Ahead of the start of the RaboDirect PRO12 season on September 6, we preview the fortunes of each outfit gunning for the title.
Ahead of the start of the RaboDirect PRO12 season on September 6, we preview the fortunes of each side.
Top last year, top this. Have gone under the radar this off-season due to a lack of signings but in truth they have all the ingredients on board and just need a clean bill of health. Stephen Ferris' U-turn over a proposed move to Japan was as good as a high-profile deal and with the likes of Nick Williams and Roger Wilson offering so much at number eight, they are strong in the pack. Jared Payne has shown during pre-season that he should be allowed more of a run at outside centre, but we doubt head coach Mark Anscombe will bite due to a lack of full-back options. Looking back and losing in last season's final was arguably partly their own fault as they chose the RDS venue should they make the final. You know the rest. Ravenhill should once again be a fortress and with a European run also on their wishlist – it will be tough against Leicester and Montpellier – they look set to challenge.
One to watch: We have mentioned him already but the power of Nick Williams at eight is such a threat as shown against Leinster in pre-season. If he can stay fit and in form then a back-row combination with Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry will serve Ravenhill well.
Spurred on by last season's 17-15 semi-final loss to eventual champions Leinster, the Warriors are set to continue their impressive form going into 2013/14. We admit to not predicting them a top four finish last year and boy did they prove us wrong, powering their way to third spot and playing some very good rugby in the process. Gregor Townsend has done a sterling job at the helm and despite the exit of John Barclay, they should push for the title. Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland have British and Irish Lions experience to draw upon while Josh Strauss and Al Kellock provide the forward grunt. One blow is the loss of Peter Horne to a lengthy knee injury but Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson will do a job at ten.
One to watch: Two names stand out here and they are Niko Matawalu and Josh Strauss, who will both be critical to how the Warriors fare. Matawalu was a revelation last year and Gregor Townsend will hope the broken metatarsal he is recovering from has no delays.
Much has been made of the loss of Jonathan Sexton but Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan will hold their own when used by Matt O'Connor. O'Connor, who arrives with a glowing reference from Leicester Tigers, has massive shoes to fill in Dublin. The former Brumbies and Australia A staff member will, however, also be without the excellent Isa Nacewa who is replaced by Springbok full-back Zane Kirchner in a move we don't understand seeing as they have one of the best fifteens in Rob Kearney already on their books – neither being all that versatile. But on paper they are still fearsome and champions for that matter and the likes of Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Richardt Strauss and of course Brian O'Driscoll will step up when it matters. We just feel there will be dips along the way due to their internationals and veterans being carefully managed, hence finishing in third. A tough year awaits.
One to watch: Sean O'Brien has been a standout for Leinster and Ireland over recent seasons and we expect that to continue in 2013/14. His barnstorming runs will more often than not make inroads in the opposition defence and that is what Matt O'Connor will want.
Won 11 and lost 10 in last season's PRO12, which is simply not good enough for their expectant supporters. A decent run in Europe smoothed over the cracks as injuries to the talismanic Paul O'Connell for large periods had an affect on performances. This term they have lost Doug Howlett while the absence of Ronan O'Gara at number 10 will take some getting used to at Thomond Park as he takes up his job at Racing Metro. Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan are the men charged with stepping in at fly-half but like Leinster, their purchase of another South African back (Gerhard van den Heever) does not ooze Howlett quality. This is where the problem lies; do Munster have enough class out wide to pressure for the play-offs and ultimately the title? There is no doubt the likes of CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony and Donnacha Ryan will provide excellent go-forward so the weight will be on Keatley, inside centre James Downey and company's shoulders to deliver the goods out wide.
One to watch: As mentioned, Peter O'Mahony offers a great deal for Munster and his combinations with CJ Stander, James Coughlin or Tommy O'Donnell will be tough for rivals to match. O'Mahony, still just 23, has been tipped as a future Ireland captain and on last season's fine form it's hard to argue with that. Conor Murray will also be one to monitor.
A promising pre-season has seen the Blues win at Worcester and ease past Sale on home soil, which has created a healthy dose of confidence at the Arms Park. Just like Saracens, Cardiff are enjoying an artificial pitch these days and that should stand them in good stead against visiting teams, who might struggle to adapt to the surface. Director of rugby Phil Davies will hope that is the case as his new coaching team and captain set about bettering last year's disappointing ninth place finish. We feel they will easily do that – despite the lack of centre Jamie Roberts – as there is a plethora of young Welsh talent coming through the ranks to go with Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton, who is out early on. Factor in Gethin Jenkins' return and we say they will surprise a few and challenge for the play-offs.
One to watch: Cardiff will hope Player of the Lions series, Leigh Halfpenny, is back in full swing for his region as soon as physically possible. The full-back was exceptional down in Australia and if they can keep both him and Sam Warburton fit, a decent campaign awaits.
Simon Easterby has done a wonderful job at Parc y Scarlets and had they kept George North in their group, he would have been set to continue his revival of this region in 2013/14. North's departure, particularly after an outstanding series for the Lions, highlights the growing concern in Welsh rugby about keeping hold of their best players from the lure of France and England. One man doesn't make a team though and there is still outstanding talent in the form of Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland and Josh Turnbull in their squad. If Easterby can keep those players fit and in fine form they should be there or thereabouts of the fourth spot they sealed last season. Two home games to start is nice.
One to watch: Another of the