Dublin, Ireland – September 5th was the beginning of a new era for the Celtic League or as it is more commonly known – the Pro 12. During a tumultuous off-season, it gained a new sponsor in Guinness, somehow managed to avoid some sides folding and survived the Welsh Rugby Civil War. So now, all the attention can be focused once again on the on-field action and the question: Who will win the first Guinness Pro12?
Alex Allan (Edinburgh), Murray McConnell (Ayr RFC), Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), James Downey (Munster), Rossouw de Klerk (Cheetahs), Connor Braid (Canada BC Bears)
Moray Low (Exeter Chiefs), Chris Cusiter (Sale Sharks), Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps), Ed Kalman (retired), Byron McGuigan, Finlay Gillies, Gabriel Ascárate (all released), Scott Wight to Scotland (Melrose RFC), Carlin Isles, Folau Niua (USA Sevens)
Analysis: Coach Gregor Townsend and his charges got to the final last year and experienced the pressure and intensity of a final. They now know what they have to do to take that next step to move from finalists to winners and they will do so this year.
Sam Coghlan Murray, Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Luke McGrath, Collie O’Shea, James Tracy (all Academy), Kane Douglas (Waratahs), Sean McCarthy (Jersey), Ben Te’o (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
Leo Auva’a (Benetton Treviso), Andrew Boyle, Andrew Goodman (tbc), John Cooney, Quinn Roux (both Connacht, loan), Leo Cullen, Brian O’Driscoll (both retired), Conor Gilsenan (London Irish), Darren Hudson, Jack O’Connell (both Bristol)
Analysis: Head coach Matt O’Connor has brought a style of play that is far more pragmatic and less fun than previous coach (and now Irish national team coach) Joe Schimdt‘s Leinster-tainment. MOC-ball is a bit more limited and the continued preference of Jimmy Gopperth over Ian Madigan has left fans miffed. Combine that with the retirement of the great Brian O’Driscoll and it just seems that the individual player talent will only carry the Dublin boys so far.
3) Cardiff Blues
Craig Mitchell (Exeter Chiefs), Ieuan Jones (Newport Gwent Dragons), Adam Thomas (Wales Sevens), George Watkins (Bristol), Tavis Knoyle (Gloucester), Josh Turnbull (Scarlets), Jarrad Hoeata (Highlanders), Manoa Vosawai (Benetton Treviso), Geraint Walsh (Pontypridd), Gareth Anscombe (Chiefs), Adam Jones (Ospreys)
Andries Pretorius (Worcester Warriors), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), Sam Warburton (Welsh Rugby Union), Robin Copeland (Munster), Bradley Davies (Wasps), James Down (London Welsh), Harry Robinson (Scarlets), Chris Czekaj (US Colomiers), Luke Hamilton (SU Agen), Alex Walker (Ealing Trailfinders), Isaia Tuifua, Benoit Bourrust (both released)
Analysis: The very much maligned Mark Hammett is now the head coach of the Blues. Hammett was never ready for the spotlight and pressure of Super Rugby but he may be just the right person at the just the right time for the Blues. There are a number of quality additions to the side and combine that with Hammett’s focus on team chemistry and the Blues may just have the “Band of Brothers” attitude to do very well this season.
Martin Kelly (Dublin University), Shane Buckley, Jonathan Holland (both Academy), Robin Copeland (Cardiff Blues), Tyler Bleyendaal (Crusaders), Andrew Smith (Brumbies)
James Coughlan (Pau), Ian Nagle (released), Niall Ronan (retired), James Downey (Glasgow Warriors), Casey Laulala (Racing Métro), Quentin MacDonald (Chiefs)
Analysis: The acrimonious departure of Rob Penney as coach by the Cork Constitution gang that make up the Munster leadership means this is now the Axel Foley era. Axel being a long time Munster guy should re-invigorate the masses. However, with a lack of quality brought in and the steep learning curve for a first year head coach, Munster will just barely make the playoffs.
