Dublin, Ireland- This past weekend marked the first round of the Guinness Pro12’s fifteenth season, formerly called the Celtic League, Magner’s League, and RaboDirect Pro12, a major milestone celebrating the growth of Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Italian club rugby over the past 15 years.
After a class performance in last year’s final against Munster at Ravenhill, Glasgow will be looking to continue their steadying success, even in the midst of losing 20 players to Rugby World Cup call-ups. Apart from Munster’s run to the final, the Irish provinces will look to regroup after a season marred by injuries and mediocrity. Welsh sides, Ospreys and Scarlets, will look to continue the form that earned them European Rugby Champions Cup spots (Scarlets qualified for a playoff) while Italian side, Treviso and Zebre, will do their best to end of their dismal run at the bottom of the table.
With the Rugby World Cup rapidly approaching and star players missing league action to play for their countries, how will teams cope and adapt as they move towards the 2016 Pro12 final at Murrayfield?
Benetton Treviso (11th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 18-13 Loss v Munster (A)
Next Fixture: Edinburgh (H)
Head Coach: Umberto Casellato
Apart from their amazing seventh place finish in the 2012–13 edition of the Pro12, Treviso have become annual bottom feeders since their inclusion into the Pro12 at the beginning of the 2010-11 season.
They came away with three wins last season, two coming against national rival and last placed Zebre, and the other coming against a really poor Cardiff Blues side.
Treviso and head coach Umberto Casellato didn’t make a splash with many off-season signings either, mainly attributing to the club’s lack of funding to sign big players.
After last weekend’s five point loss against Munster, though, Treviso may have more exciting things to look forward to during this RWC break. They looked strong enough against Munster, apart from careless penalties, and they will look to capitalise on the weaknesses of depleted teams from now until the end of October.
They have not won a game outside of Italy since the 2012–13 season, but they have one at least two games every season at Stadio Monigo since their inclusion in the Pro12. Maybe this season Treviso will to start to make a name for themselves, maybe even get their first win outside of Italy in a long while. For now, I’ll stick with “maybe”…
Cardiff Blues (10th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 61-13 Win v Zebre (Home)
Next Fixture: Leinster (Away)
Head Coach: Danny Wilson
The 2014–15 campaign for the Cardiff Blues was dismal, finishing in a record low 10th place only above the struggling Italian sides, Treviso and Zebre. To make matters worse, they’ve run through head coaches over the last three seasons like they were a desperate European soccer team. And to pile more on this mound of misery, the team is losing out on the expertise of seven star players heading off to various national duties, including big impact makers like Sam Warburton and Blaine Scully.
Needless to say, the patience of Blues fans is rapidly wearing thin.
There is hope; however, vested in new coach Danny Wilson, his most notable previous coaching experience coming in his transformation of Scarlets’ weak scrum into a unit that put in several decent challenges in against European giant Toulon in last year’s European Rugby Champions (ERCC).
The real test Danny Wilson will have will be filling the void in attacking firepower left by the players departing for the RWC. Without the ability to go forward as often as they like, Wilson might resort to building his team on a foundation of solid defence, kick strategy, and attacking opportunism when available.
But…last week against Zebre they were unstoppable. Yes, they played outclassed a Zebre side who weren’t very good, but even so there ball-handling and passing accuracy was sublime. They’ll face a stiffer test against Leinster on Saturday evening, but if Danny Wilson can get his boys to continue the attacking prowess they displayed on Sunday, they could prove too much for the Irish province to handle.
Blues fans, you may have just found your saviour.
Connacht (7th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 29-23 Win v Dragons (H)
Next Fixture: Glasgow (A)
Head Coach: Pat Lam
Connacht head coach, Pat Lam, will be optimistic looking forward to the 2015-16 after a seventh place finish in last year’s campaign that earned them a Champions Cup play-off against Gloucester in May. The western Irish province will remain generally unaffected by RWC departures, albeit outside centre Robbie Henshaw and prop Nathan White.
