The “Guinness Pro12” is once again upon us with expectations this year as high as they have ever been for many teams. Off the back of mixed fortunes in the summer internationals, an ever increasing importance on qualifying for the Champions Cup, and some excellent recruitment, this promises to be as tight a Pro12 as we have seen for many years. Pro12 teams may look enviously at the recruitment and status of many other domestic leagues, not least the Aviva Premiership full of exciting home grown stars feeding what would appear to be a rapidly improving national side. This season needs to be an electric one to raise the status not only of the Pro12 but also the progression of the respective national teams.
Guest writer DragonWales 9 gives us the low down. But first here is a reminder how last season finished.
1 Leinster 73 2 Connacht 73 3 Glasgow Warriors 72 4 Ulster 69 5 Scarlets 63 6 Munster 63 7 Cardiff Blues 56 8 Ospreys 55 9 Edinburgh 54 10 Newport Gwent Dragons 26 11 Zebre 24 12 Benetton Treviso 20
Leinster 30 – 18 Ulster Connacht 16 – 11 Glasgow Warriors
Connacht 20–10 Leinster
The story for much of last season was the success of the unheralded Connacht and Scarlets. In the end Scarlets slipped out of the playoffs but Pat Lam’s Connacht went all the way. At the bottom there was little change with the Italian sides once again taking the bottom 2 spots.
Time to look forward with DragonWales 9.
I have to start with my beloved Dragons! However, the expectations for the season remain as low as they have ever been. Recruitment has been poor, especially up front where the world’s best number 8 has left a canyon to fill, despite all the positive talk from both the coaching staff and board. Consistently underperforming the Dragons fortunately remain blessed with a collection of very promising youngsters. Relying on U20s, plus the more “experienced” Amos, Morgan and Dixon does not bode well for a successful year. Especially when the internationals arrive. Kingsley Jones is seeking inspiration from last year’s champions and promises attractive rugby. My only hope is that the passionate supporters remain loyal and ensure Rodney Parade is as welcoming as always and the Dragons take advantage of the key times in the calendar when our more illustrious opponents lose key players to the national team. Stand up for the men of Gwent!
Ins: Sam Hobbs, Tom Davies, Craig Mitchell (all Cardiff Blues), Sam Beard (Edinburgh), Nick Macleod (Sale), Patrick Howard (Northampton), Darran Harris (Rotherham), Ashley Sweet (Ebbw Vale)
Key Outs: Taulupe Faletau (Bath), Hugh Gustafson, Alex Jeffries (both Ospreys), Jason Tovey, (Edinburgh), Andrew Coombs, Matthew Pewtner (both retired)
Last three seasons: 9th, 9th, 10th
The Ospreys can surely look forward to a season when they are once again challenging at the top end of the table. The signings made, particularly partnering Bradley Davies with Alun Wyn Jones and the exciting acquisition of the former Crusader regular Kieron Fonotia to sure up midfield offer more than a degree of hope after last year’s poor campaign. Rhys Webb will feel like a new signing and he can pick one of two quality 10’s to set the likes of Eli Walker into space. Surely they will prioritise the league campaign to ensure Champions Cup qualification. This only bodes well for the Pro12. If they can settle on a starting 15 early, this team, led by the outstanding Dan Lydiate, may finish higher than I’ve predicted.
Ins: Bradley Davies (Wasps), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Hugh Gustafson (Dragons), Kieron Fonotia (Crusaders)
Key Outs: Aaron Jarvis (Clermont Auvergne), Kristian Phillips (London Welsh), Marc Thomas (Jersey Reds), Ifereimi Boladau (London Scottish), Rynier Bernardo (Scarlets)
Last three seasons: 5th, 3rd (s/f), 8th
I am predicting a very successful season for Wales’ only Champions Cup representatives. The return of the outstanding Jonathan Davies, and the signing of Rhys Patchell from Cardiff Blues, who stood up well to the NZ test this summer, will surely set an electric back line alive. Who is looking forward to facing a back three including Liam Williams, Van Der Merwe and the other new recruit, the natural finisher from the Crusaders, Johnny McNicholl? Strengthening the front five will surely ensure go forward ball although the lack of a genuine world class 8 could be the difference between the good season I predict and the great season their potential is hinting at.
