By Brendan Cole
GUINNESS PRO12 FIXTURES
Saturday 6 September
Llanelli Scarlets v Ulster (2.40pm - Sky Sports)
Connacht v Newport Dragons (5pm)
Glasgow Warriors v Leinster (5.15pm - Sky Sports)
Sunday 7 September
Zebre v Cardiff Blues (4pm)
Llanelli Scarlets v Ulster (Saturday, 2.40pm)
Both these sides have new coaches Ulster and Mark Anscombe having parted ways over the summer and Llanelli losing Simon Easterby to the Ireland set-up. Wayne Pivac, a former team-mate of Anscombe’s, takes over the Welsh region while Les Kiss has taken over Ulster on what is, initially at least, an interim basis.
UIster have also had a turbulent off-season. The retention of Ruan Pienaar after interest from France is a boost, though he will be absent for the start of the season due to Rugby Championship duty with South Africa.
But the end of John Afoa's time with the province will have a major impact on Ulster’s league campaign. Arguably the most influential player in the Pro12 over the last couple of seasons, the former All Black brought destructive scrummaging, power and skills in the open field and an ability to produce superb performances in the biggest games. A huge loss.
The 25-year-old Wiehahn Herbst, signed from the Sharks, has the pedigree to be an excellent tighthead but Ulster cannot expect him to replicate the impact of Afoa.
Almost as hard a blow is the decision of Ulster legend and director of rugby David Humphreys to leave, like Afoa, for Gloucester.
Johann Muller (retired) is also out of the reckoning while the end of the Stephen Ferris rehabilitation project is another disappointment.
On the field, half-back remains a major area of concern. The return of Ian Humphreys for a second stint with the province could be a solution of sorts though the dilemma presented by the fact that Pienaar is both the best scrum-half and the best out-half at the club looks set to remain.
For the Scarlets, the high-class Regan King is the man to watch having returned to Wales after a four-year stint in France with Clermont. Llanelli had a disappointing season last year but on home soil and against an Ulster side without some key players can get their season off to a winning start.
Verdict: Llanelli Scarlets 24-15 Ulster
Connacht v Newport Dragons (Saturday, 5pm)
While there has been turmoil in other provinces, Connacht have had a good off-season and are in position to build on the solid base put in place by head coach Pat Lam last year.
Robbie Henshaw was retained, the services of Mils Muliaina secured and other potential young stars like Jake Heenan and Kieran Marmion are in position to kick on. There will also be interest in the progress of the young out-half Jack Carty after he lined out to good effect in some big games towards the end of last season.
In Newport, Connacht face a side who have a scattering of Welsh international players in their pack – the biggest name being Toby Faletau, though he doesn’t play this game. Andrew Coombs, an excellent lineout forward, is in the team and they also have Lee Byrne, returned from France, and a handy out-half in Jason Tovey.
Connacht have a few of their better players in reserve, with Marmion on the bench and Henshaw and Muliaina not in the squad.
A tight battle looks on the cards and on home soil, Connacht may just shade it.
Verdict: Connacht 24-14 Newport Dragons
Glasgow Warriors v Leinster (5.15pm)
The headline clash on opening weekend pits Pro12 champions Leinster against beaten finalists Glasgow. Leinster were buoyed by the announcement during the week that Jonathan Sexton will return next season but the major negative for Leinster is the loss of Brian O’Driscoll.
Over the season, Leinster will struggle mightily to replace his remarkable productivity on the field, let alone the many intangibles he brought both on and off the pitch.
As regards what to do next in the position, there are number of options and combinations available among the existing squad and a new signing: Ben Te'o from NRL outfit the Rabbitohs.
A powerful player with speed and size, Te'o is due to arrive when the NRL season ends in early October, and looks the type Leinster may need if they are to compete against the bigger Top 14 sides.
Up front, Leinster’s deficiencies in the tight-five are a long-standing issue with a mixture of Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Leo Cullen (retired) and a number of project players never quite convincing, though Toner's progress has been impressive.
The signing of Kane Douglas, an Australian in the Nathan Hines mould, looks a good one and may give Leinster the powerful and aggressive figurehead they have lacked.
Glasgow will expect to shade this clash having committed more frontliners to the fray.
But Leinster have high-impact players in their starting pack in the shape of Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien and a good front row.
If they get big performances from one or two other areas in the team, perhaps the likes of Shane Jennings and Dominic Ryan in the back-row, they might just spring a surprise of sorts.
Verdict: Glasgow 14-18 Leinster