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 Lions party, Jonathan Davies, is the main man at the Scarlets and his combination with Scott Williams is getting better and better. More promising news is that Rhys Priestland looks back in good form. John Barclay's arrival is significant.
There is no doubt the loss of Kahn Fotuali'i was one of the biggest blows a club/region has felt during this off-season. The Samoan was superb for the Ospreys in 2012/13 and Tito Tebaldi, let's face it, is not of the same mould. Rhys Webb will subsequently fancy his chances of tying down the nine shirt while Dan Biggar looks to fend off young duo Matthew Morgan and IRB Junior World Player of the Year Sam Davies at number ten. Ospreys fans will hope former Waikato coach Chris Gibbes solidifies the pack as there is no question they have the tools - Justin Tipuric, Alun-Wyn Jones, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones being four quality internationals - required to push on from what was a poor season last time out. No knockout rugby is not something these supporters have got used to and unfortunately it is something they may find repeated this season. How their opening RaboDirect PRO12 trips to Treviso and Leinster play out are vital to boosting confidence.
One to watch: Of course that forward quartet are going to be key but much will rest on the shoulders of Dan Biggar. Without the guile of Kahn Fotuali'i, the fly-half will need to stand up even more than usual and lead this back-line. If he does that, more international caps await.
A rise from tenth in 2011/12 to seventh last season is, of course, progress and they will be looking to continue that climb in 2013/14. Franco Smith will bid arrivederci to the club after nine years at the Stadio di Monigo at the end of this season - but the South African craves a strong term as his swansong. He will have to do that without star back Tommaso Benvenuti, who has joined Perpignan, but does have former Crusaders fly-half Mat Berquist coming in to replace Kris Burton. It's a tough start to the season for them as they face the Ospreys, Scarlets, Munster and Ulster in the first month but as they have done in the past - beating all four Welsh regions at some point last year - Treviso are capable of ruffling a few feathers.
One to watch: Two key forwards stand out here as being critical to Treviso's hopes of doing even better than last year's decent finish. They are Leonardo Ghiraldini and Robert Barbieri. Barbieri certainly knows his way to the line and is a sizeable unit who will be used regularly.
It promises to be another tough campaign for the Scottish outfit as they look to better a 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12 campaign that saw them lose more than they won. Alan Solomons has been brought in from the Kings in South Africa to replace Michael Bradley and will hope to steady the rocky Murrayfield ship, which has plenty of internationals on board such as Tim Visser and David Denton. However, they struggled to win the close games and that issue is something Solomons will be hoping to resolve alongside captain Greig Laidlaw. Powerful wings Jack Cuthbert and Nikki Walker are new additions to the group but we don't think Edinburgh will have enough in the creativity department to push on and threaten for the play-off positions. An improvement on 2012/13 but not a great one.
One to watch: Disappointed to miss out on the British and Irish Lions tour, Greig Laidlaw may want to make a few statements this year for both club and country. There is no doubt he is a quality back and we expect both him and David Denton to lead Edinburgh well.
There is an air of confidence sweeping around the Sportsground ahead of this season as Pat Lam comes in to lead a side that includes Super Rugby-winning co-captain Craig Clarke. The Chiefs lock's arrival is a serious coup for Connacht as they needed to buy big to replace the outgoing Mike McCarthy - they have certainly done that. There was a twelve-point gap between Treviso and eighth place Connacht at the end of 2012/13 and they will be disappointed if they don't build on a points finish of 39 (2011), 37 (2012) and 38 (2013) come 2014. For that has been the Achilles heel of Connacht as they look to break into the upper echelons of Irish, RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup rugby. The return of Fionn Carr from Leinster helps that fight while Aly Mundowney is a shrewd signing off Exeter.
One to watch: The hole left by Mike McCarthy needed filling and Connacht have done that with the signature of Craig Clarke. Clarke is an honest, hard-working forward who is a leader of men. John Muldoon has himself a great shoulder to lean on this season.
Life without Dan Lydiate begins for the Dragons. How will they cope? Well, they have brought in Netani Talei from Edinburgh to help cushion their back-row while Kris Burton and Richie Rees are set to form a nuggety half-back combination that will be solid if not spectacular. To be honest though, the only way is pretty much up for the Dragons as last season's eleventh place and 28-point finish, will be hard not to improve on. Lyn Jones and Kingsley Jones are charged with leading the team up the table and of course they will be looking to Toby Faletau to be their talisman - his new deal is a huge gesture of faith.
One to watch: Who else but number eight Toby Faletau? The Wales back-row forward was outstanding in Australia for the British and Irish Lions, but with many expecting him to head to Aviva Premiership or Top 14 rugby, he threw a curve ball by instead opting to stay put.
It promises to be another long and arduous campaign for Italy's second representative, who could not secure one win from their 22 league games last year. They came close on a few occasions we'll give them that but unfortunately they could not hold on to claim that coveted first win since changing their name from Aironi. That fruitless term has seen the likes of Sinoti Sinoti, Daniel Halangahu, Tito Tebaldi and Josh Sole depart as in comes Chiefs half-back Brendon Leonard and former Saracens wing Kameli Ratuvou. Again they are set to struggle but who knows, an opening day win away to Connacht could give them hope.
One to watch: A solid centre partnership of Gonzalo Garcia and Kameli Ratuvou could work well but Brendon Leonard and Luciano Orquera must first create the ball for that duo to threaten. Leonard fell down the Chiefs pecking order and this move is just what he needed.