Pro 12 2016-17 season preview

rugby

New Zealand dominance might not just be a phrase appearing in relation to this year’s Rugby Championship and next year’s Lions tour, there should be 8 big name Kiwi players making debuts in the Pro 12 this season.  While the lesser known Hagen Schulte and Dominic Robertson-McCoy are also arriving from the land of the long white cloud and looking to play International rugby for Scotland and Ireland respectively, who they qualify for via their Grandparents.

Probably the biggest name headed to Ireland this season is Charles Piutau, in a previous life (well 2011 to be precise) Piutau scored in a Junior Rugby World Cup final alongside some bloke called Beauden Barrett and the now Welsh (occasional Fullback) Gareth Anscombe (George Ford, Christian Wade and Henry Thomas scored too, it was a hell of game that the Baby Blacks won 22-33).  Last season Piutau scored an 80th minute try that put Wasps into the European Champions Cup semi-final at the expense of Exeter Chiefs, so he has a knack of scoring big tries at important times.  Piutau’s arrival allied to the arrival of Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and 26 time capped Springbok flanker Marcel Coetzee to bolster the pack are why Ulster should finish top of the tree this term.

Another high profile Kiwi import is Corey Flynn who is moving from Toulouse to join Glasgow and should be the lynchpin of a very effective Warriors pack.  Flynn only amassed 15 All Black caps over the course of 8 years but he was a member of the 2011 RWC winning squad and during his 12 seasons with the Crusaders they reached 6 finals, winning 4 of them.  Flynn’s addition, the return of journeyman Rory Clegg and the signings of Italian winger Leonardo Sarto, young Fly Half Hagen Schulte and a smattering of experienced internationals from Canada, Namibia and Fiji should be enough to get the Warriors a home semi final come playoff time and with their new “plastic pitch” they should score a lot of tries at home all year round.

Scarlets have their own potential superstar arriving from New Zealand in Johnny McNicholl but as a winger his effectiveness will be largely dependent on how often the forwards manage to win the ball and to that effect the signing of Werner Kruger from the Blue Bulls is more important.  The 31 year old tight head won 4 caps for the Springboks and if he’s able to solidify the Scarlets set-piece in Samson Lee’s absence (flogging a 23 year old because none of your other props cut it is a pretty brutal way to shorten a career) then their much hyped backline including new Wales cap Rhys Patchell, the returning Jonathan Davies and Canadian flyer DTH Van Der Merwe could notch up a serious amount of “meat pies”.  The Scarlets have lost 19 players since last season, either as a result of retirement or because they released them, so they may take a while to adapt to that turnover in personnel, Michael Collins return to New Zealand is a particular disappointment as the 23 year old was a very exciting ball player who just looked to be settling in.  Jordan Williams move to Bristol sees the Scarlets lose another firebrand who could set the Aviva Premiership alight but he’d not featured under Wayne Pivac so his decision is understandable.  Gareth Owen has largely been their only creative influence for about 2 seasons now which is why Pivac had taken to including him anywhere he could (even out on the wing where he didn’t look especially comfortable) and with the influx of backs to the squad Owen may find it hard to retain a starting spot and the Scarlets will probably suffer without his inspiration.  Similarly Steffan Evans has provided a cutting edge to the Scarlets’ attack over recent seasons but with Liam Williams returning from his injury woes and McNicholl’s signing Evans will probably be reduced to playing during International windows, unfortunately in the painful to watch LV Cup.  The injection of fresh (albeit mature) blood should help the Scarlets finish in the playoff places but unless they sneak into the top 2 for a home semi-final they will struggle to advance.

Leinster haven’t made many signings but their Kiwi import could be the most exciting player in the Pro 12 next season, Jamison Gibson-Park played for the Super Rugby winning Hurricanes last season and made an appearance off the bench in the final against the Lions.  He’s a fleet-footed Scrum Half with a habit of sweeping the ball away from the ruck quick smart and with the back-row depth the Dublin based team have in their squad they could be playing seriously quick rugby next season.  Potential British and Irish Lion Robbie Henshaw and Niall Morris join a backline who in Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid already have 2 of the most exciting young talents in Celtic rugby so Leinster should be able to challenge for a top 4 spot.

