RWU HEADQUARTERS – It’s finally September, finally time for one of the most exciting events in world rugby…the opening weekend of the Guinness Pro12! Well, maybe not as exciting as the World Cup, but it is an exciting time for European club rugby nonetheless. The Pro12 will certainly have a noticeable lack of big name players due to the upcoming Rugby World Cup, but competition will be fierce not only between clubs, but between players jostling for roster spots before the inevitable return of the big name stars. With Round 1 starting tomorrow, let’s dive in and preview Friday’s opening fixtures (the starting XV’s for Saturday’s and Sunday’s games have not been released yet so I will devote attention to Friday’s games).
Connacht Rugby vs. Newport Gwent Dragons
The Sportgrounds Galway; Kickoff from 11:30 AM PST on Friday, 4 September
-Connacht: Head Coach, Pat Lam, has delivered a fairly strong lineup for the western province’s opening clash against Welsh side Newport Gwent Dragons. After a seventh place finish in last year’s campaign and a well fought Champions Cup play-off loss to Gloucester in May, Connacht will start an improved and strengthened forward pack. An experienced front row in Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, and Irish international Rodney Ah You should see the Irish side make a good opening impression at scrum-time. The signings of open side flanker Nepia Fox-Matamua from ITM Cup side Auckland and centre-half Rory Parata from the Academy should provide depth in positions where Connacht struggled with injuries during the last campaign. With former Leinster lock Ben Marshall on the bench ready to lend his experience, the men in green could see through their fifth opening weekend win in six years with a strong performance.
-Dragons: After finishing ninth in last year’s competition, the Newport Gwent Dragons will be looking to improve on the form they showed in the last six rounds of the 2014-15 Guinness Pro12 where they claimed four impressive wins and made a last-minute surge in the standings. Head coach Lyn Jones has named a relatively inexperienced side for their first game in Galway, with five players making their first caps for the Welsh side. The Dragons back line will be led by the experienced Jason Tovey at 10 (842 points in 143 caps), providing the new signings, South African scrum-half Sarel Pretorius (Central Cheetahs) and Welsh winger Nick Scott (London Welsh) a guide to rugby at Rodney Parade. Expect this new backline to prove their worth against the Connacht backs. In the forwards, two new front row signings in the Kiwi Boris Stankovich (Leicester Tigers) and the Englishman Shaun Knight (Glouchester) should help improve a Dragons scrum that looked vulnerable at many times during last season’s campaign.
Prediction: Connacht 24-17 Dragons
Edinburgh Rugby vs. Leinster Rugby
Meggetland, Edinburgh; Kickoff from 11:35 AM PST on Friday, 4 September
-Edinburgh: Head coach Alan Solomon’s team come into this opening weekend fixture missing nine players international duty, one to Tonga and eight others to Scotland. Edinburgh are in good form coming into this game, with two wins from two in their pre-season fixtures against Ulster last weekend and Romania the weekend before (yes Romania). Resuming their 9–10 partnership after an impressive performance in last weeks win over Ulster are returning players Phil Burleigh and scrum-half Nathan Fowles. They will be leading a young back line headlined by outside centre Chris Dean, a crossover from the Scotland7’s squad who has the speed and agility to make plenty of line breaks. Rory Sutherland, Neil Cochrane and John Andress will all start their sophomore seasons at loosehead, hooker, and tighthead respectively, while the forward pack will be rounded out and led by former Highlanders and Canterbury man Nasi Manu, making his first appearance in red and black. With the form they showed in their preseason games, Edinburgh should put on a performance better than they’re youthful experience leads to believe.
-Leinster: The boys in blue will hope to start a new chapter in the post-Joe Schmidt era with a win for new coach Leo Cullen. A former captain and forward for Leinster, Cullen has put out a strong side after seeing his team through preseason wins over Ulster at Ravenhill and a 68–0 rout of Moseley in Dublin. Leinster will call on 11 internationals for Friday’s clash against Edinburgh, making it one of the strongest teams named in the Pro12 despite World Cup call ups. Michael Bent, Aaron Dundon, and Mike McCarthy are the stars of the front five, with Kevin McLaughlin making his 115th appearance for the province at blindside flanker and Irish international, Jack Conan, playing at 8. Apart from rookie Cathal Marsh at fly half, the Leinster back line is composed of all returning players and will certainly have the upper hand against the younger Edinburgh backs. Fergus McFadden will start on the right wing, joint top try scorer from last year Darragh Fanning will be on the left, and the strong pair of Noel Reed and rugby league convert Ben Te’o will round out the centers. Most excitingly, Leinster legend Isa Nacewa returns after a year long “retirement”, hoping to better his already amazing 390 points in 126 caps. Isaac boss will also be on the bench as a reserve scrum half after getting axed from Joe Schmidt’s 31-man World Cup squad. There is a lot of promise on this Leinster team, and we’ll wait and see if they deliver as expected.
