaigns to date, the PRO12 season starts this Friday as Connacht look to defend their title in 2016/17.
Connacht beat Leinster in the final at Murrayfield having edged Glasgow in the semis. Ulster were the other outfit to make the last four.
They will all be hunting the crown along with improved Welsh regions and of course the likes of Munster, who have a new boss at the helm.
Head coach: Danny Wilson
Last season: 7th
Missed out on the top six yet again last season but it was a much-improved effort from the Blues, winning four more games than in 2015/16.
Danny Wilson was still in the infancy of his tenure but an expansive style was evident, which all the players bought into during a season they beat the likes of Connacht, Scarlets and Ulster. However they did lose on the road at both Zebre and Treviso in disappointing results.
The off-season has seen Nick Williams arrive from Ulster and he has already become a fan favourite, but losing Rhys Patchell is a blow to their backline. A lot will rest on the form of Gareth Anscombe at fly-half while Matthew Morgan is set to be a livewire as their full-back.
Player to Watch: The artificial surface at Cardiff Arms Park is going to suit full-back Matthew Morgan, of that there’s no doubt. Opposing teams are set for tough games in defence as Morgan, who hopes for a strong campaign that will push him into the Wales line-up, cuts loose.
Head coach: Pat Lam
Last season: 2nd (champions)
What a season it was for Connacht last time out. They started strongly, as expected due to other teams being hit by World Cup commitments, but following that tournament their form continued to catch the eye. Pat Lam was clearly building something promising at the Sportsground.
Signing AJ MacGinty proved a masterstroke from Lam as he continued his World Cup form being a steady influence at pivot, while Bundee Aki was outstanding behind a solid pack, some of whom were rewarded with Ireland call-ups. It really was a whole team effort though in Galway.
Losing Robbie Henshaw to Leinster is a setback while MacGinty also moves on so it’s going to be a big ask to repeat their 2015/16 heroics.
Player to Watch: Such a talisman in this Connacht backline, Bundee Aki is set to lead another spirited charge this season. They signed him from the Chiefs in 2014 and Aki has never looked back, with the possibility of Ireland caps from October 2017 now very much on the horizon.
Head coach: Alan Solomons
Last season: 9th
Ninth place was a disappointing finish for Edinburgh last season, but it is worth noting they won the same amount of games as the seventh-placed Cardiff Blues. Damian Hoyland topped their try ladder on eight scores while Cornell du Preez was again a threat with ball in hand.
They have a strong side on paper that includes an all-international front-row while John Hardie always impresses on the flank. A lot will rest on the form of Duncan Weir at fly-half as he arrives from Glasgow, looking to ignite a backline now without the departed Matt Scott.
Last season they boasted the third best defence in the whole league after leaking just 366 points so it’s clear that they need to offer a good deal more going forward in possession if they’re to trouble those battling for the play-off spots. That appears unlikely in our eyes.
Player to Watch: Mentioned already and for good reason, Cornell du Preez is such an imposing figure with ball in hand. Much of Edinburgh’s game centres around the South African number eight and when he gets over the advantage line, Alan Solomons’ men profit more often than not.
Head coach: Gregor Townsend
Last season: 3rd (semi-finalists)
The 2015/16 champions launched a solid push up the table in the second half of the season and were never written off due to the class they had in their squad, with the likes of Leone Nakarawa, Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett and many more players of the highest standard.
But they ultimately fell just short at the Sportsground against Connacht in the semi-final as hopes of back-to-back titles came to an end.
This season they enter without the aforementioned Nakarawa, who’s now at Racing 92, and their players also recently discovered that Gregor Townsend would be moving on to the Scotland job at the end of the season. They will be desperate for the perfect send off for their coach.
Player to Watch: Impressive last season for both club and country and Glasgow will need that to continue from Stuart Hogg. He also has the British and Irish Lions tour in the back of his mind so a strong campaign at the Warriors will do Hogg’s chances of touring no harm at all.
Head coach: Leo Cullen
Last season: 1st (runner-up)
Finished top of the pile and had the strongest defence in the regular-season, conceding just 27 tries in 22 games which is a number to be proud of. However, losing the final to Connacht in the manner they did will sting Leinster while their dismal European form was also poor.