Last season 9 points separated 5th to 9th, so this is where predicting any sort of order becomes increasingly tricky, Munster finished 6th last season and as Connacht have to deal with the loss of 10 players whilst bedding in 7 newbie’s and the Ospreys have already lost 2 of their best players from last season in Sam Underhill and Owen Watkin for at least 4 months (Watkin possibly for the whole season) Munster must surely be the team closest to challenging the top 4 this coming season too.

Munster strangely enough don’t have a big name Kiwi signing this season but they do have two South African imports, Lock Jean Kleyn (all 6 feet 8 inches of him) and 25 year old Jaco Taute who represented South Africa at the same Junior Rugby World Cup that Piutau, Barrett, Ford and Wade starred at (given Etzebeth, Elliot Daly, Marlon Yarde, Michael Hooper, Kuridrani and Jules Plisson featured too it must have been the best ever).  Taute is an injury replacement for twice capped All Black Francis Saili and while he certainly has the same physicality as Saili he will bring a certain subtlety that the Kiwi doesn’t always employ.  Last season Munster missed out on a top 4 finish because they failed to score as many tries as 4 of the 5 teams ahead of them and bringing in two experienced forwards in John Andress and Darren O’Shea alongside the 20 year old Centre Sam Arnold may not be the best way to fix that shortcoming.

Connacht finished 7th 2 seasons ago before the Pat Lam effect launched them up the table to 2nd last term but with 10 players finding their way to the exit door including Robbie Henshaw, AJ McGinty, the Ulster bound Rodney Ah You and Aly Muldowney a veteran of 93 games for the province even Pat Lam will struggle to work enough magic to get the Devil’s Own back into the top 4.  Dominic Robertson-McCoy and Josh Rowland could be worth keeping an eye on though as both are born and raised in New Zealand but qualify to represent Ireland.

Edinburgh’s rather disappointing 11th place finish saw them splash the cash in the off season and the inclusion of 12 new faces while they allowed 11 others to leave for pastures new shows just how proactive they’ve been in preparation for the new season (although Jason Tovey did arrive north of the border in March as a loan signing before finalising his permanent move).  Tovey’s arrival did see an increase in Edinburgh’s try scoring, they scored 11 in the 4 games that he was involved in and notched one of their two try scoring bonus points after he signed.  Duncan Weir’s arrival from Glasgow should see the Edinburgh backline become even more dynamic this season and with Samoan born Centre Sasa Tofilau arriving from Kirkcaldy RFC, Alex Northam an “Australian born speedster” who has been described as one of the fastest men in world rugby (10.69 for the 100m certainly is not too shabby) and Junior Rasolea who has Australian 7’s caps outside Weir or Tovey Edinburgh certainly shouldn’t struggle for 5 pointers this time around.

16 players left Cardiff Blues at the end of last season (in what was called a “squad cull”) and they were replaced by just 7 as the management team signalled their intention to use more academy players.  Head Coach Danny Wilson said “You can train with far more intensity with a squad of 45 than you can with a squad of 58” quality over quantity it is then, although the key to this plan is the quality of the signings.  In Matthew Morgan (who also played at the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup), Steven Shingler and their very own Kiwi signing Willis Halaholo the Blues have bought in some quality but in Nick Williams and Rhys Gill they have signed 2 players with a combined age of 62 who are more known for giving away penalties than they are for threatening opposing defences.  The addition of South African Lock George Earle to a squad that already includes Jarrad Hoeata is a potential red flag for Pro 12 referees and a sign that the Blues won’t be backing down from any physical confrontations this season.  Danny Wilson made his name as a forwards coach at Newport and Bristol before the Blues took him on as a Head Coach and for such a highly regarded forwards coach to oversee such a poor pack last season must have been quite galling for the Weston-super-Mare man, so to not sign a Tight Head Prop and instead to rely on a combination of veteran’s Salesi Ma’afu (33 years old), who in fairness did improve their scrum last year following his signing (Toulon released him following an assault conviction) Tau Filise (39 years old) and the 20 year old Dillon Lewis seems a massive gamble.

