PRO12 preview: Leinster lead the way
September 1, 2014
Leinster will be looking to make it a hat-trick of PRO12 titles this season © Getty Images
With a new title sponsor and fresh broadcast deal, these are interesting times for fans of PRO12 rugby. Organisers are determined to hold their own among Europe's biggest clubs, with a determination to show that the loss of several big names to leagues in England and France can be offset by the arrival of new faces and close contests.
Once again the Irish provinces promise to be the teams to beat, but the likes of Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues have spent the summer strengthening their already impressive resources. And with the qualification system for the new European Rugby Champions Cup only guaranteeing a place to one team from each country, the league is set to become more competitive as a whole, with clubs robbed of the luxury of automatic qualification to Europe's premier competition.
Read on for ESPN's guide to this season's PRO12 teams, with everything you need to know before the new era kicks off on Friday.
James Ambrosini will compete for a place with Joe Carlisle © Getty Images
Despite threats to quit the league, Treviso are back for another season and this year have a fight on their hands. With the new qualification system for the ERCC, Treviso know every time they play, they are in a straight battle with Zebre for that Italian qualifying place.
Key signing: Treviso have made wholesale changes to their playing staff this summer, bringing in 24 new faces from all corners of the planet. While they have lost seasoned internationals such as Luke McLean, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Lorenzo Cittadini, they will be hoping the incoming former Wasps fly-half Joe Carlisle can provide them with a point-scoring threat from both the boot and ball in hand.
Coach: Not content with rebuilding their squad, Treviso have also brought in a new man at the top. Umberto Casellato comes in as head coach from rivals Zebre and has hard work ahead of him if he is to gel his army of new recruits.
One to watch: The success story of Italy's latest Six Nations campaign, Michele Campagnaro will be looking to kick on this season. Developing an understanding with Carlisle will be key to the young centre's progress.
Prediction: Despite the hordes of new recruits, Treviso are still likely to be scrapping with Zebre at the bottom of the table. 11th
Sam Warburton is available for Cardiff again © Getty Images
The fixture list has been kind to Cardiff, who kick off their PRO12 campaign against last season's whipping boys Zebre. And after the summer they've had, Blues officials will be thankful for a gentle start to the season. The quagmire that has been Welsh rugby in recent months has left Cardiff unable to call upon the talismanic Sam Warburton during pre-season. But with a deal now struck between the regions and WRU, the Wales captain is free to return to Cardiff's ranks.
Key signing: It might sound like a cliché, but securing Warburton's availability will feel like bringing in a new signing at the Arms Park. Joining him in the pack however, will be Wales veteran Adam Jones. Capturing his signature is a feather in the cap for the Blues management and, despite younger men putting pressure on him in the national side, the veteran can still pack a punch in the scrum.
Coach: Cardiff are another club starting life under a new coach, with Mark Hammett coming in from Super Rugby's Hurricanes. He has vowed to make any changes gradually, but has called on his players to get fitter and play with more intensity.
One to watch: Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees will be licking their lips at the prospect of packing down alongside fellow British and Irish Lion Jones, but it is another new signing that could prove most exciting at the Arms Park. Much is expected of Gareth Anscombe, with even Warren Gatland paying close attention.
Prediction: Cardiff boast some impressive signings this summer and are this season's dark horses. 4th
Mils Muliaina brings experience to Connacht © Getty Images
Connacht finished last season languishing in 10th while their more illustrious cousins dominated the top of the table. But rather than spend the summer licking their wounds, Connacht officials have put their hands in their pockets to bring in Southern Hemisphere talent.
Key signing: Not one, but two key signings to keep an eye out for at the Sportsground this season. Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina join from Super Rugby's Chiefs, with the former adding attacking talent and the latter bringing all the experience of 100 All Black caps.
Coach: With the signings Connacht have made, Pat Lam will feel like a man reborn in his second season in charge. He has spoken of injecting some pride into the province's rugby but will know that wins, rather than just full-blooded performances, are needed to improve on last term's showing.
One to watch: New skipper John Muldoon takes over after the forced retirement of Craig Clarke due to repeated concussions. Connacht runs through Muldoon's veins and he will be central to Lam's calls for more passion on the pitch.
Prediction: It is hard to ignore Connacht's new men but they are unlikely to join their fellow provinces at the top of the table. 8th
Tom Heathcote joins from Bath © Getty Images
Edinburgh are another club preparing for life after the departure of a number of seasoned internationals. Geoff Cross, Nick De Luca, Greig Laidlaw and Ross Rennie have all headed south for the winter in a blow for Scottish rugby as a whole, leaving behind a club which will have to work hard if they are to reach the automatic ERCC qualifying places.
Key signing: Edinburgh will hope the incoming Tom Heathcote can fill the hole left by Laidlaw's departure and, after the fly-half was overshadowed by George Ford at former club Bath, he will be desperate to show Scotland's selectors what he can do with a run of games under his belt.