Jonathan Sexton struggled to recapture his best form while injuries unfortunately played a part in their campaign, with powerful back-row Sean O’Brien’s absence particularly felt. In contrast, Isa Nacewa’s class and leadership was outstanding as he skippers them this season.
The departure of Ian Madigan is cushioned by Robbie Henshaw’s arrival from Connacht but it’s up front where their strength is as the likes of Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin rotate as two quality hookers while Jack McGrath’s stock continues to climb as an international prop.
Player to Watch: Leinster need Sexton firing on all cylinders if they are to challenge while an injury free campaign will be the hope for the likes of O’Brien and Cian Healy. Jamie Heaslip is our one to watch though as he looks to lead what is a powerful pack to PRO12 glory.
Head coach: Rassie Erasmus
Last season: 6th
With a new director of rugby in Rassie Erasmus, Munster know that anything less than the play-offs would be a huge disappointment. After finishing sixth last season, winning 13 matches and losing nine, they missed the cut by six points but did qualify for the Champions Cup.
It would have been unthinkable to imagine Munster not being in European club rugby’s main competition, but they did come close to missing out in a disappointing season. Anthony Foley has carried the can somewhat as Erasmus arrives, with Foley now second in command at Munster.
On paper though it’s hard to see a drastic improvement as the backline still looks a touch short in terms of creativity while the arrival of Jaco Taute hardly gets pulses racing. Jean Kleyn should add further steel up front while Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander are vital again.
Player to Watch: Keeping O’Mahony fit is a must for Munster as if he can combine with Tommy O’Donnell and Stander then Munster have a top class back-row trio. Behind them Conor Murray will keep things ticking and it’s his intelligence at nine that makes him so key this term.
Head coach: Kingsley Jones
Last season: 10th
It could be a tough campaign for the Dragons. 10th last season but that doesn’t tell the full story as they were only six points off the basement, with Edinburgh a whopping 28 points ahead of them in ninth. Just four wins all PRO12 campaign was a major step back from them.
They beat Zebre and Treviso by Round 5 and in Round 9 they shocked Munster before doing the same against Leinster in Round 13. Other than that the season made for dismal reading for boss Lyn Jones, who left the region in April 2016, with Kingsley Jones taking over the reins.
The Dragons surely can’t do any worse in 2016/17 and will look to Elliot Dee, Rynard Landman, Sarel Pretorius and Hallam Amos to lead the charge. Making Rodney Parade a tough venue is a must but with no PRO12 win since January it’s vital they stop the rot as soon as possible.
Player to Watch: He impressed in a disappointing season last term and Elliot Dee will be hoping to carry on that progress in 2016/17. The 22-year-old has surely caught the eye of Wales’ coaching team and will hope to learn as much as he can from the experienced T Rhys Thomas.
Head coach: Steve Tandy
Last season: 8th
An eighth-placed finish was a major step back for the Ospreys as they were third in 2014/15. Steve Tandy will wonder how they spiraled so drastically down the standings and many may have pointed the finger at it being a World Cup year, meaning they missed their star players.
However, that was the same story for their rivals so there’s no doubt work has been done on the training field to ensure they bounce back with purpose. Big seasons are expected of Alun-Wyn Jones, a possible Lions captain, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar while the return from injury of Jeff Hassler is also a boost. Tyler Ardron was another who missed a large chunk of last term so that duo will be like two new signings.
Expect the Ospreys to be much better in 2016/17 and they will hope Kieron Fonotia and Bradley Davies add extra bite to the backs and pack respectively. Anything but a serious play-off push would be a disappointment for Tandy, who could feel the heat if they don’t start well.
Player to Watch: The form of Dan Biggar when he is not on international duty with Wales is going to be crucial to the Ospreys. If he can dominate games then they’ll win more than they lose. Sam Davies rarely lets the region down when Biggar is away so it’s the two 10s here.
