The pro12 is back in action, and because of the world cup I’m not likely to see much of it (or at least the games featuring Connacht) for several weeks. Good to see that efforts are being made to maintain and improve the league’s credibility and popularity. In lieu of a Connacht-Dragons match review, here are some thoughts about how the league is shaping up:
Started at the bottom, now we’re … oh
The Italians are likely to remain rooted to the bottom of the table, especially as their already understrength squads will commit large numbers to the Italian team. The only bright light for them is that the national team will not progress past the group stages, so they will get their internationals earlier than the other teams. It’s not that the two Italian teams don’t have quality players, it’s just that they don’t have enough to support two squads, and presumably the other teams didn’t want the Italian national team playing in the pro12. As Treviso will be in the much tougher Champions cup, they will either have to accept massive beatings to maintain their league position, or potentially slip down to bottom of the league – or possibly both. Based on the scoreline against the Blues, Zebre will not be making up ground on anyone during the WC stages, but showed promise at the end of last season. Ultimately it’s disappointing for both the Italians and the league, as these thrashings do not benefit anyone, but it takes time to build a team, and the best players continue to leave Italy, so the Italian Union will have to do much more for the two teams before they become competitive.
A tale of two cities
Edinburgh is the more ‘traditional’ rugby city compared to Glasgow, but Edinburgh rugby sell kit and stash in House of Fraser (Edinburgh’s Brown Thomas/Clerys), which should tell you all you need to know about the traditions within rugby here. Like the Italians both Scottish teams contribute a huge number of players to the national team, which could cost them early on. Last year Edinburgh’s conditioning stood them in good stead during the second half of the season, and they have made some good signings, but it’s hard to see them improving their league position significantly.
Champions Glasgow have made some marquee-ish signings, most notably the giant Naiyaravoro, but they’ve also lost two or three speedsters, although that could yet be a good thing given Matawalu’s ‘antics’ and the injury prone Maitland. In the back room they’ve taken steps to improve their stuttering forwards by signing Connacht’s Dan McFarland, who made Connacht’s scrum into a serious weapon and can do the same for Glasgow. They’ve a massive squad, but Glasgow have committed around 20 players to Scotland. They will probably lose some early games but will have enough to finish in the top four, but if they don’t get a home draw for the semi I can’t see them defending their title.
Leeks and leaks
Gatland has managed to plug the leak of Welsh talent out of the principality to some extent, but the biggest players will still be able to leave and play for the national team. Ospreys have probably the best depth of the four squads, and played some really exciting rugby when their internationals were home in the second half of last season. They’ve always had the forwards to beat up teams, and Biggar is such a quality fly half that even Gatty couldn’t ignore him any longer, but if Webb has both ankle and knee ligament damage as Wales Online are now reporting, then he is likely out for the season which may hamper them. Even then a top four finish is more than likely.
Scarlets look set to continue improving on last year’s form, and have made some canny signings including the giant lock Tom Price, relatively smaller prop Will Taylor and proven wing Van Der Merve. To what extent they will be a victim of their own success with more and more players away with Wales and Champions Cup qualification remains to be seen. The Welsh always give their best against the English teams so with Saints and Tigers in their group Scarlets should hope to qualify from second place if possible. They will do well to maintain last year’s sixth place.
Blues have their own little competition going with Connacht, to see who can be the most frustratingly inconsistent team. The Welsh team can be lethal inside your 5m line, and defend like dervishes behind their own 5m line, but everything in between is a space where anything goes. Some people are saying they can’t be as bad as last season, when their coach left midway, but I see no reason to believe they’ll suddenly play by numbers. One bright light is their 22 year old fly half Patchell, who looks really exciting and as a result will be overlooked by Wales for years to come. He fits their game style, has a massive and accurate boot, and is continuing to improve. Otherwise their squad is a mixture of Lions quality players who tend to underperform at pro12 level, and slightly above average journeymen who have the ability to rise to the challenge if the mood strikes. There is too much chaff in their squad to see them worrying seventh place or above.
Dragons used to be the worst Welsh team until they finished ahead of the Blues last season. To be quite honest they’re a bit of an enigma to me as they’re probably the Welsh team I’ve seen the least of. They’re not challenging at the top like Ospreys, nor exciting like Scarlets, not crackpots like Blues – they just appear to be in a perpetual state of Dragonsyness. They have managed to hold onto Faletau in fairness, and Amos is now capped, and they’ve signed a few players who should add genuine depth, but there’s very little for anyone to fear here. A mini battle between Edinburgh, Dragons and Blues awaits, and I’m tentatively backing Edinburgh to finish on top here.
