6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

England will be delighted to play a game at sea level to end what has been a fairly inauspicious tour against a Springbok team very much in transition. Rassie Erasmus is yet to lose a Test since he took the reigns and his influence is being felt both on and off the field in South African rugby, unlike his predecessors he’s been able to pick the players that he wants instead of selecting players who fit within a tight set of parameters laid out by people outside the coaching set up and the results have proved his approach is a beneficial one.

However now he’s won his first Test series Erasmus has given some players on the periphery of his squad the chance to shine in the third Test with Elton Jantjies starting at 10, Chiliboy Ralapelle and Frans Malherbe come into the front row and a Centre combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel make an appearance. The new inside backs could take a while to find their feet as a combination especially defensively and that might give England a bit of joy in attack.

England themselves have made a few changes and one in particular smacks of desperation, Joe Marler’s inclusion at Loose Head could be a huge weakness particularly at scrum time as he gives up a stone and a half to Malherbe. Chris Robshaw comes into the backrow as Brad Shields has fallen ill, Robshaw was one of the players who really suffered at altitude in the first Test and couldn’t even command a spot on the bench for the second Test. Billy Vunipola re-breaking his arm in the second Test leads to Nathan Hughes starting his 17th Test and he’s yet to be the dominant force that Eddie Jones needs from his number 8. Danny Cipriani starts a Test for the first time in 10 years (coincidentally the last start was against the Boks in Twickenham) and this is where Eddie Jones’ logic seems particularly difficult to follow. If Cipriani was starting because the Test series is over and George Ford is too important to risk in a dead rubber then why aren’t Jason Woodward and Dan Robson getting starts too? If Eddie believes that Cipriani is the creative force who can conjure tries from nowhere when his pack is getting a bit stuffed (like it has been on occasion at Wasps) why didn’t he start him ahead of Ford before now? Its all a but muddled, but it is what it is I can see Cipriani being a driving force for England in attack but I think even at sea level England will struggle to dominate the Bok pack. Elton Jantjies is always a potential weakness and more often than not will crumble under pressure so Ben Curry (who has been England’s best player so far on this tour) has a vital job, if he can get to Jantjies then Cipriani might get some all important turn over ball to work with.

Only 1 thing is certain about this game, with new half back combinations and squally weather predicted for Cape Town it won’t be the prettiest 80 minutes of rugby you’ve ever seen. If England can start as quickly as they have in the previous 2 weeks and continue their intensity then they might finally get the win Eddie Jones needs (he doesn’t really, he’s not too bothered about what happens now provided his conditioning team have scheduled their program so his team in November 2019 but he’s fed up of answering questions from clueless journalists). If the weather is wet and windy then England’s pack have got a long Saturday evening ahead of them and with Willie Le Roux, Jean-Luc Du Preez, Handre Pollard and the “retired” Schalk Brits to come off the bench the Springboks should have enough firepower to complete an increasingly comfortable whitewash

Summer tours, the final chapters (continued)

Australia and Ireland are playing the only live Test series this weekend after Ireland’s victory in the second Test last week. Australia’s tight 5 have been a real thorn in the side of an Irish team who rolled over opposition seemingly at will during the 6 Nations and along with Marius Van Der Westhuizen’s laissez-faire approach to tacklers rolling away (or not) they provided David Pocock with a near perfect return to Test rugby as he turned over Irish ruck seemingly at will (Ireland conceded 21 turnovers in all on that occasion). In the second Test however they conceded just 9 as specialist 7 Dan Leavy replaced Jack Conan and CJ Stander returned to his natural position of number 8 (although it should be mentioned that kiwi ref Paul Williams’ penchant for whistle blowing made for a much more staccato game and cleaner rucks for Conor Murray to walk with).

This week Ireland have gone back to the back row that struggled in the first Test but with Pascal Gauzere in charge of the whistle this week team selection maybe a secondary factor in terms of the outcome of this game. Gauzere refereed the Top 14 semi final between Montpellier and Lyon and the home certainly appeared to benefit from a few decisions as Montpellier were awarded 13 penalties compared to Lyon’s 8.

The Irish backline is bolstered by the return of Jacob Stockdale who was missed last week especially when Ireland found themselves hammering away at the Australian try line and missed the rapier like Stockdale, instead they had to repeatedly use the blunt instruments like Stander and Furlong who eventually crashed over for the winning try. Ireland also welcome back the defensive wall who is Bundee Aki at 12, which moves Robbie Henshaw out into the 13 channel where he looks far less comfortable than Garry Ringrose and that is the key indicator of where Joe Schmidt and this Ireland squad are just 15 months out from a World Cup.