Ins: Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Rhys Patchell, Richard Smith (both Cardiff Blues) Johnny McNicholl (Crusaders), Werner Kruger (Bulls), Jonathan Evans (Bath), Tom Williams (Cardiff Blues), Rynier Bernardo (Ospreys), Tadhg Beirne (Leinster)
Key Outs: Rhodri Williams (Bristol), Rhodri Jones (Ospreys), Steven Shingler , George Earle, Kirby Myhill, Ben Leung (all Cardiff) Maselino Paulino (Lyon), Jordan Williams (Bristol), Kieran Hardy, Regan King (both Jersey), Michael Tagicakibau (Treviso)
Last three seasons: 6th, 6th, 5th
Forecast: 3rd (s/f)
Another year of improvement is in the offing for the Blues. Nick Williams is one of the signings of the off-season bringing as much to the park as the former Cardiff talisman, Xavier Rush did. His presence alone will galvanise those around him and provide the sort of go forward ball that has been lacking at the Arms Park. Another region to tap into the talent of the Super 15, Willis Halaholo arriving from the Hurricanes, Cardiff can expect to surprise a few sides this year. Without having huge depth, Cardiff will rely on an injury free campaign but for me, Danny Wilson is one of the outstanding coaches in the competition, and he will ensure they build on the form they showed towards the end of the last campaign. My cheeky outside bet to return to the Champions Cup this year.
Ins: George Earle (Scarlets), Rhys Gill (Saracens), Willis Halaholo (Hurricanes), Matthew Morgan (Bristol), Kirby Myhill (Scarlets), Steven Shingler (Scarlets), Nick Williams (Ulster)
Key Outs: Elis Wyn Benham, Gareth Davies, Harry Davies (all Bath), Tom Davies, Chris Dicomidis (Pontypridd), Gavin Evans, Sam Hobbs, Tom Isaacs, Craig Mitchell (all Dragons), Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Lou Reed (Sale Sharks), Richard Smith (Scarlets), Manoa Vosawai (Vannes), Tom Williams (Scarlets)
Last three seasons: 7th, 10th, 7th
Last year’s surprise champions have given hope to many Pro12 teams given their recent form in the competition. High quality coaching, a strong team spirit and rock solid home form built upon outstanding defence, propelled them to the title. They will be strong again and no one will fancy the trip to Galway, but my prediction here sums up just how tight the Pro12 should prove to be this year. Robbie Henshaw is a big loss, but their main ball winner last year, Aly Muldowney going to the Top 14 is possibly a bigger one. I fear the lack of significant recruitment compared to their main rivals in order to build on last year’s triumph will see Connacht fall just short of the top six…but not by much.
Ins: Sam Beard (Edinburgh), Marnitz Boshoff (Golden Lions), Conor Carey (Nottingham), Eoin Griffin (London Irish), Cian Kelleher (Leinster), Dominic Roberston-McCoy (Northland), James Connolly, Shane Delahunt, Rory Moloney, Seán O’Brien, Rory Parata, Peter Robb (all Academy), Josh Rowland (Ireland 7s).
Key Outs: Rodney Ah You (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), AJ MacGinty (Sale), Aly Muldowney (Grenoble), Api Pewhairangi (London Broncos)
Last three seasons: 10th, 7th, 2nd (Champions)
Champions all the way for me, particularly as the final is being played in their own back yard to add any required additional motivation. This despite losing the man behind the league’s most stingy defence, Kurt McQuillkin. Robbie Henshaw from last year’s champions is a superb signing that will complement the established style of the Dubliners. Add to that the return from long term absence of Cian Healy and the formidable Sean O’Brien in the back row and we are looking at a full strength Leinster team, akin to the side winning the Champions Cup a few years ago. Expect a big year from the Sexton orchestrated Irishmen.
