As the Pro12 kickoff gets closer we welcome Lorcan Hurley to the HoR2 team with his preview…
The bookies have backed the imaginatively titled Rabo Direct Pro 12 teams as follows: Leinster are favourites at 3-1, Ulster 4-1, Ospreys 6-1, Glasgow 7-1, Munster 8-1, Scarlets 19-1, Cardiff 34-1, Treviso 41-1, Edinburgh 41-1. Connacht 150-1, Dragons 200-1 and Zebre at 1000-1
When deciding on which team to back it’s important to be cognizant of each team’s goal. The teams with the toughest Heineken Cup groups and therefore the highest chance of being knocked out in the group stages may logically have more motivation to win the Rabo later in the season as opposed to the likes of Munster, Leinster and Ulster who would expect to be fighting on two fronts come April. Expect the Welsh regions to struggle; they’ve lost a lot of talent in their ranks and have been quiet on the transfer front.
Leinster: Defending champions and favourites and for a reason; the squad is still insanely good despite the back three exodus of Carr, Conway and Nacewa and the loss of the maestro, Sexton and the departure of Schmidt. One could argue they are due a slow year and with all this change a fall from grace is inevitable? Not exactly. A team with Madigan (last year’s top points scorer) D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Heaslip, McFadden, Kearney, Fitzgerald, Ross, Healy, McCarthy, O’Brien, Strauss et al will ALWAYS be dangerous. This is still the best squad in the league with the most threatening backline. They will make the Heineken Cup quarters and will aim to win on both fronts. Expect to see some young back three lads come through like Adam Byrne in particular. Kirchner, while not an overly talented international will cause damage at Pro 12 level despite his critics. Expect them to make semis at least but not my pick for overall winners.
Ulster: What a team. Incredibly talented youngsters with excellent imports like Payne, Muller and Afao. A nice mix and an easy team to follow which always helps. Biggest question is who to put at 10. Marshall is a feisty and talented 9 and with Pienaar’s ability to play 10, pressure may mount on Jackson. For me Paddy Jackson is Ireland’s fourth best outhalf behind Sexton, Madigan and Keatley. Great squad depth though and plenty of flair in the backs. Expect to see a backline of Pienaar, Jackson, Trimble, Marshall, Cave, Bowe and Payne for Heineken Cup games with Olding and Gilroy being prominent during the Rabo encounters. Best, Muller, Afoa, Trimble, Bowe and Pienaar bring the experience with the likes of Henderson, Gilroy and Jackson providing youthful exuberance. A well-settled squad with a destructive back row and with the likes of Cochrane, McAllister and Nelson breaking through Ulster will fare well. Not even mentioning the prospect of Ferris being fit again. They face a tough HC group with Leicester and Montpellier posing problems but I think they’ll advance in Europe so their Rabo motivation may ebb slightly. Will make semis but may have too much going on in Heineken Cup to win.
Ospreys: The former champions are seemingly perpetually overhyped. They suffer from the general crapness of Welsh provincial rugby. In rugby mad Wales not many go to Rabo games, the atmosphere is usually poor and players often seem uninterested. They cut a lot of underperforming international fat a few years back and they have been solid since. The current squad ain’t all that though. I like Biggar, Fussell, Wyn-Jones and Adam Jones. There’s not much else going on. They are still part of the Rabo big 5 but they won’t be able to overturn full strength Ulster, Leinster, Munster or Glasgow for my money. No proper new signings but they will be eliminated from the Heineken Cup early so they may have the resources to make the Rabo final. Can’t see them winning though.
Glasgow: Here’s where it gets interesting, a well established squad who were lethal last season. Confidence is high. They have three superb scrumhalves (three more than most teams) in Cusiter, Pyrgos and Matawalu while Weir and Jackson are both quality outhalves at pro 12 level. Back three of Hogg, Maitland and Van der Merwe are class in attack. Sean Lamont will be key in midfield following retirees Morrsion and brother Rory. Handy backrow too. Will destroy a lot of the lesser teams this season. Unlikely to topple Toulon in pool stages of Heineken Cup so may have to focus on Rabo. My pick for overall winners.