Ian Humphreys (London Irish), Ruaidhrí Murphy (Brumbies), Wiehahn Herbst (Sharks), Dave Ryan (Zebre), Franco van der Merwe (Lions), Louis Ludik (SU Agen), Charlie Butterworth (Lansdowne), Sean Reidy (Counties Manukau), Devin Montgomery (Wits)
Tom Court (London Irish), John Afoa (Gloucester), Johann Muller, Paddy Wallace, Chris Cochrane, Stephen Ferris (all retired), Niall Annett (Worcester Warriors), Chris Farrell (FC Grenoble), Adam Macklin, James McKinney (both Rotherham Titans), Paddy McAllister (Aurillac), Ian Porter (Connacht), David McIlwaine (Yorkshire Carnegie), Sean Doyle (Brumbies)
Analysis: Last season was a step back for the Ulstermen. They made the final the previous season but could not get the mix of form and fitness right and it held them back from competing early on. They have had some key players leave and retire and the unceremonious dumping of Mark Anscombe as head coach will make it that there were too much off season transitions for them to overcome and make the playoffs.
Tom McCartney (Blues), Finlay Bealham , Shane Layden, Darragh Leader, Jack Carty, Conor Finn (all Academy), Quinn Roux, John Cooney (both Leinster, loan), Ian Porter (Ulster), Bundee Aki, Mils Muliaina (both Chiefs), Shane O’Leary (Grenoble), Niyi Adeolokun (Dublin University)
James Rael, Aaron Conneely, Frank Murphy, Paul O’Donohoe, Brian Murphy (all released), Brett Wilkinson, Craig Clarke, Kyle Tonetti (all retired due to injury), Dave Nolan (Bourgoin), Dan Parks (retired), Eoin Griffin (London Irish), Gavin Duffy (Mayo Football)
Analysis: Coach Pat Lam is trying to make rugby relevant in the Gaelic Football heartland of Connacht. Lam took over as things were starting to progress and now has the team making huge strides forward. A huge Heineken Cup upset last year was the start, he has them winning games they should and stealing victories in games they should lose. The key will be the continued growth of local boy Robbie Henshaw as a player and leader which will be aided by the arrival of 100 cap All Black Mils Muliaina. No playoffs this season but marked improvement.
Sam Parry, Dan Evans (both Dragons), Josh Matavesi (Worcester Warriors), Rynier Bernardo (Eastern Province Kings), Gareth Thomas (Carmarthen Quins), Cai Griffiths (London Welsh), Martin Roberts (Bath)
Richard Hibbard, Tom Isaacs (both Gloucester), Joe Rees (Worcester Warriors), Matthew Morgan, Ryan Jones, Ian Evans (all Bristol), Adam Jones (Cardiff Blues)
Analysis: First Ospreys were the victim of French raids, then the old enemy that is the English plucked the really choice players and when they were really weak, fellow region Cardiff came for their cornerstone prop, Adam Jones. They still have guys like Alun-Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar but with them away on national team duty often, there is just enough talent to give them any chance of making the playoffs.
Regan King (Clermont Auvergne), Harry Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Peter Edwards (London Welsh), Rory Pitman (Wasps), Chris Hala’ufia (London Irish), Michael Tagicakibau (Saracens)
Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Blues), Aled Thomas (Gloucester), Deacon Manu (Hong Kong Cricket Club (Head Coach)), Sione Timani (Tarbes), Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Nic Reynolds, Olly Barkley (both London Welsh)
Analysis: The departure of Simon Easterby and the promotion of Wayne Pivac was not necessarily a bad thing. Pivac was the former coach of Auckland in the ITM Cup so he has a good track record of developing young players. He will need it because the cupboard is bare in Llanelli. They will lean heavily on youth and veterans like Regan King will be somewhere between coach, player and mentor as they try to get the team stepping in the right direction. Making the most of national team forwards Samson Lee and Jake Ball when they are available will help their chances.
9) Newport-Gwent Dragons
Aled Brew (Biarritz Olympique), Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), Rhys Buckley (Moseley), Boris Stankovich (Leicester Tigers), Ian Gough (London Irish),Dave Young (Jersey), Rynard Landman (Cheetahs), Lloyd Fairbrother (Exeter Chiefs), Andy Powell (Wigan Warriors), Brok Harris (Stormers)
Ieuan Jones (Cardiff Blues), Will Harries, Jevon Groves, Kris Burton (all released), Sam Parry, Dan Evans (both Ospreys), Steffan Jones (Bedford Blues), Robert Sidoli (retired), Darren Waters (London Welsh)
Analysis: The Dragons have made some wise purchases this summer and brought in experienced players that can help the side. Unfortunately most of these guys are on the other side of the mountain and quickly gathering downhill pace. They will need the youth to rise to the challenge and as promising a coach as Kingsley Jones has shown over his career, it will take time to mold this team and this is the first year so the will begin their journey finish just above the bottom 3.
