Friday, September 01, 2017

Preview : Dragons v Leinster



(Warning - my preamble this week goes on a bit so I have placed a horizontal line where the actual preview starts if you'd rather skip ahead)

With all the success Connacht rugby have enjoyed in recent seasons it's easy to forget that they came perilously close to being disbanded by the IRFU back in 2003.  In the professional era it has proven difficult for some unions to determine just how many clubs they can support, and many have fallen away like Borders and the Celtic Warriors, with the Western Force set to join them though not without a fight it seems.

Nowadays it is good to see that there's an option other than 'ditch or keep' and say what you like about this innovative solution from SARU and Celtic Rugby but you certainly can't argue that it's a brave one and as I have said already, I believe we should give it a fair go.  [sidenote - imagine the reaction back in 2003 if someone suggested Connacht join the Currie Cup?]

One thing that annoys me most about the nay-saying from some quarters over the new arrangement is that it reminds me of complaining when you discover who is refereeing a particular match.  "Oh no, it's Romain Poite!" generally translates to "If we lose, it will be his fault!" and giving out about this new format before a ball is kicked is no different.

Yes, there is disparity in the schedule for clubs in the new Pro14.  No, not everyone is playing everyone else home and away.  Yes, some have more home matches than others, some will play more matches against "weaker" teams than others.  No, that is not ideal.

But that doesn't provide anyone with a ready made excuse should things go wrong.  Everyone has 21 matches to play and 6 other teams to keep tabs on [in Leinster's case it's champions Scarlets, Dragons, Ulster, Edinburgh, Treviso and Southern Kings] to qualify for the knockout phase and all we can do is play the hand we're dealt.

That doesn't mean I'm going to give the new competition a total free pass, however.  Speaking of referee appointments, while I am pleased see that Leinster's opener in Newport doesn't have an Irishman officiating like it would have done in years gone by, I do find it strange that in a competition that now spans five nations, the opening weekend sees four of the seven men in the middle from the IRFU.

Over in Swansea we will see the first South African to take charge as Quinton Immelman refs Ospreys v Zebre, but there is a downside to that match as well because there is to be no TMO.  The whole point of this experiment is to bring the league closer to the Premiership and Top14 and to have an untelevised fixture on the opening weekend doesn't exactly look good.

But I'm straying into nit-picking territory now so best get on with harpin' on Dragons v Leinster...



Celtic Rugby isn't the only rugby entity that got a new coat of paint over the off season.  It's Newport-based franchise got taken over by the WRU and among the changes are a rebranding which now has them simply called the 'Dragons' as well as an all-weather 4G pitch to replace the infamous Rodney Parade mudbath.

There has also been incoming personnel - neither new head coach Bernard Jackman nor Zane Kirchner need introducing to Leinster fans and I'm pretty sure most are also familiar with a certain Gavin Henson, who by my reckoning is now with his 3,426th different professional club.

Every time we travel to face the Dragons I am reminded of the time Michael Cheika brought a team of youngsters there to get their arses handed to them in 2009 ahead of a key Heineken Cup back-to-back series against the Scarlets [which, to be fair, Leinster crushed taking all ten pool points] - this year it's extra poignant as his skipper/babysitter for that match was none other than Berch himself.

But in the Leo Cullen era things are very different when it comes to playing younglings.  Looking at this starting lineup we see names like Adam Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin and Dan Leavy, all of whom impressed last season and with them are yet more new caps in Jordan Larmour and Max Deegan, respectively my man of the match selections against Gloucester and Bath.

Another new name in the XV is Wallaby Scott Fardy, who joins a formidable engine room pairing with Devin Toner [surprised to see him use up some player restriction minutes for this one though it could be to help tee up a 200th Leinster cap at the RDS?] and just in case you thought I was finished introducing new boys in blue, the extremely promising lock James Ryan will be on the bench.

With Joey Carbery putting in a good second half at Donnybrook last week you'd be forgiven for thinking he'd feature but I'm guessing the Bath cameo was to see how he's running and he could well be under IRFU restrictions himself.

So as you can probably tell, I'm very much liking this Leinster selection - all that awaits is how well they play together as a team.  This was the first full preseason with us for Stuart Lancaster so hopefully we'll be able to hit the ground running in the Pro14 - as I pointed out in a previous blog, whatever about our yearly problems in September, our schedule only gets more difficult after that.

Basically I will be happy with solid set pieces and a win.  Sure, we can give fighting talk about how we have to be getting maximum points from these matches but the lads will need to be wary of a revamped team having its season home opener trying to impress a new coach, though we should have enough in us to stay ahead.  

The turf accountants have us prevailing by nine points; I'd be more than happy with that but I'll be a tad more conservative and suggest Berch will start his Welsh journey with a losing bonus point after an away win by 5-7pts. 

Here's to a successful campaign for the boys in blue!  And best wishes also to the other provinces...looking forward to watching Ulster play the Cheetahs this evening in particular.

#COYBIB

Dragons : 15. Zane Kirchner 14. Ashton Hewitt 13. Tyler Morgan 12. Jack Dixon 11. Hallam Amos 10. Gavin Henson 9. Charlie Davies
1. Brok Harris 2. Elliott Dee 3. Leon Brown 4. Matthew Screech 5. Cory Hill - capt 6. James Thomas 7. James Benjamin 8. Harri Keddi
Replacements : 16. Rhys Buckley 17. Luke Garrett 18. Lloyd Fairbrother 19. Ryanard Landman 20. Max Williams 21. Tavis Knoyle 22. Angus O’Brien 23. Jared Rosser

Guinness Pro14 2017/18 - Round 1
Saturday, September 2, 2017
KO 3:15pm
Rodney Parade

Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
AR1: Lloyd Linton (SRU)
AR2: Stuart Kibble (WRU)
TMO: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Sky Sports Action: 2.45pm
S4C: 3pm
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