THE 2013/14 RABODIRECT PRO12 season kicks off this weekend with all four Irish provinces hoping to get rolling on an Ulster-style winning streak.
There are 37 new faces in the senior squads and two new coaches — Leinster’s Matt O’Connor and Pat Lam at Connacht — in place. We devised three questions to put to our rugby experts and told them not to hold back.
What are you expecting from the new season?
David Wallace (Former Munster and Ireland): Munster have had a good pre-season and should now be more comfortable with Rob Penney’s gameplan. They could’ve reached the Heineken Cup final last year and that experience will stand to the new players coming through. Leinster’s big loss is Jonathan Sexton but they still have a guy, in Brian O’Driscoll, that can marshal the backline. There are a lot of new faces at Connacht so it’ll be interesting to see how they settle while Ulster could have the most dynamic backline package this year.
Shane Byrne (Former Leinster and Ireland): Ulster have a great backline and were the most consistent side all last year before getting pipped at the post by Leinster. They’ll be right up there, as will Leinster despite the big losses of Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Andrew Conway. Eric Elwood, and Michael Bradley before him, left Connacht in a good place so Pat Lam will need to build on that. Munster losing ROG and Dougie Howlett is huge but they have the potential to finish high up this season.
Sean Farrell (TheScore.ie): I’m expecting a much more open Pro12 season — Zebre will get a win. Ulster won’t win 13 straight. Glasgow will be even better. With a bit of luck, the attack-minded coaches all over the league will make for a lot of expansive play throughout the league.
Munster are making all the right noises going into the season and if they can get Ian Keatley firing and keep their strongest tight five fighting fit, they could well be top seeds in the Pro12 semis.
Adrian Flavin (Former Connacht and Wolfhounds): We all know about Leinster’s losses but drop Zane Kirchner, Jimmy Gopperth and Mike McCarthy into that squad of winners and you know they’ll be all right. Connacht are in a good place to build on last season. Munster will do well if the lads that stepped up last season can kick on from there. Ulster are all about Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar. When those two are playing well, Ulster are a different animal.
Maire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill (TG4):
Maire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill will present TG4′s coverage of Munster v Edinburgh on Saturday.
It’s an exciting time for Irish fans as their teams have done so well, winning five of the last eight leagues. The new coaches may face teething problems. You have to remember, though, that Joe Schmidt lost his first five games with Leinster and he did just fine after that. The words ‘team in transition’ were used about Munster a lot last season but they are adapting to Rob Penney’s expansive gameplan. Ulster’s squad is settled and they will look to go one step further this season while there is a lot of optimism in Connacht.
What players should we look out for?
Wallace: At Munster, Tommy O’Donnell was fantastic last year and will be looking to kick on. It will be great to see him link up with CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony in the backline. Ian Madigan will have the platform, at Leinster, to show off his talent and speed. He’s a real running outhalf and will be exciting to watch. Hopefully Luke Marshall [Ulster] will return in the form he showed for Ireland against Fiji and, briefly, in the Six Nations. Connacht needed to fill the big, physical gap left by Mike McCarthy and have done well to get Craig Clarke in.
Byrne: I’m expecting Conway to be given the chance to make the spot left vacant by Doug Howlett [right wing] his own. This is Madigan’s chance to prove himself as Leinster’s first-choice 10 and to get ahead of Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley in the Ireland pecking order.
Farrell: I can’t wait to see what impact Craig Clarke has in Connacht. After leading the Chiefs to two Super Rugby titles, he’s in for a bit of a change in terms of winning ratios, but hopefully he can provide a platform for the western province to close that gap.
As if Ulster don’t have enough wingers at their disposal, they will look to Rory Scholes to make a breakthrough this season.
‘Chill out, I’ve got this’ — Ian Madigan will aim to be Leinster’s go-to guy. INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Flavin: I’m looking forward to seeing Conway in action for Munster and, with Marcus Horan retired, Dave Kilcoyne’s time is definitely now. Jimmy Gopperth is no mug and was a shrewd signing by Leinster. He’ll push Madigan all the way. Connacht are trying out a centre combo, in Danie Poolman and Eoin Griffin, that I’ll be excited to see and it is great to see Fionn Carr back. Nick Williams is a huge player for Ulster and anyone keeping Roger Wilson on the bench must be doing something right.
Ní Dhubhghaill: Conway is a fantastic signing by Munster and definitely one to look out for. CJ Stander is another. Ulster have some great young players, like Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson. Carr is back with Connacht, is an exciting player and will have something to prove this season. Jake Heenan looks promising too.
What coach is under the most pressure for Pro12 results?
Wallace: Munster stuttered in the Pro12 last year but there are signs that Rob Penney’s style of play was taking shape. He’s into his second year now and a lot will be expected of him but he has a core group of players there that proved their mettle against some top sides in Europe last year.
Byrne: There’a a lot of pressure on O’Connor but he has proved himself with Leicester Tigers and should do well. In a way, with Connacht’s great season last year and the furore over Eddie O’Sullivan not getting the job, Pat Lam will be under a fair bit of pressure.
Pat Lam gets his point across to the Connacht players. INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Farrell: Undoubtedly, Matt O’Connor is the man under scrutiny because he has to most to live up to. He’s taking over from the province’s most successful coach and he has to manage a team in the early stages of transition with Sexton departed, two scrum-halves the wrong side of 30 and the clock running on O’Driscoll. The world will be watching for a fitting end to the centre’s career. No pressure, Matt.
Flavin: The honeymoon periods are over for Mark Anscombe and Rob Penney so they have to hit the ground running. I can’t imagine the sleeping patterns for any of the four coaches are too great.
Ní Dhubhghaill: Rob Penney has a big year ahead of him. He was trying to implement his attacking gameplan but putting Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan wasn’t working. They came up with a compromise that did well in the Heineken Cup but not so well in the league. They lost Howlett and O’Gara but there is a core group of players and and no lack of passion there. It’s a big season for Munster.
How do you think the season will go?