By Brendan Cole
Irish provinces have won five of the last eight RaboDirect PRO12 titles and five of the last eight Heineken Cups. That level of success will be all but impossible to sustain in Europe but continued dominance on the League front is well within the compass of the Irish provinces.
Among the Celtic and Italian teams, Irish rugby is the big fish to the extent we may see three out of four Irish provinces qualify for the play-offs for the first time since 2009-10.
That said, we may also see some slippage from Leinster and Munster this year.
Taking Leinster first, the dual loss of Joe Schmidt to the Ireland job and Jonathan Sexton to Racing Metro is sure to have some impact on the field.
Under Schmidt, Sexton’s devastatingly effective mix of loops and short passes allowed Leinster to create defensive confusion across virtually every opposition backline they faced, all with relatively low risk of turnover or error.
However, Sexton’s replacement, Ian Madigan, has a different style based around a sharp break. Unpredictability is a key to his game and that could see the Leinster backline blow hot and cold at different times in the season, while Isa Nacewa’s retirement robs them of another source of attacking flair out wide.
Springbok Zane Kirchner is a good replacement, but supporters can expect consistently good execution rather than improvisation from the 29-year-old.
Leinster have made a clear improvement in the pack, addressing the lack of an abrasive hitter to play alongside Leo Cullen by bringing in Mike McCarthy (above). A host of other significant building blocks remain in place from Mike Ross and Cian Healy in the front row, to Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip at flanker and number eight.
Laying the foundation for a new approach in the backs is one of the big challenges for new coach Matt O’Connor. Keeping things fresh for a squad that has achieved all there is to achieve in the last few years is another.
At Munster, out-half and coaching are also key to how the season will be judged. The headline news is that Ronan O’Gara will not be competing for the red number ten jersey for virtually the first time in the professional era.
Doug Howlett also departs the scene, robbing Munster of leadership and much needed quality in the wide areas, though Andrew Conway is a good acquisition from Leinster based on his form at the back end of last season and Gerhard van den Heever is an interesting signing with a reputation for huge pace from the Bulls.
Increased pace out wide may help coach Rob Penny play in the style he really wants.
The back row could also step up a level. CJ Stander, another with massive pace, looked a potential star last year and should build on that promise this term, while Peter O’Mahony (below) will relish the captaincy.
Elsewhere, Munster have Lions Test players at scrum-half and second row in Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell, a South African World Cup winner at tight-head in BJ Botha and one of the brightest young talents in European rugby on the wing in Simon Zebo. O’Connell may no longer be captain, but any team with him at its heart is capable of achieving extraordinary things.
There are reasons for concern alongside those positives. Munster were sixth in the League last year, performing poorly as often as not. And while their run to the Heineken Cup semi-final was heartening, there were hints of tension between coaches and players. The change to a more typical Munster style wrong-footed Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, but if it came on foot of rejection of Penney’s coaching philosophy then it must be a worry for this season.
And what of the talismanic O’Gara? The Munster kingpin who knew how to give them the best possible chance of winning on the big days, and always believed they could do it. Stepping into the role is a major test for Ian Keatley. Retaining the mindset is a challenge for the entire squad.
Having come close in both the PRO12 and Europe over the last two seasons, Ulster may now be the best placed of the Irish provinces even though it has been a quiet off-season in terms of new signings.
Ulster have recruited wisely over the last few seasons. In John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Mueller and the soon-to-be Irish qualified Jared Payne, they have arguably the best group of imports of any Irish province. The homegrown talent is also strong with Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson and Rory Best among those in the front rank and the likes of Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy not far behind.
Ulster could also get contributions from other areas.
The backline looks set to benefit from the continued progress of the likes of Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding, while Ricky Hutton at tight-head could yet develop enough to be influential over the course of the Pro12 season in the way that Nick Williams, the archetypal project player, came good last season.
And while it is an outside shot, if Stephen Ferris can regain his fitness Ulster could find themselves with an extremely powerful back row just in time for the second half of the season.
"Ulster may now be the best placed of the Irish provinces"
The one caveat is that while things look good in the pack and outside backs, getting the blend right at scrum-half and out-half has proved problematic over the last couple of seasons.
Head coach Mark Anscombe must resolve a ‘two-into-three’ dilemma, deciding whether to pair Pienaar with Paddy Jackson or Paul Marshall. The difficulty is that while Pienaar may be more influential from scrum-half, Marshall arguably offers more to the team than Jackson.
