IT’S FINALLY ROLLING around again. After a Summer of Lions rugby that left the average Irish fan a little cold, the bread and butter of the Rabo is back, and the smell of change is wafting through the autumn air.
Both Connacht and Munster have seen key personnel turnovers, while the current champions in particular face a period of ‘transition’ that could take time.
Up north meanwhile, Ulster look the most settled of the provinces, but the worry exists that, with some big contracts running out at season end, this could be last-chance saloon in terms of trophies for the current iteration of the Ulstermen.
Whatever your allegiance, it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable seasons we’ve seen for a long time.
Of course, to do well in the Rabo means a strong squad is vital, and with Lions tourists not back in match contention for another three to four weeks, there’s a huge opportunity for some young guns to stake a claim. With that in mind, what new faces can we expect to step up for the four proud provinces this season?
Mutterings from the western camp around the management style of Pat Lam have been very positive, and we can expect Connacht to play a more open, expansive game this year. That’s not the only positive that Lam has brought across the equator however — Connacht have captured former Junior All Black captain Jake Heenan.
The 20-year-old, of Maori descent, plays almost exclusively at openside, and will add some bite to a back row shorn of Johnny O’Connor. Heenan was highly rated in NZ, and the news has surprised some, though perhaps the long line of opensides ahead of him for All Black honours, and his previous experience of Lam’s coaching, made up his mind
Standing at 6’2 and just over 15 stone, Heenan seems a prototype southern hemisphere seven, and, because he hasn’t played for the Senior All Blacks, the young Aucklander can be deemed a ‘project’ player. Don’t be surprised if he lines out in another green jersey over the next few years.
Also watch out for: Young Ballinasloe winger Conor Finn looks a little far down the pecking order, but could impress if given a chance, while Joe Schmidt will be watching with interest as Dave McSharry makes his comeback from injury. A return to last year’s form will see the former Leinsterman go close to an international call up.
Munster’s CJ Stander. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Despite the fine form of Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony last year, Munster have perhaps lacked that explosive, ‘give me the ball and I’ll run over this fella’ type of ball carrier since the loss of Leamy and Wallace to injury. This year, they look likely to have filled that gap.
Between arriving late and unfortunate timing, CJ Stander played a bit part in last year’s Munster travails, but will certainly be more involved this time around. A typical Saffer bruiser, Stander has a physique that’s somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Ferris — a bulky frame with the quick twitch muscle fibres of a sprinter. Another highly-rated project player, Stander is a massive 17st 13lbs (far weightier than Heaslip and O’Brien for example), and looks fit and ready to take over from the workmanlike James Coughlan at 8 this year.
A lineout option with an eye for the tryline, expect opposition backrows to have trouble containing Stander on hard Autumn ground.
POM, TOD & CJ has a youthful look, and a nice ring to it for Munster fans.
Also watch out for: The other name on southern lips is JJ. Since a standout showing at the RWC U-20 championships two years ago, Irish rugby fans have been expecting Rob Penney to let Hanrahan off the leash, and with ROG gone, this could be the year. Expect Keatley to start the season at 10, but, judging by pre-season performances, don’t be surprised if ‘the saviour’ explodes onto the hallowed grass of Thomond come Heineken Cup time. Keep a close eye too on Dave Kilcoyne’s loosehead backup James Cronin. Any injury to ‘Killer’ and he could be thrust into the spotlight.
Bolter from the Blue: Leinster’s Jack McGrath. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Make no mistake, this is a huge season for the boys in blue. Players have previously spoken of creating a lasting ‘dynasty’, and with the likes of Cullen, BOD, D’arcy and others nearing the end, the famed ‘academy’ needs to start producing top-level replacements, and fast.
Funnily enough, despite all the talk of Leinster’s backline production line, most of the potential breakthrough stars come closer in. Mary’s man Jack McGrath in particular has long been pegged as a future international, and with Heinke Van Der Merwe gone to Stade, and Cian Healy under IRFU playing guidelines, the bustling loosehead will see plenty of top-level playing time this year. Perhaps more solid in the scrum than Healy, and a reliable carrier, McGrath could make a big case for himself early in the season.
Also watch out for: Jordi Murphy will look to cement his place as Jamie Heaslip’s backup, and seems to have bulked up even further over the post-season. Elsewhere, Dom Ryan needs a big year to push himself forward. ‘Dippy’ has all the attributes to be a top quality six or seven, but the sheer volume of potential backrow stars at Leinster makes it imperative that he stays injury free and pushes on. Keep an eye on Luke McGrath too, Reddan won’t go on forever, and McGrath is his natural replacement.
Northern exposure: Stuart Olding. Pic: INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd
A new season, a new stadium, but not too many new faces for the northerners. However, why spend money when you’ve an academy that’s churning out class? Stuart Olding showed glimpses of his enormous potential last year, and, despite a backlog of super talent in the centre jerseys in Belfast, he’ll likely make a far bigger mark this year. The type of player who seems to glide around the park, Olding has the quick feet that made BOD so hard to handle early in his career, a cultured left boot, and an eye for a gap. Bucking the recent trend for monster 12s, Olding adds nuance to Ulster’s play, and can also fit into the 13 jersey should Luke Marshall come back strong from multiple head injuries.
Also watch out for: Returning son James McKinney looks to be a very shrewd signing. The 22-year-old is coming ‘home’ after spending a year with Rotherham Titans in the English Championship, and provides poise, composure and kicking accuracy, a perfect foil to Jackson.
Chris Farrell, Rory Scholes and scrum half Michael Heaney all look highly promising too, while this could be the year that Iain Henderson cements his Ireland 22 spot.
Around the league…
Elsewhere in the Rabo, the majority of potential breakthroughs look to be Welsh. Cardiff will look to redhead outhalf Rhys Patchell to guide them, and the young man could be the next big Welsh thing, while Eli Walker at Ospreys will score plenty of league tries this year, and Scarlet prop Samson Lee is another who could make Gatland’s head turn. Zebre’s big signing Brendan Leonard offers the Italians some nous at nine, while Glasgow’s highly-rated centre Mark Bennett may surprise a few. It’s shaping up to be a cracker.
Which young players do you expect to shine in the Rabo this year? Let us know in the comments below…
Follow Shane O’Leary on Twitter: @shaneoleary1