Coach: Alan Solomons says it would be unfair to expect Edinburgh to match the recent achievements of Glasgow this season and, with his squad emptied of so many experienced men over the summer, the South African will have to perform minor miracles to improve on his first term in charge.
One to watch: Scotland wing Tim Visser spent most of last season out with a leg injury but is now fit and ready to go. Murrayfield will be hoping the 27-year-old can make up for lost time and add to his club-record tally of 60 tries.
Prediction: Clubs around them have improved in the off-season while Edinburgh have failed to replace like with like. 10th
Glasgow made it to last season's grand final © Getty Images
Glasgow were the success story of last season, breaking the Irish stranglehold on the top of the table to run Leinster close in the final at the RDS. The Warriors have now finished fourth, third and second in the last three editions of the PRO12 and head coach Gregor Townsend is targeting glory this season. Winning the title will be a big ask, but if they continue on their current trajectory, Glasgow will take some stopping.
Key signing: Like Edinburgh, Glasgow have lost a hatful of Scotland internationals and have only been slightly better at replacing them. James Downey brings with him a wealth of experience and the Warriors should benefit from playing host to the Irishman's swansong.
Coach: Despite his relatively young age, Gregor Townsend has been part of the SRU's coaching set-up for some time now. He is growing in stature in his role at the Warriors and when he says he is targeting a Glasgow victory in next year's final, the fans will know he means it.
One to watch: 20-year-old Adam Ashe made his Scotland debut against Argentina this summer having played only 36 minutes of professional rugby. But while Ashe is seen as one for the future by national coach Vern Cotter, Glasgow fans will be hoping the No.8 can make an impact this season.
Prediction: There is no denying the improvements Glasgow have made in just a few seasons, but a PRO12 title is still beyond them. 3rd
Could Jonathan Sexton return home? © Getty Images
Leinster have had a whole summer to come to terms with the retirement of Brian O'Driscoll, but replacing one of the greatest players in the history of the game is not particularly easy to do. And their start to life without BOD will not be easy - they face last season's runners-up Glasgow at Scotstoun in their opening match on Sunday.
Key signing: Ben Te'o is Leinster's key signing this summer. The former South Sydney Rabbitoh is switching codes as he attempts to fill O'Driscoll's boots in the centres. With the Rabbitohs likely to contest the NRL final, Te'o's arrival could be delayed until October, but his union debut will be one to look out for.
Coach: Australian Matt O'Connor lifted the PRO12 title in his first season with Leinster and the pressure will be on to repeat that feat.
One to watch: Another new signings in the form of Kane Douglas. A Super Rugby champion with the Waratahs last month, the lock brings will bring a winning pedigree to the RDS.
Prediction: The absence of O'Driscoll will take some getting used to and rivals Munster will run them oh so close but they should be 1st and champions
Paul O'Connell returns for another season © Getty Images
They last lifted the PRO12 trophy in 2011, but in pushing Toulon all the way during last season's Heineken Cup semi-final, Munster showed that their rebuilding process is almost complete. They have talent and experience in abundance across the entire squad and are buoyed by the ferocious Paul O'Connell refusing to follow O'Driscoll into retirement.
Key signing: It has been a quiet summer for Munster in terms of new signings, but Robin Copeland will challenge for a place in the back row as he aims to build on his impressive displays for Emerging Ireland.
Coach: It is all change at the top after Rob Penney's departure to coach in the brave new rugby world of Japan. Anthony Foley steps up from his position as last season's forwards coach and, despite a mixed pre-season, has said he cannot wait for the action to start.
One to watch: Captain Peter O'Mahony's shoulders already bear a lot of responsibility for such a young man, so April's reconstructive surgery on both joints is not a good sign. The 24-year-old has spent the summer recovering from the operation, so his return to action next month will be closely watched for any signs that he has lost some of his explosiveness.
Prediction: Munster are in a two-way fight with Leinster but will just miss out. 2nd and losing finalists
Newport Gwent Dragons
Lee Byrne is back in regional rugby with the Dragons © Getty Images
It has been a colourful summer for the Dragons. Arguments over a possible name-change, a host of incoming players, and trouble in the private lives of several new signings have seen the Dragons make headlines in the off-season for both the right and wrong reasons. They finished last season as the worst-performing Welsh region and are likely to struggle to make the ERCC qualifying spots come May.
Key signing: It has to be Lee Byrne. The former Wales fullback returns to regional rugby after three years in France with Top 14 heavyweights Clermont Auvergne and has already been named captain for the Dragons' new season.
Coach: With Lyn Jones moving upstairs as director of rugby, former Wales captain Kingsley Jones steps into the head coach role. After a full pre-season with the squad, Jones will be aiming to bring some stability to the Dragons after the chopping and changing of last season's coaching set-up.
One to watch: Young Wales fullback Hallam Amos is tipped to go onto big things, with Warren Gatland keeping a close eye. Can the 19-year-old continue to improve after experiencing the bear pit of international rugby?