During the Champions Cup play-off, Connacht played brilliantly open and flashy offence for 50 minutes before succumbing to a horde of handling mistakes and sloppy defence. In heartbreaking fashion, they dashed their hopes of Champions Cup play by putting on a lacklustre performance in the last half hour.
But, Lam, the former captain of Samoa during the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cup’s, enters his third year as Connacht’s head coach after seeing his team drastically improve following a 10th place finish in 2013-14 and last year’s 7th place finish. Lam’s strategy to improving Connacht’s success had one major need.
He needed his team to have stronger forwards. The experienced front row of Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, and Irishman Rodney Ah You helped Conner to challenge the upper half of the pro 12 at the scrum, a feat they had struggled at accomplishing for years. And now newly-signed open side flanker Nepia Fox-Matamua from Auckland should provide the extra power for the men in green to not only be a threat at scrum-time, but an explosive attacking threat in the open field.
Connacht already had a good amount of crafty backs. Last year, when not plagued by injuries, Robbie Henshaw and Fionn Carr had several moments of sheer brilliance. It wasn’t the “white-hot-ballbearing-through-runny-butter” rugby that James Harrington used to describe Bordeaux in the Top 14, but it was enough for Pat Lam and loyal Connacht fans to see the foundations of a 10-12 partnership that could be a godsend.
Connacht fans can hope that the many years of falling short on big occasions will finally change course and bring about exciting times for the club.
Edinburgh (8th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 16-9 Win v Leinster (H)
Next Fixture: Treviso (A)
Head Coach: Alan Solomons
The 2014–15 season for Scottish side, Edinburgh, was a mix-and-match of highs and lows.
On one hand they delivered spotty performances in the league season, often falling short of wins because of silly penalties and bad handling errors.
On the other hand, they had great performances throughout the European Rugby Challenge Cup, culminating with a place in the final against Gloucester. They eventually lost but it was an exciting game nonetheless.
Last weekend’s game against four-time league champions, Leinster, was more of a typical opening game than a great performance. In the first half, Edinburgh suffered from a slew of unforced errors and turnovers, the only thing keeping them in the game being Leinster’s ineptitude in capitalising on opportunities. Winger Damian Hoyland capitalised on two of his few opportunities, putting over two tries in the second half to left Edinburgh over Leinster after a strong second-half.
Edinburgh fans will be restless waiting for success in both the league and in Europe, and no one knows that better than head coach, Alan Solomons. The pressure will be all on him to continue to bring wins to eastern Scotland, especially now that Scottish rivals, Glasgow, are reigning champions. With the first game, and first win, of the season under their belt, the Edinburgh faithful will want want this 2015-16 campaign to even the score with a championship of their own. At the moment, there are headed in the right direction for a top six finish.
Glasgow Warriors (Champions in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 10-16 Loss v Scarlets (H)
Next Fixture: Connacht (H)
Head Coach: Gregor Townsend
Last season, the Glasgow Warriors turned Scotstoun Stadium into a fortress, going undefeated at the stadium in the regular season and playoffs. All of their losses came away, two to Ulster, two to Munster, and the other to Ospreys.
The Warriors were a brilliant team to watch when they got up to full speed. Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell provided tantalising flair to an already talented back line, while Jonny Gray led arguably one of the best scrums the Pro12 had to offer last year. D.T.H van de Merwe was a treat as danced and stepped his way through defenders as though they were dummies on his way to being a top-five try scorer in the Pro12.
But now Gregor Townsend has a monumental task ahead of him: dealing with a loss of 16 players to Scottish international duties.
The Warriors were badly in need of any of their star players in their 10–16 the last to Scarlets on Sunday. They lacked initiative, but ultimately missed the efficiency that Townsend’s first team displayed at home last year. If the Glaswegians don’t find their form in the next 2 to 3 weeks they could be in serious trouble of doing unrepairable damage during this RWC break.
If they do, however, hang on to a higher spot in the standings until late October when their stars return, they’ll be in good form to make another run to the play-offs.