I think Schmidt is trying to get new combinations to dovetail to improve the depth of his squad, the only slight surprise is that the 2 most important people in his squad start this weekend in Murray and Jonny Sexton but after the chasing Australia gave Ireland when Schmidt rested Sexton in the first Test maybe he’s hoping Sexton can inspire the unsettled players to a higher level of performance than Joey Carberry could.

Ireland are the bookmakers favourite for this game and Gauzere’s Northern Hemisphere interpretations at the breakdown may well benefit the tourists but I think Hooper, Pocock and the man mountain Lukhan Tui in the backrow should cause chaos that Peter O’Mahoney alone won’t be able to counter.

Aviva Premiership playoff preview Exeter v Newcastle

Sadly the Falcons at the Chiefs isn’t a Super Bowl matchup where we get to Vic Beasley chasing Patrick Mahomes around Mercedes Benz Stadium, it’s yet another game of rugby in the unnecessary playoffs that administrators love and players suffer through because generating revenue is far more important than any player welfare concerns that anyone might have.

This game seems particularly unnecessary when you consider Newcastle have got an aggregate score of 99-37 when they’ve played the top 3 teams this season! For their part Newcastle do have the joint top try scorer in the league in the shape of Vereniki Goneva (13 alongside Josh Adams) but Goneva has very often been the Falcons only incisive runner and it will take more than 1 attacking threat beat Exeter at home.

Exeter have only been beaten at home once this season and that was during the 6 Nations when they were without all of their International players, the weather also had a part to play in that result as Gareth Steenson’s conversion to win the game was blown off course and Worcester ran out 6-5 victors. That was back in February and after their early exit from European competition Exeter have had a comparatively sparse fixture list, with just 3 games since the end of March, Newcastle’s foray into the knock out stages of the Challenge Cup saw them play 5 over the same period.

Whilst it is impressive that Newcastle have returned to the playoffs their mixed form away from home, largely caused by a questionable defence, they’ve conceded on average 24 points away from home this season (although Exeter put 34 past them back in October). Actually Newcastle and Exeter have played 3 times this season (but who counts the Anglo-Welsh Cup?) but Exeter won that game at Sandy Park too.

Sandy Park is a bit of a fortress, Exeter have scored on average 32 points each game this season and barring some inexplicable weather conditions (which are entirely possible in their part of the world) I can’t see Newcastle being able to stop the foreboding doomsday device that is the Exeter pack. It might not be the prettiest game Exeter’s season ticket holders have seen all season as the Falcons are bound to everything humanly possible to stop them but with Gareth Steenson and Joe Simmonds there to punish the inevitable penalties it should be a fairly smooth passage to Twickenham for the Devonians.

Not such great expectations 

I am all too aware that expecting Wales to win a Test match can lead to the sort of soul crushing disappointment that can only be caused by combining a forward pack coached by a Druid with a backline coached by a scrum half but I fully expect Wales to continue their winning streak against the Springboks this afternoon (granted it’s only 2 games, but Wales have only beaten 2 teams ranked in the World Rugby top 10 in the last 12 months)

Expecting a win when Wales first 3 choices at Tight-Head is borderline insanity too but the major part of Wales’ gameplan is their line speed in defence so even if South Africa dominate the set piece and win a ridiculous amount of possession they should struggle to dominate territory with the same ease.  New boy Hadleigh Parkes alongside the wiley old head that is Dan Biggar should actually provide a level of organisation and communication that hasn’t always been evident from Wales’ inside backs in recent years and if the Welsh backs can keep Jesse Kriel contained and get him to floor I really fancy the Welsh back row to dominate the ruck area which should provide enough penalties to keep Wales in the game.