Having largely favoured Jackson in big games over the last two seasons, Ulster may need to take a chance on a different combination if they are to change the pattern of falling short in the bigger matches. Whatever happens, Ulster look well coached and likely to present an even stiffer League challenge than before and they could be best placed to take advantage of any slippage from Leinster.
Connacht enter the season in relatively optimistic mode with a new coaching team headed by Pat Lam and an eighth place PRO12 finish last year, which gives them something to build on.
Gavin Duffy’s pre-season cheekbone injury is ill-timed though it gives Robbie Henshaw further opportunity to continue his progress, while the arrival of New Zealander Craig Clarke on a three-year contract is a statement of intent that offsets the loss of McCarthy to Leinster. Clarke has captained the Waikato Chiefs to two Super Rugby titles in the last two seasons and is sure to be a force in the second row in the PRO12. On the wing, Fionn Carr is back after a spell where he was unable to consistently get first team rugby with Leinster should work for both player.
The new scrum laws could also be a plus as it has often been an Achilles heel for Connacht. If the phase does end up being somewhat depowered by the reduced hit, Connacht may find they can compete against sides with noted tight-heads like Leinster, Ulster and the Ospreys.
The lineout may become that bit more important and with Dan Parks in situ at out-half and Clarke a noted lineout operator, a gameplan based on territory and competing out of touch could pay dividends. The extra cutting edge Carr brings, he is just 27 and still the province’s record try-scorer, should give supporters something to get excited about.
An extra win here and bonus point there could make all the difference and Connacht could yet improve on last season’s finish, with a few others possibly dipping below the standard they have set in previous years.
Looking at the rest of the League, the Welsh teams, who have traditionally provided the strongest resistance to Irish dominance, have had a particularly disheartening off-season with Kahn Fotuali’i, George North, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate departing for England and France.
The Dragons, who have lost Lydiate, look set to continue as the weakest of the bunch. They have been unable to finish in the top half of the table in almost 10 years and nothing indicates they will improve substantially on last year’s 11th place finish even though they have held on to Wales number eight Toby Faletau.
The Ospreys, fifth last year, have suffered the most damaging loss with the brilliant Fotuali’i departing for Northampton. That is certain to make itself felt on the League table and while the four-time PRO12 champions still boast a formidable pack and good midfield, the lack of big money names among their ranks may see them decline.
At Cardiff, new recruits Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins add strength to the front row, while Welsh internationals Sam Warburton, Bradley Davies, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny are retained. The loss of Jamie Roberts to Racing Metro may be not be that damaging. On the other hand, the Blues put in some poor League performances last season, even when fielding apparently strong XVs, and that inconsistency could prove costly again. One interesting point to watch will be the new artificial pitch at Cardiff Arms Park, which is almost sure to play faster than a traditional surface and could provide an advantage for the home team over the season.
It may be that Llanelli, coached by ex-Ireland international Simon Easterby, will be the strongest Welsh challenger again despite the loss of North. The tight five is suspect on the European stage, but Rhys Priestland is a good fulcrum for a young and energetic team that looks to play expansive, high-paced rugby. Scottish international John Barclay, signed from Glasgow, is a good addition to the back row.
Elsewhere, the two Italian teams look set to continue to struggle, though Treviso should pick up the odd good result despite the loss of Italy international Tomaso Benvenuti to Perpignan.
In Scotland, Edinburgh also look like to lack the player quality to turn their fortunes around quickly under former Ulster boss Alan Solomons taking over. Glasgow are a different proposition. Barclay is a loss but Gregor Townsend’s side have adapted to the likes of Richie Gray opting to move on in the past and have a good concentration of talent well spread across the pitch with genuine dangermen in the backline in the shape of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland.
The acquisition of ball-playing forwards Richie Vernon and the Fijian Leone Nakarawa indicates that the they will continue to play the eye-catching brand of offload-driven rugby that almost caught Leinster out in last year’s semi-final.
Smart recruitment, consistently good coaching and their performances against Munster and Leinster at the back-end of last year, give them the look of the best of the non-Irish contenders.
A play-off quarter of Ulster, Glasgow, Leinster and Llanelli would repeat last year’s grouping and despite the comings and goings, that may be what we end up with again, though Munster, Cardiff and the Ospreys may yet end up having a say come the play-offs.