Wednesday, September 03, 2014

HoR pre-season thoughts - Part 2

We're counting down the days to the big kick-off here at HoR with a 4-part series of previews.

Yesterday we looked at some of the changes made to the structure of the European season.  Tomorrow, we'll look at the prospects for Ireland & Leinster respectively in the upcoming campaign.  For now, it's time to turn the spotlight at the clubs around Europe who stand between Leinster and more silverware.

PART TWO - Monetary Union

"Careful what you wish for" is a handy phrase to keep in your back pocket.

After all of Mark McCafferty's bleating and blaming throughout last season, he now appears to have the money he wanted for the English clubs.  

Did I say money?  I meant European tournament, surely?  Eh, no.  I meant money.  If it was just the tournament he wanted, it wouldn't be in such an organisational shambles just a few weeks before it kicks off.

So assuming it is the money, it certainly looks like the clubs have been busy over the summer splashing out on new squads.  If you add up the "Ins" and "Outs" from the 12 Premiership clubs, the one with the smallest amount of alterations is Harlequins with 9 (2 in, 7 out).

And of course in any team sport, such wholesale off season changes present quite the challenge for head coaches, while rugby union in particular, being so dependant on combinations working throughout the XV, makes that challenge even greater.

Such is the calibre of the names heading into the Premiership clubs this season that I feel most will fall foul of what I call The McCafferty Effect when it comes to success.  If any one of them does well between now and May, especially in Europe, we can say "well, of course you did well - didn't you have the money?" and if they do poorly we can break out the Nelson Muntz impressions : "ha ha!".  (Well...being mature rugby fans, we'd only do the second one privately but you get my point!)

Add the above to the extremely creative accounting being done by the French sugar-daddies as they dance around the salary caps and you have squads being assembled across England and France we would have presumed impossible even five years ago.

So with the above caveats in mind, here are brief looks at Leinster's opponents over the coming months....

Munster

I've kept my opinions about "Emailgate" to myself so far.  No doubt some Munster fans think I'm in stitches over it, but the truth is, I am baffled.

But there's no hiding from the fact that at the very time the province needs to be making a fresh start, it surely must hang like a cloud over Axel's preparations no matter how much he says it's behind them.

It's not all bad news for them, however, as the schedule has been kind.  Three out of four home matches to start, with the one trip outside Limerick being to Treviso.  Of course no match is easy but Foley definitely has a good opportunity to bring his new squad to the Aviva to face the old enemy in October with four wins and restored confidence in their back pocket.

As for Europe, well they are in what looks like a stinker of a pool with Sarries, Clérmont and Sale.  Massive contrast to Glaws, Embra & Perpignan last season!

Most definitely a tough road ahead for them, but anyone who rules them out knows nothing about the province.   I haven't mentioned individual players here because from the looks of things it will take a team effort to get them into the latter stages of the season.

Ulster

Very, very curious goings on at Ulster towards the end of last season.  Director of Rugby, gone.  Head coach, gone.  Legendary players, gone.  Even the iconic name Ravenhill is no more.

But what happened has happened, and Les Kiss must now make of the new setup what he can.

They also have an interesting opening schedule, one that sees them play Zebre both home and away in the first four weeks.  I'm not sure this is a good thing in that there will be definite pressure to gain maximum points and if this doesn't happen the rest of the league will feel they have an advantage.

Because one thing is for sure, of the top four from last season's Pro12, Ulster will have the biggest target on their backs for the teams below them and in their opening matches they must travel to face two of those contenders to take their place, the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.

Then in Europe they only got the reigning Euro & Top 14 champs Toulon, as well as the Scarlets and Ulster's old Euro chums Leicester Tigers (bet they thought they'd seen the last of Brad Thorn at Twickers in 2012!).  A tricky pool of that there is no doubt.

If they can get a functioning scrum out of what they were left by the departures, I reckon Ulster can still be there or thereabouts after Christmas but it won't be easy by a long stretch.

Connacht

Mils Muliaina and Bundee Aki will receive the bulk of the international attention, but for me this season for Connacht has to be all about Robbie Henshaw, assuming he is over his hand injury.

We see him in the Ireland promos, we know Joe Schmidt thinks highly of him, we all know he has the potential to go far.  But now it's time to start doing it and the best way to show he's ready for test level is to be posting stand-out displays for his province throughout the season.  Fingers crossed he can get an injury-free season under his belt.