Leinster (5th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 6-19 Loss v Edinburgh (A)
Next Fixture: Cardiff (H)
Head Coach: Leo Cullen
Few teams throughout Europe where is exciting to watch as Leinster was in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Three Heineken Cup trophies in four years and back to back Pro12 titles cemented Leinster’s place amongst Europe’s elite.
But that was under Joe Schmidt…
Well, in fairness, the 2013–14 Pro12 title was under coach Matt O’Connor was after Schmidt left for the Irish national job, but even then the boys in blue didn’t have the sharpness or efficiency of the past.
Then, during last year’s campaign, it all started trending downwards. A fifth place finish, an exit in the Champions Cup semi-final, and a late season fizzle started the raucous clamouring for O’Connor’s removal. And, like that, O’Connor was gone, leaving Leinster in the hands of former club captain and beloved player Leo Cullen.
It’ll be interesting to see if Cullen can put Leinster on the front foot in the opening weeks of the season after only being in charge for a little more than four months. With 15 players on RWC duties, including Jonathan Sexton returning after his stint in the Top 14, we will have to wait and see whether or not the boys in blue can find their last attacking prowess and defensive structure until after the RWC ends.
Leinster fans will be ecstatic once Jonathan Sexton returns from international duty to join fellow Leinster sensation Isa Nacewa. Is Leinster ready to conquer again or is the return of Leinster’s big stars an ill-fated grasp driven by nostalgia?
Munster (2nd in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 18-13 Win v Treviso (H)
Next Fixture: Ospreys (A)
Head Coach: Anthony Foley
Anthony Foley starts his first season as new coach and has brought in a new coaching team that includes former hooker Jerry Flannery and former Cork coach Brian Walsh. Since their last championship in the 2010–11 Pro12 season, the southern province has been touted as being in transition, but their ability to perform expectations in big European clashes has made them one of the most difficult teams to judge in Europe.
Unfortunately for Munster they have notoriously been unable to attract/retain/finance big name players, especially those with their mindset on cash laden France. Having already lost Casey Laulala to Racing 92 last season, this season will be no different with Paul O’Connell moving to Toulon for his payout.
The hope for Munster fans will come from the talents of returning players like CJ Stander, Ian Keatley, and, after the World Cup, Simon Zebo. Stander already put in a good performance against Treviso over the weekend with two tries, and Keatley will return to try and retain his position as top scorer in the Pro12.
Munster’s greatest enemy, though, has been themselves. They can be horribly inconsistent like they were in the last six rounds of last season. Their redemption comes from their ability to play strong, passionate rugby against the giants of Europe. Supporters will be hoping that Foley helps restore the province to its former glory and relinquish the shortcomings of the last few years.
Newport Gwent Dragons (9th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 23-29 Loss v Connacht (A)
Next Fixture: Zebre (H)
Head Coach: Lyn Jones
The Dragons have been on the bottom of the Welsh Rugby totem pole for god knows how long, seen as the region’s weakest link. Now the team is fighting back against those notions, no longer willing to remain laughing stock. They enter this campaign with a good pre-season record, most notably with a victory over regional rivals Cardiff. That should make people stand up and take notice.
Head coach Lyn Jones will do his best to make sure that the days of coming into games as underdogs and preying on opposition mistakes are over. He’s looking to put more attacking flair into his team’s game, and with fly-half Rhys Thomas, he now has the opportunity to do just that.
Thankfully for the Dragons they share the title least affected team by World Cup call-up, with Taulupe Faletau and Hallam Amos missing from start of their campaign.
What’s promising for the Dragons organisation and supporters is that Faletau is still playing for the club after speculations that Bath was ready to make a big money move for the Welshman. Keeping a big name player like Faletau allowed the club to assure not only their supporters, but the rest of the league that the Dragons are on their way up in the world.
Ospreys (3rd in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 28-6 Loss v Ulster (A)
Next Fixture: Munster (H)
Head Coach: Steve Tandy
The Ospreys have consistently been Wales’ top club team since the beginning of the Celtic League in 2000-01. The Welsh side share status with Leinster as the most successful club in the Pro12, each with four Championships. Their last championship was four seasons ago over Leinster, capping off a successful first season under head coach Steve Tandy.