Ins: Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Jamison Gibson-Park (Hurricanes), Ian Nagle (Lon Irish), Niall Morris (Leicester), Adam Byrne, Tom Daly, Billy Dardis, Ross Molony, Garry Ringrose (all Academy)
Key Outs: Ben Te’o (Worcester), Ian Madigan (Bordeaux), Marty Moore (Wasps), Cian Kelleher (Connacht), Tom Farrell (Bedford), Tom Denton (Gloucester), Isaac Boss (Waikato), Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets), Jamie Hagan (Melbourne), Mick McGrath (Ireland 7s)
Last three seasons: 1st (Champions), 5th, 1st (final)
Forecast: 1st (Champions)
How can I be predicting a ninth placed finish for the men from Limerick? Stalwarts of the Irish game and powerhouses in the Pro12, they continue to flatter to deceive in recent times and have failed to recruit consistently well after their last set of outstanding players began to break a couple of seasons ago. Jean Kleyn looks a good signing but uncharacteristically their front five will not terrify their rivals. Rest assured they will finish a long way ahead of the 10th placed Dragons but reliance on the fitness and form of Connor Murray, particularly when Ireland come calling, will prove too big a test to keep up with other teams.
Ins: Sam Arnold (Ulster), John Andress (Edinburgh), Darren O’Shea (Worcester), Jean Kleyn (Stormers), David Johnston, John Madigan, Seán McCarthy, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton (all Academy)
Key Outs: Shane Buckley, Jordan Coghlan, Gearoid Lyons (all Nottingham), Jack Cullen (London Scottish)
Last three seasons: 3rd (s/f), 2nd (final), 6th
Following on the heels of the departure of Nick Williams to Cardiff, Ulster needed a statement. Boy did they provide it. Charles Piutau from Wasps is a player I am really looking forward to watching light up the Pro12, although week 1 I hope he has an off day! His pace and creativity further strengthens a backline only rivalled in quality by the Scarlets. The biggest challenge for the Ulstermen is finding the strongest combinations and ensuring they click quickly to compete in the top 4. However, like others, their forward pack does not, on paper, look to provide the platform the backline will require especially if Nick William’s replacement, Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee, remains on the treatment table for too long.
Ins: Charles Piutau (Wasps), Marcell Coetzee (Sharks), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Harlequins), Brett Herron (Bath), Angus Lloyd (Dublin University), Matthew Rea (Academy)
Key Outs: Nick Williams (Cardiff Blues), Sam Arnold (Munster), Rory Scholes (Edinburgh), Ian Humphreys (retired)
Last three seasons: 4th (9s/f), 4th (s/f), 4th (s/f)
Forecast: 4th (s/f)
I expect a much better season from Scotland’s second team this year. In recent seasons their major issue has been finding someone to fill the 10 shirt with any great consistency and control. They have moved to solve this problem and Duncan Weir is an excellent signing, benefitting from an elite environment at Glasgow. An able back up in Jason Tovey (not a first choice by any means) adds an experienced back up to ensure Edinburgh can add a degree of tempo control to their pattern of play. Expect a team who will score more points but they lack a defensive general and the flair and creativity of other teams in the league may prove too much for them to stay in touch with the top six. However, a strong coaching team and the very sensible decision to wave goodbye to the national stadium after Christmas, and play at the more traditional Watsonian’s ground will provide a greater atmosphere and a stronger home “fear factor”.
Ins: Nick Beavon (Melrose), Glenn Bryce, Kevin Bryce, Duncan Weir (all Glasgow), Lewis Carmichael (Melrose), Viliami Fihaki (Sale), Alex Northam (La Rochelle), Solomoni Rasolea (Western Force), Rory Scholes (Ulster), Sasa Tofilau (Kirkcaldy)
Key Outs: John Andress (Munster), Sam Beard (Dragons), Mike Coman (London Irish), Jack Cuthbert (Jersey), David Denton (Bath)
Last three seasons: 8th, 9th, 9th
The news that Gregor Townsend is to become the new Scotland coach at the end of the season may for some involved with Glasgow be somewhat concerning. The job he has done their in building a team competitive at home and abroad has been superb. There is no doubt that my initial thought was towards the timing of the announcement but the subsequent news, the arrival of Dave Rennie from the Chiefs, certainly allayed any fears. Far from being a distraction this will surely motivate a group that are already awash with experience and quality. Furthermore, the lack of a World Cup which tore apart the squad, giving 20+ players to the national team cause last season, and Glasgow will be very confident of bettering last year’s semi–final appearance. Nakarawa is a big loss but arrivals such as Uanivi and Sarto add significant power to the team. A class act of a team by anyone’s standards. Lenister vs Glasgow at the Aviva in May…yes please!