Overall I reckon if Connacht can be still in contention for the top six when we get to the last six or seven rounds that will be a decent campaign in the Pro12.  And in Europe, I would heavily fancy the Westerners to get out of their pool which includes Exeter, La Rochelle and Bayonne.

In general though, it's hard to predict the fortunes for the provinces based on what is happening internally, given the logistical changes in Wales and the financial ones in England.  We'll just have to see how they stack up against each other on the pitch.

Welsh regions

Adam Jones to Cardiff.  A very interesting move.  The conspiracy theorist in me says that maybe there is a plan in place to elevate the Blues to a status similar to that of the Ospreys, meaning a region who actually stands a chance of winning anything.  Now I know they're not in the Rugby Champions Cup, but that would most definitely work to their advantage in the Pro12 and you certainly can't rule out the other three regions being at least a bit more competitive now that there's peace in the principality.

Still though...while there could well be an overall improvement by the Welsh clubs in the Pro12 and Cardiff may have success in the Challenge Cup,  I wonder if the final eight in the Champions Cup may be a step too far for both the Ospreys and Scarlets.

Scottish duo

Glasgow good, Embra not so much.  Can't see it being any other way.

Will the Warriors reach the heights of last season or even go one better?  Always hard to tell at this time of year of course, but one thing we do know is that they have a canny coaching staff so once they can manage their squad I can see another competitive season for the Warriors, maybe even with some European progress as well.

Italian duo

See, this is the thing about the non-Irish Pro12 clubs.  We want them to do well to keep the league interesting, but of course none of us want them to do THAT well!  Treviso & Zebre occupied the bottom two slots in 2013/14.  Can't see that changing over 22 rounds this season.  And if I'm right, fair play to them for soldiering on because more of the same from last season would be mighty frustrating for any fans no matter how loyal.

London Wasps & Harlequins

I know they are two clubs which have had differing fortunes in recent years, but there are some interesting similarities as far as Leinster is concerned.

Conor O'Shea may have only brought in the two players, but both signings point to one thing - speed.  Marland Yarde from London Irish and Fijian Aseli Tikoirotuma from the Chiefs will definitely give them the option of pace, and given Wasps have Wade, Varndell and also added Tagicakibau, Leinster's defence in the wide channels could well be put to the ultimate test in those four matches.

Another way Wasps & Quins are similar is that both have made interesting (or curious?) captaincy appointments.  Joe Marler & James Haskell both have international qualities but neither previously struck me as leadership material.  Clearly their coaches disagree so we'll see how they get on.

Both teams kick off their Premiership campaigns at Twickenham this Saturday in the London double header but they don't face each other until September 20, when no doubt Matt O'Connor will be watching with interest.

Castres

Thumping Bayonne last weekend won't have appeased Castres fans too much after defeats to Stades Francais & Toulousain in rounds 1 & 2.

It would be hard to take players like Claasens and Dulin out of any lineup without some consequences but once Kockott & Tales are pulling the strings there will be no easy points to be had for Leinster be it home or away.

...and if we get out of our pool?

Well if we do, I can't see us getting anywhere without facing up to our Toulon demons.  No doubt they had us in their sights before a ball was kicked in the last season's competition and now the roles must be reversed.  Of course there are several other clubs around the continent like Northampton and Sarries who will also be tough European knockout opposition, but standards at Leinster are such that we want to be compared with the best so we must of course improve on last year's failure at the Stade Mayol.

BandI Cup pool

Don't laugh!  We love the BandI Cup here at HoR Manor, and we did long before Leinster A started winning it.

All the players who have risen to the top in recent season in the province like Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Noel Reid, Jack McGrath and Martin Moore all cut their teeth in this competition and hopefully rhere are many more to have similar success, like Cathal Marsh.

This season Girvan Dempsey's charges find themselves in a pool with RUF CHampionship clubs Jersey & Plymouth, while the identity (and indeed composition) of our Welsh pool-mates remains to be seen.

*****

Wow, writing all that has really given me a taste for the new season!  I mean...predictions are normally hard enough to make before the long September to May campaign kicks off, but the money thing gives it a whole new dimension.

Still though...don't let anyone convince you that the Irish provinces don't stand a chance against the inflated salaries and the re-adjusted regions.  Our slice of the pie may have gotten smaller, but you certainly can't say the same about our appetite for success.  JLP


Tomorrow, Part 3 - Ireland's Six Nations title defence

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