Neil Cochrane (Wasps), John Andress (Worcester Warriors), Rory Sutherland (Gala RFC), Tom Heathcote (Bath), Michael Tait, Fraser McKenzie (both Newcastle Falcons), Jamie Ritchie (Howe of Fife RFC), Phil Burleigh (Highlanders), Anton Bresler (Natal Sharks), Brett Thompson (USA Sevens)
Steven Lawrie, Ben Cairns (both retired), Alun Walker, Lewis Niven, Robert McAlpine, Izak van der Westhuizen, Dimitri Basilaia, Alex Black, Chris Leck, Piers Francis, Gregor Hunter, Lee Jones (all released), Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Geoff Cross, Sean Cox (both London Irish), Perry Parker (Rotherham Titans), Ross Rennie (Bristol), Greig Laidlaw, Aleki Lutui (both Gloucester), Harry Leonard (Yorkshire Carnegie), Nick De Luca (Biarritz Olympique)
Analysis: Head coach Alan Solomons is in the process of a massive reclamation job. Edinburgh have not shown any signs over the last few seasons that they are anything but a bottom 3 side. Last season though they did finish 9th which was the first time in 3 years they finish in not 10th or worse. However, everybody has gotten better and Edinburgh has lost a lot of decent players and have not brought in enough professional standard players that can make a difference.
Davide Giazzon, Ruggero Trevisan (both Zebre), Bruno Mercanti, Romulo Acosta, Josè Francisco Novak (all Petrarca Padova), Albert Anae (Reds), Rupert Harden (Gloucester), Salesi Manu, Jayden Hayward (both Western Force), Matteo Zanusso (Amatori San Donà), Meyer Swanepoel, Marco Barbini, Alberto Lucchese, Enrico Bacchin, Amar Kudin (all Mogliano), Tomas Vallejos Cinalli (West Red Sparks), Leo Auva’a (Leinster), Matt Luamanu (Kyuden Voltex), Henry Seniloli (Tailevu Knights), Joe Carlisle (Wasps), Simone Ragusi (Rovigo Delta), Sam Christie (Waikato)
Tobias Botes (Eastern Province Kings), Alberto De Marchi, Luke McLean (both Sale Sharks), Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps), Brendan Williams (retired), Manoa Vosawai (Cardiff Blues), Christian Loamanu, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Robert Barbieri, Michele Rizzo (all Leicester Tigers), Alberto Di Bernardo (Lille MR), Valerio Bernabò (Zebre), Matt Berquist (Hawke’s Bay), Enrico Ceccato (Rovigo Delta), Pedro Di Santo (Uru Curè), Marco Filippucci, Fabio Semenzato, Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet (all Mogliano)
Analysis: Just looking at the list of players leaving lets you know that something is up. After finishing 7th in 2012/13, they finished 11th last season and legendary coach Franco Smith has stepped down. Too much turnover in all corners for them to finish anywhere but 11th again.
Giulio Bisegni, Oliviero Fabiani (both Lazio Rugby), Hennie Daniller, Andries Ferreira (both Cheetahs), Andrea Lovotti, Kelly Haimona, Lorenzo Romano, Michele Visentin (all Calvisano), Valerio Bernabò (Benetton Treviso), Edoardo Padovani (Mogliano), Mirco Bergamasco (Rovigo Delta), Jacopo Sarto Petrarca (Padova)
Dave Ryan (Ulster), Salvatore Perugini (retired), Paolo Buso (Olympique de Grasse), Emiliano Caffini (Rovigo Delta), Nicola Cattina, Kameli Ratuvou (both released), Filippo Cazzola (Fiamme Oro), Roberto Quartaroli (Viadana), Ruggero Trevisan, Davide Giazzon (both Benetton Treviso), Michael van Vuuren (Mogliano)
Analysis: One must remember that Zebre is a project for the Italian Rugby Union, similar to how Connacht was a project for the IRFU. That said this project has a long way to go and unfortunately this will be another season where they will be nothing more than cannon fodder.
Play-off semi-final: Cardiff v Glasgow
Play-off semi-final: Leinster v Munster
Final: Glasgow v Leinster
A rematch of last season’s final but a very different result this time around.
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.