Meat and three veg (I was already running out of titles on the last one)
Ulster are the Mayo of Irish – maybe even European – rugby. Every year they appear to be challengers, have a couple of exciting new youngsters, can rip anyone apart at home and are often pushing other teams close for the honours. But at the end of the day they’re overachieving, simply because their squad depth is non-existent for a competition winning team. Last year they managed to weather the Anscombe storm, although their fans appear no happier with the interim coaching ticket. They brought through some players like McCloskey, while others like Wilson and Williams are hanging around like overripe fruit on the vine. The reason those players are still there is because their competition is even worse. If you believe the Irish media, Irish rugby is producing new backrows like Catholics practicing natural birth control, but Ulster are a major exception in this regard, possibly for cultural reasons? Last season was Connacht’s best hope of winning in Ravenhill for decades so I see no reason to believe we can do it this year, but barring a massive surge from Scarlets, Ulster’s fourth place looks assured, unless Kiss bombs as a head coach, which would be a massive shock.
Munster have lost two liginds in DOC and POC, and although they’ve signed replacements it just won’t be the same, will it? A far stranger retirement was that of Johne Murphy, who left with very little fanfare despite five years service. He was, from the outside, an extremely handy utility back, as evidenced by his almost 100 caps. But after the email controversy everyone knew that what Foley thought of him, and it wasn’t good. How and ever, to decide to retire out of the blue in the middle of what should be preseason prep is extremely odd, and raises questions about Murphy, the Murphy-Foley relationship and indeed Foley’s wider relationship with his squad. Munster have made some signings, especially in the centre, but it looks like they will continue to live and die by their pack and the fortunes of the excellent CJ Stander. They dominated Glasgow in the set piece in last year’s final but were still utterly outclassed on the scoreboard, and it’s hard to see how they will make a significant change in that regard this year. However, with no one around them improving significantly, a top four finish seems unlikely to be missed.
If Leinster were any other team, the press would have declared them to be in full on meltdown mode this summer, as they jettisoned their coach and hobbled around like a drunk slurring at the hottest girls at the bar, making offers that many found they could easily refuse, thank you very much. They were so desperate even Cullen managed to hardball them into a two year deal. Because of the undoubted talent throughout the squad, their recent success and the return of Johnny and Isa, the obvious problems would seem to have been brushed under the carpet within the media at least. Their European group is horrendous but because of their recent pedigree they will have to take it seriously and will likely drop points in the league as a result. Admittedly there is quality and depth in certain areas, most obviously front and back rows. However, they haven’t replaced Douglas with anyone of note, their centres are either too young, too fragile, too hum-drum or a combination of all three. An injury or two in areas that are light on depth (most obviously second row) and they will be under serious pressure. Despite the aforementioned quality there is a rapidly aging section within the squad which presents a challenge to Cullen that he is almost certainly not capable of matching. This is Leinster’s one chance to blast a sweeping brush through the squad and cutting anyone deemed below standard, cutting anyone like Reid who looks increasingly unlikely to make the step up, or else a year or so down the line they will find themselves in deep Munster-transition-style muck. Depending on the European campaign, Ireland’s drag on resources and a couple of unlucky injuries, Leinster can finish anywhere between fourth and sixth.
Connacht, oh lovely Connacht, so green and … stoney. As I wrote a preseason ramble previously, there isn’t too much more to add to that. Last year Connacht improved massively on previous seasons through a mixture of S&C, video analysis, improved skills and top notch set plays. That last one is potentially under threat, and the first three will provide diminishing (though still important) returns from now on. Importantly, any losses from the squad have either been replaced or were aging players who were no longer making a significant impact on the season, despite their undoubted legendary status. The squads age profile is gradually improving, as it is wont to do, which will pay dividends in itself as a coterie of experienced young players increasingly provides the spine of the team. A major concern for me, apart from the kicking and restart issues previously highlighted, is that any team that played two sevens against us last year – Glasgow, Ospreys, Edinburgh, Scarlets – had an uninterrupted supply of quick ball and turnovers which killed our momentum and opportunities. Buckley has improved as an openside prop but that can’t be enough against two specialist opensides – Heenan and Fox will be hugely important to the outcome of this season. 12 wins is the generally accepted target, and when you consider how easily the games against the Blues could have ended in wins last year it doesn’t seem so outlandish. We have a good opening run at home that should allow us to develop a good record like last year, as long as no one gets complacent about it. Rather than trying to revolutionize the game plan, it’s about incremental progress against teams like the Blues and Edinburgh around or below us, and not giving away points cheaply at home against the likes of Glasgow and Ospreys. LBPs are not a target in themselves but if you recall the loss of the LBP in games against Ulster, Leinster and Ospreys last year, a little more concentration in the last 20 minutes can pay off in itself. Though this incremental progress is easily identified, it’s also long been the weakest part of the Connacht game. Connacht can finish sixth if Heenan makes it through a full season, seventh if injuries take more than one or two front liners at once, eighth if Dan was the key to the pack’s success after all.