The Ospreys have taken a similar approach to the Blues and have seen 14 players up sticks whilst they have bought in just 5 fresh faces.  Of the new singings only Rhodri Jones is under 25 and along with fellow new boy Hugh Gustafson he has been an almost permanent injury concern for the last 2 season, so exactly what sort of value both these signings will provide is questionable.  The problem for the Ospreys in the last few seasons has appeared to be more with the coaching staff than the playing staff as a soft pack of forwards has looked lethargic in big games (usually away from home in Europe) and a stuttering backline hasn’t helped them.  Kieron Fonotia the Ospreys big name signing from New Zealand (it’d be rude to not make at least one) could help to settle the backline down but if the forwards can’t provide them with quality, quick ball then he’ll just have to cover all the tackles that Sam Davies will miss inside him.

It’s difficult to pick an order for the bottom 3 teams based on their playing staff purely because they all look like they have plenty of talented players to select from but previous experience proves that there is something wrong within all 3 setups.  The Dragons seem to be permanently engulfed in internal political wrangling, there have been rumblings of “potential new investors” around Rodney Park for months now but no actual investors or new owners have actually materialised.  Zebre have some scintillating backs in the form of Matteo Pratichetti and Mattia Bellini and their new signing from (guess where…) New Zealand (I know, right?) Kurt Baker, who is an absolute flying machine and veteran of 24 World 7’s Series tournaments with Sir Gordon Tietjens’ unstoppable (until this year) team.  With Giovanbattista Venditti returning from his spell in Newcastle they also have a 17 and a half stone monster on the wing so they won’t lack for incision or brute force in their three quarters.  Discipline has always been an issue for Zebre and with their largely Italian coaching team keeping a lid on emotions can sometimes take a backseat to exasperated gesturing on the sidelines while the team on the field just rack up the yellow cards.

On the other hand Treviso have a new Head Coach in the form of ex-All Black Kieran Crowley and with the experienced team around of him of  Ongaro, Bortolami and Marius Goosen they may well be the surprise package of the coming season.  Their biggest battle will be trying to integrate 15 new players into a squad of 42, however with all the new signings Treviso now have 24 capped Internationals in their 42 so they should be able to string together some wins.  Obviously they’ve got a New Zealander joining them in the form of Fly Half Marty Banks, Banks is a veteran of 3 Super Rugby campaigns (he’s also played in Russia but don’t let that put you off) Banks scored a rather impressive 9 tries in his 22 Super Rugby appearances so his attacking intent is there for all to see.  Banks isn’t the only Fly Half that Treviso have signed up for next season as the mercurial Tomasso Allen returns to Italy from France and with Michael Tagicakibau joining David Odiete and the dangerous Jayden Hayward and Angelo Esposito bringing some experience of Italian rugby to the backline Treviso should improve on the measly 3 wins they recorded last season.

The Dragons are frankly a worry, after last season’s Lyn Jones-gate (was he ill, was in West London for an interview? We’ll never know) Kingsley Jones oversaw a complete shock of a victory in Kingsholm and suddenly there was a reason for optimism in Gwent, but then the Montpellier pack showed just how brittle the Dragons pack is (as the South African exiles did to most packs in Europe) and that basic issue remains.  They have signed three props, two from the Blues who were hardly Montpellier-esque in their forward dominance last season and one, Tom Davies (who was deemed surplus to requirements in Cardiff back in 2011) from Doncaster.  The Dragons have two of the most exciting young back row players in Wales in Harrison Keddie and Ollie Griffiths who when mixed with the experience of New Zealand Maori Nick Crosswell (who could be the most underrated rugby player in the Pro 12) and the likes of Ed Jackson, Lewis Evans and Nic Cudd could challenge any group of back rowers in the league.  The fact that they have to play almost exclusively on the back foot however completely negates any amount of talent of experience that they posses.  The Dragons are not wanting for talent in the back division either with Ashton Hewitt, Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos forming a triumphant of speedy outside backs who will have the likes of South African born Carl Meyer (in his second full season) and Pat Howard to link up with.  Nick McLeod’s arrival from Sale gives them an experienced head to steer them around the field and he should be an ideal accomplice for either the busy Sarel Pretorius or the bustling Charlie Davies at Scrum Half.  However if the Dragons can’t find a dominant Tight Head then they could struggle even more than they did last time out.

So I’d expect the final standings to look like this-

  1. Ulster
  2. Glasgow
  3. Scarlets
  4. Leinster
  5. Munster
  6. Connacht
  7. Edinburgh
  8. Blues
  9. Ospreys
  10. Benetton Treviso
  11. Zebre
  12. Newport Gwent Dragons

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