By Bernard Jackman
The RaboDirect PRO12 starts this weekend and there is a real feel of what people in business call a “soft opening” about it all.
In Ireland, it has traditionally been the Heineken Cup that really gets the juices flowing, while the interprovincial derbies being of most interest in the domestic competition.
This time, I am really looking forward to the opening rounds of the PRO12 as it is a great opportunity to see the next generation of talent.
We will also get a first opportunity to look at the new approaches Matt O’Connor and Pat Lam will bring to Leinster and Connacht, and any adjustments Rob Penney and Mark Anscombe make at Munster and Ulster.
Looking at Munster first, they appeared to have turned the corner late in the season last year with a great win away at Harlequins and a heroic performance in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont.
But their PRO12 form last year was very poor, with 11 wins and 10 defeats and Rob Penney will be very aware that they must be much more consistent this season.
They were very inflexible for much of last season, sticking with the ‘wide-wide’ pattern of attack that Penney successfully used to win ITM cup with Canterbury in New Zealand.
It will be very interesting to see how they start this season in terms of their attacking shape. Personally, I think Munster are at their best when they play flat on the gain line with a nice balance between playing off 9 and 10.
The ‘wide-wide’ approach negated Conor Murray’s strength as a ball carrier around the fringes and I expect them to be play a lot more “same way” patterns this season, keeping the ball under the nose of their forwards. That plays to James Downey’s physicality and ability to get over the gain line from first centre.
In the outside backs, Munster have replaced Dougie Howlett with a South African Gerard van den Heever.
He does not have the same CV as Howlett but having spent a week with the Stormers in May, I can say that Van den Heever is a very impressive athlete. He is big, fast and powerful, and could prove to be a shrewd signing when he arrives after the Currie Cup in November.
Aside from their patterns, the key is keeping Paul O’Connell and BJ Botha fit for the big games if they are to contend for trophies.
Ulster were much more consistent, making the PRO12 final and winning 24 from 31 matches last season. Good things are happening on the field under Anscombe and off it, where David Humphreys is in charge. Ravenhill, newly extended, should remain a fortress.
Luke Marshall is fit again after his concussion problems and in the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy, Ulster have an excellent backline roster to combine with a tough looking pack.
They look ready to win silverware this season.
Both Leinster and Munster are down a leader and an outhalf with one-time rivals Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton set to combine their talent and knowledge at Racing Metro in the Top 14.
Racing have made a steady start to the season over here, beating two of the weaker teams on paper at home in Oyonnax and Brive and losing to two of the strongest away in Toulon and Toulouse.
It is never easy to integrate a new coaching staff with a vastly changed squad quickly, and it is even harder in France due to the language barrier and the short preseason. It is too early to say how the experiment will turn out.
More important from the Irish perspective is that the departures open the door for others.
Leinster reacted to Sexton’s departure by enticing New Zealander Jimmy Gopperth to join and he is a very shrewd signing with an excellent kicking game.
Ian Madigan, the most impressive back in the PRO12 last season, is the other contender. Is it case of picking one or the other?
Leinster may decide to try and get both players into the same starting team by playing Madigan at centre or full-back as Joe Schmidt did towards the end of last season.
The coaching change is the other big intangible at Leinster and O’Connor is a little unfortunate in the timing of his arrival with Sexton, Heinke Van Der Merwe, Damien Browne and Isa Nacewa all exiting at the same time.
Can he take Leinster forward? Everything I have heard about O’Connor has been positive. We have five players who worked with him at the Brumbies here in Grenoble and they speak very highly of his ability. The reports from Leicester and now Leinster are that he is technically and tactically top class.
He was head coach at Leicester when they scored the most tries of all the teams in the Aviva last season and I expect Leinster to continue to be an attacking side under his watch.
It looks like Lote Tuquiri will be signed to boost the back three options and if he can show any of the try scoring ability which saw him score 30 tries for the Wallabies he will add value.
There is still a lot of experienced players, combined with a strong academy. Leinster will be serious contenders for silverware again this season.
Connacht start an exciting new phase under Pat Lam. Their academy has unearthed lots of bright talent recently under Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy, while the Waikato Chiefs Super 15 winning captain Craig Clarke looks to be an excellent signing by the Connacht Branch.
Lam’s backs coach will not arrive for another month and while that is not ideal all the talk coming from the west has been positive about his ideas and vision for the team.
They look stronger on-and-off the field and that is a good thing for Irish rugby as we need four strong provinces competing week in week out for us.
Hopefully that’s what we will see over the next few weeks.