Head coach: Wayne Pivac
Last season: 5th
Definitely going in the right direction under former Auckland head coach Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets finished last season in fifth position. With 14 wins they were the strongest Welsh region and will be determined to prove that was a sign of things to come in the coming seasons.
They have recruited particularly well as Werner Kruger, Rhys Patchell, Jonathan Davies, Johnny McNicholl will run out at Parc y Scarlets. McNicholl will arrive after his Mitre 10 Cup commitments and was in excellent form in Super Rugby and could strike up a devastating wing combination with DTH van der Merwe. Elsewhere, Great Britain Sevens star James Davies is set to kick on from 2015/16 with a big campaign.
Expect the Scarlets to do likewise as we don’t envisage them going backwards. On paper they look a strong outside bet to go all the way.
Player to Watch: Patchell will relish playing for the Scarlets this season but it’s hard not to look at James Davies here. The all-action flanker dominated PRO12 games last season yet still missed out for Wales. GB7s saw his talent though and the rest as they say is history.
Head coach: Kieran Crowley
Last season: 12th
It was bottom spot last term after they won just three games all season, those coming against Cardiff Blues, the Dragons and Connacht. In their defence they went close in several of their defeats and ended up having a much stronger points difference (-294) than Zebre (-410).
But, it is results that matter and Treviso were looking up at the rest and will this season have a new head coach in Kieran Crowley, who arrives from Canada. He has the tough ask of turning things around which is looking like a hard job as rivals look stronger than 2015/16.
Marty Banks is a shrewd signing but they must cope without him until the Mitre 10 Cup concludes, with Tommaso Allan set to step up in his place. Other than that though there’s little to excite the neutral about Treviso in what promises to be another uphill battle in the PRO12.
Player to Watch: Has never let Tasman down in New Zealand, Marty Banks deserves his crack at PRO12 rugby. Nicknamed ‘Screech’, Banks will be solid off the kicking tee and is a talisman of a fly-half who can also fill in at full-back. Treviso will hope he’s a big hit for them.
Head coach: Les Kiss
Last season: 4th (semi-finalists)
It was fourth position and 69 points for the second season running for Ulster although they lost two more games in 2015/16 so it wasn’t a successful campaign. Craig Gilroy finished joint top of the try-scoring chart while Paddy Jackson was fourth on the points scoring ladder.
They lost the talismanic Nick Williams in the off-season while news on Wednesday emerged that Ruan Pienaar would also be moving on at the end of the campaign. How fitting it would be for him to play a large role in his farewell term alongside new star signing Charles Piutau.
Les Kiss certainly has the quality of player to challenge for the PRO12 title, as the backline in particular oozes class and depth. Iain Henderson will be key up front while tighthead prop Rodney Ah You’s arrival is timely due to Wiehahn Herbst being injured. Flank Marcell Coetzee is another new face who will catch plenty of attention when he is fit to feature. The Bok will win over Ulster’s fans in no time.
Player to Watch: Even during pre-season Charles Piutau has been in electric form as after a year wowing the Premiership crowds for Wasps the full-back makes his mark in the PRO12. Piutau’s exit from New Zealand upset the All Blacks and it’s little wonder why. What a talent.
Head coach: Gianluca Guidi
Last season: 11th
Not finishing as the league’s bottom side was one in the win column for Zebre, albeit a small one. They won five games to Treviso’s three and in fact were victorious on more occasions than the Dragons, who only edged them on the table due to their superior bonus-point tally.
Gianluca Guidi will hope they can build on last season’s upsurge in form and the arrival of Derick Minnie from the Lions is a significant coup to their back-row. They boast international class all over their line-up and if another signing, Kurt Baker, fires, rival teams will struggle in Parma. Joshua Furno, Carlo Festuccia and Giovanbattista Venditti arriving are also signs that things are looking up at Zebre.
Can they better that 11th? Maybe 10th at best, above the Dragons, but anything higher than that would be a shock to the established order.
Player to Watch: He has been a rock for the Lions and Golden Lions in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup over the years and now a new venture is here for Derick Minnie. Powerful in both attack and defence, he will relish regular rugby and the PRO12 will soon know all about him.