Prediction: Edinburgh 20-40 Leinster
Ulster Rugby vs. Ospreys
Kingspan Stadium, Belfast; Kickoff from 11:35 AM PST on Friday, 4 September
-Ulster: The Ulstermen will start out the 2015–16 campaign with a strong lineup looking to better last year’s run to the quarter-finals. Ulster’s all-time leading try scorer, Andrew Trimble, will make his 189th start for the province after being left out of Joe Schmidt’s Irish Rugby World Cup squad. Luke Marshall at scrum-half, Paul Marshall at outside centre, and Craig Gilroy on the left-wing will ensure a high degree of experience remains on the team even in the absence of Darren Cave and Jared Payne on international duties. In the forward’s Ulster will look to 2nd rowers Dan Tuohy and Franco van de Merwe to provide an extra push at scrummages, an area that Ulster excelled in during several parts of last season. South African Nick Williams returns from suspension to provide the speed and power at 8 that Ulster lacked in the preseason, while hooker and captain Rob Herring hopes to put his experience on display in an otherwise inexperienced front row. With more than enough tested players around the pitch, look for Ulster to have an all round good performance with some flair around the fringes.
-Ospreys: The Ospreys starting XV might just be one of the hardest hit teams in the Pro12 as a whooping 12 players are on international duties. 9 of those players, including the likes of Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, and Rhys Webb, are in the Welsh RWC pool, with the other three being Jeff Hassler and Tyler Ardron in the Canadian game and Josh Matavesi with the Fijians. In spite of this, head coach Steve Tandy has still named a good team to travel across the Irish sea and play the Ulstermen. 24-year-old Lloyd Ashley captains the team from lock, bringing his 48 caps in all competitions to lead the Osprey’s two biggest off-season signings, South African De Kock Steenkamp (Stormers and Western Province) and Welshman Gareth Delve (Green Rockets Japan). Blindside flanker, Lloyd Evans, will make his first Guinness Pro12 start after being brought up from the Ospreys academy. In the backs, scrum-half Tom Habberfield is set to make his 50th appearance for the Welsh side, with 2013 IRB Junior Player of the Year, Sam Davies, at flyhalf. The powerful coupling of Ben John and Jonathan Spratt in the centre should provide the Ospreys with the necessary fire power to really challenge the Ulster back line. The Ospreys will have to do a good job of controlling the powerful Ulster pack and flashy back line, but if they can play touchline to touchline rugby Steve Tandy just might see his side’s trip to Ravenhill turn into a win.
Prediction: Ulster Rugby 25-17 Ospreys
Glasgow Warriors vs. Scarlets
Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow; Kickoff from 9:15 AM PST on Saturday, 5 September
-Glasgow: The champions kick off their 2015-16 campaign at Scotstoun Stadium where they have the opportunity to when their third opening weekend game in three years. The Warriors have won their last twenty encounters at the venue in the Pro12, the last defeat coming against the Dragons all the way back in 2013.
-Scarlets: Scarlets finished last year’s campaign with four strong wins in a row. They’ll look to make it five wins in a row for the first time since 2013, but it will be an uphill battle away at the fortress Scotstoun where they haven’t won since 2012.
Munster Rugby vs. Bennetton Treviso
Musgrave Park, Cork; Kickoff from 11:45 AM PST on Saturday, 5 September
-Munster: In last year’s campaign, Munster went on a six game unbeaten streak on the way to the Guinness Pro12 final where are they were outperformed by a brilliant Glaswegian outfit. Munster have one 10 of 11 games against Treviso in all competitions, the only loss coming in 2013. Look for Munster to win this game as well.
-Treviso: The Venetian side has slightly improved over the past two seasons, but there last win outside of Italy in all competitions was way back in the 2012–13 season. Unfortunately for Treviso it doesn’t look like this season will get much better.
Cardiff Blues vs. Zebre Rugby
Cardiff Arms Park; Kickoff from 6:30 AM PST on Sunday, 6 September
-Cardiff: The Blues have won their last three games at Cardiff Arms Park. The only defeat coming by an Italian side was when Zebre visited the venue back in September 2013. Cardiff should be 1-0 come Monday morning.
-Zebre: Zebre have lost their last six Pro12 Games, the last win coming against the Dragons in Parma last season. Don’t look for any sudden change in form, though, they have only one outside of Italy twice in all of their franchise history.
Here’s to another year of the Guinness Pro12! Let’s hope it’s even more exciting than last year’s.