Munster: My home team. Squad is shaping up well although Heineken Cup still looks a bridge too far; the Southerners are Rabo contenders despite a poor sixth place finish last year. Big signings in the form of Conway and Van Den Heever (someone I’ve watched for the past three years) means our back three is slick. Felix Jones will hopefully be fit by November but until then Zebo, Conway and one of the Hurley, Murphy, O’Mahony, O’Dea brigade will provide a real attacking threat. Lualala is coming into great form while Earls may struggle to start now! I still rate Earsly but Downey is effective and the back three will be sewn up soon enough. CJ Stander, O’Donnell and O’Mahony is my favourite backrow of the tournament. Young, fast and powerful. Loss of ROG is big but Keatley is good enough; he’s arguably the most accurate place kicker in the tournament and is stronger than ROG in defence. I have a problem with scrumhalf; Williams isn’t really up to it on a consistent basis hence the inclusion of Gerry Hurley this year. Sheridan has potential but may not be ready to provide performances week in week out in absence of Murray. Their Heineken Cup group is weak and fighting on two fronts may prove too much for Munster this year. Will make semis.
Scarlets: Loss of George North may prove a killer blow. A decent squad but with no real conviction. Reasonable players throughout squad but travelling to Llanelli will instill fear in nobody. Eestimated finish of 7th overall.
Cardiff: Why is the Cardiff Arms pitch covered in A4 pages? Because they only play well on paper! Lame, I know but true. Warburton, the insanely talented Halfpenny, Cuthbert and Jenkins are big names but as we know international players only play typically seven or eight Rabo games a season depending on playoffs. That leaves a lot of time for the fledglings to fill. Depth may be a slight issue but I like a lot of the names I see on the squad roster. No hope in the Heineken Cup. I’d give Cardiff a better chance than the Scarlets actually. I can see them finishing 6th overall.
Treviso: The Italian hope. They tripped up a few teams last season and they have a lot of Italian internationals. No major signings though so progression may be a problem for them. Won’t be in playoff shake-up but won’t be bottom of barrel either. Should be aiming to finish ahead of Zebre, Dragons, Connacht and Edinburgh.
Edinburgh: Did crap last year, embarrassingly so. Murrayfield is a horrible, soulless venue. They have some good players like Visser, Laidlaw and a good backrow but that’s it. Some minor singings will help but I can’t see them finishing within the top 6. Will be killed in Heineken Cup and even with new coaching staff confidence will be modest.
Connacht: My second team and they have been growing ever since I went to NUIG back in 2008 (lucky charm or what?). Perpetually underrated. They’ve made some great signings and I feel they could finish sixth overall. For me the top five is relatively assured but the rest of the teams are in a dog fight and Galway is made for dogfights. They also won some big games away from home last season. They don’t lose international players and squad depth will be improved this season. Muldoon, Clarke, Muldowney, Carr, Parks, Duffy, Marmion and Henshaw are all quality players. The halfback partnership will be key and I rate Marmion as a future international with greater potential than Murray. Parks is so solid and gives leadership. He keeps the points coming and at Rabo level is a serious operator. They always play with heart which is something I can’t say about some of the Welsh teams. Young centres McSharry and Griffin are handy and the backrow of Faloon, Muldoon and Naoupu is genuinely strong. If they stay relatively injury-free then they’ll cause some upsets without question. Strangely I reckon they might do alright in the Heineken Cup pools especially against the deteriorating Toulouse. My heart and head see a big year for the lads in green.
Dragons: Rodney Parade is hardly a fortress though they will be buoyed by the retention of lion Faletua. They are the ‘Connacht’ of Welsh rugby but they lack the grit and support which Galway so readily provides. Sidoli and Prydie constitute the only other notable players established in the team and one can safely envision another shaky year for them. The inclusion of Richie Rees and Jason Tovey will be a big plus but they will be outgunned by the likes of Connacht and Edinburgh.
Zebre: No wins last year but they did sign former All Black Brendan Leonard! Should upset someone at home.
Lorcan Hurley (@rugby_bet) : Play a bit of rugby myself and I enjoy criticizing guys who could easily beat me up.