Prediction: Their summer additions have improved the squad, but the Dragons are still some way behind the PRO12's best. 9th
Rhys Webb will be one to watch this season © Getty Images
Ospreys endured a 39-5 hammering at the hands of Saracens in their final pre-season friendly, so will be hoping to kick-start their season with an opening-day win at home to Treviso. But the region have seen some of their star players slip away this summer, including British and Irish Lions Ryan Jones, Ian Evans, Richard Hibbard and most recently Adam Jones, whose departure from the club was one of the nastiest chapters in the sorry story of Welsh rugby this summer. The return of PRO12 action will therefore come as welcome relief to the Ospreys who remain at the Liberty stadium.
Key signing: There have not been many to write home about this summer, but in Gareth Thomas, the Ospreys have signed a young prop with the potential to replace Adam Jones.
Coach: Steve Tandy was incensed by pre-season losses to Saracens and Worcester Warriors, and has called on his Ospreys to be more ruthless when the season kicks off on Friday.
One to watch: Feuds between the regions and WRU aside, the future of Welsh rugby is looking bright. Rhys Webb is another young international tipped for big things, with the scrum-half looking to add to his seven caps this season.
Prediction: The Ospreys are unlikely to be Wales' top-performing region this season. 6th
Scarlets will miss the presence of Lion Jonathan Davies © Getty Images
Scarlets are always in the mix, but this summer they have lost a big name. Jonathan Davies has exited Llanelli for Clermont and the Top 14, and his departure leaves a giant hole in the heart of the Scarlets midfield. Throw into the mix a late change of head coach, with last season's popular leader Simon Easterby leaving for a job with Ireland, and club captain Ken Owens' call for a top-four finish seems like a big ask.
Key signing: With Davies heading to Clermont, Scarlets welcome Regan King, who is heading in the opposite direction. The New Zealander spent six years at the region before moving to France in 2011 and he will be welcomed back with fondness if he can help fill the Davies-shaped hole in the centres.
Coach: Former assistant Wayne Pivac has been given the top job after Easterby's decision to take a job as Ireland forwards coach. Pivac will benefit from a 'handover' period with Easterby not set to start his role with Ireland until October.
One to watch: It has to be yet another young Welshman. Samson Lee deprived Adam Jones of a place in Wales' front-row against South Africa in June, but has also endured disciplinary problems in recent months. He will hope to build on his reputation as a scrummager over that of a hothead this season.
Prediction: Owens has called on his team-mates to aim for the play-offs, but the Scarlets are weaker this season, while others have strengthened around them. 7th
Rory Best has taken over the captaincy from the retired Johann Muller © Getty Images
Ulster have endured a summer of ups and downs, with the high of a renovated stadium tempered by the lows of two departing coaches. The province have also lost several important figures from the dressing room due to retirement, with skipper Johann Muller and the injured Stephen Ferris standing down from duty. But with their refreshed Ravenhill home now capable of hosting over 18,000, Ulster will hope their performances on the pitch can draw in the crowds.
Key signing: Springbok Franco van der Merwe comes in from Super Rugby's Lions as a direct replacement for the retired Muller. At 31, he is an experienced operator and will be expected to hit the ground running when Ulster kick off against Scarlets on Saturday.
Coach: With former director of rugby David Humphreys leaving for Gloucester and head coach Mark Anscombe also standing down this summer, Ulster have appointed Les Kiss in a temporary role. Kiss' interim position is far from well-defined and he will hope that uncertainty does not filter down to the squad.
One to watch: Former captain Rory Best is reinstated as skipper following Muller's retirement. His experience will be needed to lead his team-mates until an answer to the head coach conundrum can be found.
Prediction: Ulster are a PRO12 force, but with the uncertainty over Kiss' position, there are distraction aplenty off the field. 5th
Mirco Bergamasco joins his brother Mauro at Zebre © Getty Images
While Treviso might have threatened to pull out of the league last season, Zebre did not appear so eager to jump ship. Despite finishing bottom of the two PRO12s in which they have competed, Zebre showed signs of improvement last term, claiming almost three times as many points as they did in 2012-13. They have brought in a host of new signings, almost all from Italian clubs, which - if nothing else - is a good sign for the national side. A finish higher than 12th will be classed as an enormous success, but Zebre are sure to face another challenging season.
Key signing: Italy centre Mirco Bergamasco is reunited with his older brother Mauro in Parma and will bring a dose of international class to Zebre's ranks.
Coach: Andrea Cavinato has lost his assistant Umberto Casellato to Treviso and will have some work to do to integrate 12 new men into the Zebre squad.
One to watch: The giant wing Leonardo Sarto, 22, already has three tries in nine appearances for Italy and will be aiming to build on an impressive start to professional rugby.
Prediction: It is hard to see Zebre finish anything other than bottom of the pile. 12th
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