Unfortunately for the Ospreys, with success comes big-name players, and with big name players comes depleted rosters come out World Cup call-up time. Rhys Webb (now injured), Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones, and Justin Tipuric are just four of the players missing for international duties…
Do not fear Swansea natives, the Ospreys have an good track record during World Cup years. Steve Tandy’s first year as head coach culminated in the championship even with a squad just as depleted as this year’s. Yes, your team was outclassed by Ulster at the weekend, but you’ll be able to see a better team on display at home on Sunday v Munster.
Scarlets (6th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 16-10 Win v Glasgow (A)
Next Fixture: Ulster (H)
Head Coach: Wayne Pivac
The Scarlets will be a team on the up after qualifying for the Champions Cup in difficult fashion. They’ll be shooting for a top four finish and a guaranteed entrance into the Champions Cup, A feat that can be accomplished if they take advantage of games against teams that are more heavily depleted.
They’ll also look to make it out of their champions cup pool for the season, a task that will be challenging, but doable as they come up against Glasgow, Northampton, and Racing 92.
The Scarlets will look slightly different from last season as well, most notably with the departure of Rhys Priestland. The club have handled the situation extremely well by not panicking and spending heaps of money to find a lookalike replacement, but picking suitable candidates from their development teams and growing from the ground up.
Yes, the Glasgow team they played over the weekend was heavily depleted, but they were nonetheless reigning champions, and Scarlets played them well thanks to Head coach Wayne Pivac bringing former Scarlets flyhalf Stephen Jones into the coaching staff. The former Scarlets man was able to put his depleted backs to use in a tigerish opening 30 minutes that saw his team 13–0 ahead before the Glaswegian coaches reached their seats.
We’ll see how they do against a strong Ulster team on Saturday, but if they come away with a win they’ll certainly be one of the teams to beat if not the best Welsh team in the league.
Ulster (4th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 28-6 Win v Ospreys (A)
Next Fixture: Scarlets (A)
Head Coach: Neil Doak
Ulster…the team that almost made it. Well, they did make it count in the 1998-99 Heineken Cup final and in the 2005–06 Celtic League season, both times coming away with championships. But those were the days of yesteryear, and ever since they have had archenemies, Leinster and Munster, shut them down on the big stages.
Now on way be the time for Ulster to capitalise on the chances presented to them.
The northern province’s all-time leading try scorer, Andrew Trimble, wade his 189th start for the province after being left out of Joe Schmidt’s Irish Rugby World Cup squad. The decision to put Luke Marshall at scrum-half will ensure a high degree of efficiency remains on the team even in the absence of fast-paced Darren Cave and Jared Payne on international duties.
South African Nick Williams returns from suspension to provide speed at 8 that Ulster lacked in the postseason, while hooker and captain Rob Herring put his experience on display with 8 to try display against Ospreys.
This feeds is right into head coach Neil Doak’s scheme for the beginning season, build up speed amongst the players not on international duty and quickly dispatched depleted teams.
Clever man, and with Leinster and Munster still trying to regain their past form, now maybe the time for Ulster the rise…
Zebre (12th in 2014-15)
Last Fixture: 61-13 Loss v Cardiff Blues (A)
Next Fixture: Dragons (A)
Head Coach: Andrea Cavinato
Some things are given: the sky is blue, California burritos are amazing, and that ever since their inclusion in the Pro12 Zebre has needed serious help. They will be out 9 Italian internationals over this RWC break, a fact that really won’t help them out at all.
Zebre’s struggles in league play a tribute to two main factors, funding and tradition.
The Italian Rugby Federation doesn’t have enough money to be able to sustain continued growth through the purchase of big-name players, an understandable occurrence considering the relative youth of Italian rugby on a large scale.
In reference to tradition, Zebre’s domestic academies aren’t old enough to really show their worth in valuable players. They will, eventually, get there though. I’m not trying to say that Zebre will always be a challenged team, but for the time being I don’t see them rapidly moving towards success.