Ins: Jarrod Firth (Manukau), Corey Flynn (Toulouse), Nemia Kenatale (F Constanta), Leonardo Sarto (Zebre), Hagen Schulte (Buller), Djustice Sears-Duru (Ontario), Tjiuee Uanivi (Natal)
Key Outs: Will Bordill, Glenn Bryce, Kevin Bryce, Duncan Weir (all Edinburgh), Gregor Hunter (Gala), Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92), Taqele Naiyaravoro (Waratahs)
Last three seasons: 2nd (final), 1st (final), 3rd (s/f)
Forecast: 2nd (final)
Poorly run, a disjointed team, an uncertain future in the competition, some have questioned the mentality of Treviso going into this season. Last season, their away form in particular, was appalling and I see nothing in the off season work to suggest this mentality will change and bring about improved performances. Sure, Tagicakibau adds some flair and strong Pro12 experience and Marty Banks is a classy 10 on his day, but Treviso will be competing in the lower reaches of the division once again with the Dragons and Italian counterparts Zebre. Unless the new signings can galvanise a pretty ordinary squad, I see nothing other than a 12th placed finish for Treviso.
Ins: Marty Banks (Highlanders), Tommaso Allan (Perpignan), Tommaso Benvenuti (Bristol), Tito Tebaldi (Harlequins), Michael Tagicakibau (Scarlets), Andrea Buondonno, David Odiete, Federico Zani, Luca Sperandio (all Mogliano), Ian McKinley, Filippo Gerosa (both Viadana), Guglielmo Zanini, Giorgio Bronzini, Nicola Quaglio (all Rovigo), Tiziano Pasquali (Leicester)
Key Outs: James Ambrosini (San Dona), Enrico Bacchin, Simone Ragusi, Alberto Lucchese (all Petrarca Padova), Sam Christie (Waikato)
Last three seasons: 11th, 11th, 12th
An 11th placed finish last year and Champions Cup qualification signalled Zebre’s best ever return. Competing in a three team league with Treviso and the Dragons is a tough note to try and motivate a team on. The Zebre organisation must look enviously at the strength of those teams higher up the league but at least they played with some flair and commitment last season that must be matched if they are to repeat the improvements made. Their recruitment is largely home-grown, which may not be a bad thing adding a degree of passion to the group, as well as the grit of four South Africans. I expect them to be competitive at home but, like Treviso, they must target some away points to improve on last years “success” and hope the inevitable Champions Cup hidings do not take their toll.
Ins: Joshua Furno, Giovanbattista Venditti ( both Newcastle), Carlo Festuccia (Wasps), Kurt Baker (NZ 7s), Lloyd Greeff, Derick Minnie (both Golden Lions), Bart le Roux (Leopards), Carlo Engelbrecht (Blue Bulls), Gabriele Di Giulio, Tommaso Castello, Maxime Mbanda (all Calvisano), Mattia Bellini (Padova)
Key Outs: Leonardo Sarto (Glasgow), Mirco Bergamasco (Sacramento), Filippo Ferrarini (Ohio), Mils Muliaina (San Diego), Luke Burgess (retired)
Last three seasons: 12th, 12th, 11th
So that leaves us with a predicted final table of.
1 Leinster 2 Glasgow Warriors 3 Scarlets 4 Ulster 5 Ospreys 6 Cardiff Blues 7 Connacht 8 Edinburgh 9 Munster 10 Newport Gwent Dragons 11 Zebre 12 Benetton Treviso
A big thank you to DragonWales 9 for giving us this insight into the Pro12, to get in touch with him check out his Twitter account.
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