PRO12 Season Preview

Date published: September 2 2015

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With the new PRO12 season kicking off on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each of the 12 clubs as Glasgow look to defend their title.

Of course players being at the Rugby World Cup will have a major say on the early-season action as teams will be without personnel in September, October and possibly part of November. Factor in the absentees during 2016's Six Nations and this is an incredibly difficult season to predict.

Here is our take…

Contenders

Not seeing Paul O'Connell in a Munster squad is going to take some getting used to and they will need to step up in his absence, with plenty of experience elsewhere capable of doing a job. Maybe more surprising is the fact they have no front-rows in an Irish squad, which adds weight to the argument they will challenge in the PRO12. Robin Copeland, CJ Stander, Ian Keatley and Francis Saili should shine, as will Tyler Bleyendaal who is finally set to start his Munster career.

Glasgow will be there or thereabouts once again after a marvellous and deserved trophy-winning season last time out. Gregor Townsend has built something special at Scotstoun and with Taqele Naiyaravoro now involved, they have another outlet. They handled November and the Six Nations periods remarkably well in 2014/15 which gives their fans confidence to think they can keep their hands on the title, even without Al Kellock and Nikola Matawalu.

Ulster aren't as affected by the World Cup as one might have thought, as their backline is pretty strong with Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey decent replacements for Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Jared Payne. The pack remains strong while Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble will threaten wide out. We can't see a title-winning season but the top four is definitely a realistic target.

Despite finishing fifth last season, Leinster are the bookmakers favourites to win the PRO12 title. Under new head coach Leo Cullen and with a couple of international distractions it won't be easy to maintain a position near the summit but they have strengthened in the form of Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa. On their day with a full-strength line-up they are a match for anyone but such a quick fix from 2014/15 seems unlikely.

There is a lot to like about the Ospreys from a neutral's standpoint as they flew the flag for Wales very well indeed last term. Of course Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar are the star names but even in their absence, fly-half Sam Davies steered a steady ship and will be expected to do so again in the early season. It's up front where they will be most hit during the international rounds but they will be in the mix come the business end.

Mid-table

Connacht are set to be the surprise package, especially early on in the season. Last year they shot out of the blocks and we expect something similar in 2015/16 as Pat Lam's leadership and the form of several players, notably Kieran Marmion, led their charge. Can they seriously push for silverware? Maybe not, but they will be at the right end of the standings for most of the campaign with centre Bundee Aki definitely one to watch.

Scarlets finished sixth last season and we predict a similar performance this time around, even with a tough opening period without Wales backs Scott Williams, Gareth Davies and Liam Williams. Losing Rhys Priestland to Bath is a blow but that is offset by the arrival of wing DTH van der Merwe after the World Cup. Keep an eye on impressive flanker James Davies while John Barclay will want to prove a point to Scotland's selectors.

Cardiff Blues came third bottom in 2014/15 and it is tough to see them shooting up the standings this time around, particularly as it could take time for new ideas from Danny Wilson to create success. Personal disappointment for Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell in turn boosts the squad as they are with the Blues during the World Cup, but it doesn't look like being a year pushing for the play-offs for the Arms Park outfit.

A good handful of Edinburgh's side will be absent for chunks of the season due to international duty and that will make life difficult for Alan Solomons. They have solid options at centre with Sam Beard, Phil Burleigh and Andries Strauss during the RWC while Cornell du Preez is always a threat. Missing their whole front-row for the Test segments will hurt though as shown with seven scrums lost against the head against Romania in pre-season.

Basement dwellers

While they showed signs of promise last season, it's tough to see the Dragons pushing into mid-table in 2015/16. The arrival of Sarel Pretorius is an exciting one as he will keep defences on their toes while Tom Prydie is a reliable goal-kicker, but they lack the depth to mount a decent run of form and we expect them to finish above the Italian duo but nothing more. No doubt Lyn Jones' men will be determined to prove us wrong.

Unfortunately it's going to be a similar story at the foot of the PRO12 as the two Italian sides fight it out to avoid finishing in last place. Zebre and Treviso won just three games apiece last campaign and while the former has strengthened with the arrivals of Luke Burgess, Mils Muiliana and Jean Cook to name a few, it's tough to see them finishing above eleventh place. Treviso have signed Luke McLean and Robert Barbieri but do lose Michele Campagnaro and Simone Favaro as we predict they will finish the season in last place in the PRO12 for the first time in their history.

PRO12 league prediction

1) Munster
2) Glasgow
3) Ulster
4) Leinster
5) Ospreys
6) Connacht
7) Scarlets
8) Cardiff Blues
9) Edinburgh
10) Dragons
11) Zebre
12) Treviso

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