The Springbok back row has got 2 fantastic ball carriers in it, if Siya Kolisi gets the ball in space he is faster than most of Wales’ defenders and Daniel Du Preez is huge number 8 who played under 13 rugby for Natal while he was still in primary school (he’s got a twin brother Jean-Luc who got injured in the Currie Cup final and an older brother Robert who has been an outstanding 10 for the Barbarians) but the balance of their back row is thrown slightly off-kilter with the selection of Pieter-Steph Du Toit. Du Toit is a very mobile second row but when you have Eben Etzebeth and Lood De Jager (both 6 foot 7 plus giant’s) as your starting lock combination you’re not really looking for a 6 foot 5 lock so Du Toit becomes a pretty average blindside as the Springboks try to get all their good players on the pitch at once. Wales have got a 6 foot 5 blindside of their own and if Shingler finds himself in a 1-on-1 situation with Du Toit it could be a very interesting foot race. Incidentally if Josh Navidi continues the sort of form he found against the All Blacks last week (and let’s not forget the Springboks got rolled over 57-0 when they travelled to New Zealand earlier this year) then Navidi’s cameo as a Test player may become more of supporting cast role (they won’t pick over a fit Warburton but Gatland is hardly a Tipuric fan at the best of times).

My biggest reason for the uncommon optimism I’m feeling is because this will be the Springboks 13th Test of the year and some of their squad have played in every single one! Due mainly to injuries Wales have got through a hell of a lot of players and really only Faletau, Alun-Wyn and Biggar have played major role for both Wales and the Lions this year. There’s also the Jerome Garces factor at play, he’s refereed the Springboks on something like 17 occasions and they’ve only won 3 Tests, it should be interesting, it could be ugly but if Wales’ defence can finally win them a Test who cares?

Aviva Premiership rugby 2016 prediction

dsc_0455.jpgIf the future of the Pro 12 involves an influx of Kiwi talent then the story of the Premiership is far more cosmopolitan with players arriving from Japan, France, South Africa, Ireland, Kenya, Australia, Argentina, Georgia, Scotland, the United States, Wales, Italy and of course New Zealand .  With 50 players arriving from overseas to join up with Premiership teams highlighting every single new player would take longer than the season actually will but here’s a few to look out for.

Dewald Potgeiter arrives in Worcester from Japan and while the back rower only has 6 Springbok caps he’s a fiery customer who seems to be omnipresent on the field.  Savenaca Rawaca is a Fijian 7’s star and a 16 and a half stone Centre who is nicknames “Pit-bull” (he’s probably quicker than Brian Moore though), so he’ll be fun to watch in Barnet.

Josh Charnely’s arrival in Sale from Wigan (a whopping 15 miles away) is going to be very interesting because he’s an expert finisher in league and an accomplished goal kicker too, so he could become a star extremely quickly.

Taulupe Faletau appears to have left his International career behind in Wales in order to play for a team who might actually win something at Bath and if fellow newbie’s Luke Charteris and Elliot Stooke can bolster their pack enough they could be winning silverware this season.  Faletau isn’t the only Number 8 to leave their native country to taste the Premiership this season.

Northampton have added Louis Picamoles to their already talented back row group, he will fill the Samu Manoa shaped whole they had last season but whether they have the depth and talent in the half backs to compete with the top 4 is questionable.

Bristol have signed 12 new players in the off season and Jordan Williams is probably the most exciting of them all (although Thretton Palamo and Rhodri Williams are both very dynamic too) but exactly how quickly Bristol can adapt to their turnover in personnel (10 have left too) remains to be seen.

Gloucester have signed two front rowers from New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, Tight Head Prop Josh Hohneck could be the answer to their creaking scrum and Samoan Hooker Motu Matu’u can only be described as a wrecking ball so Gloucester may finally be able to consistently provide their star studded backline with some clean ball.

Exeter Chiefs have only bought in three new players; two, in the shape of experienced Aussies Dave Dennis (18 Wallaby caps and 107 Super Rugby caps) and Greg Holmes (27 Wallaby caps and 144 Super Rugby caps) could be very useful and will make their pack even more formidable.  Ollie Devoto on the other hand looks like he’ll be a squad player, especially baring in mind that one of the players of the 6 Nations Michele Campagnaro struggled to get a game in the Chiefs sparkling backline last season.

Harlequins have snaffled up a Kiwi lock in Mark Reddish from the Highlanders but their season looks to be more about the youngsters they have coming through, Jonas Mikalcius shone at the recent preseason 7’s series & scored 27 tries in National League 1 last season (he used to play in the back row but now he’s a 6feet 3inch, 17 stone 10lb winger!!).  The signing of Ruaridh Jackson means that in Nick Evans traditional injury absence they won’t have to rely on Ben Botica so Harlequins could finish higher than last year’s lowly 7th.

Newcastle have only got 14 new faces arriving in the North East this summer and 17 leaving so they have got a bit of a rebuilding job on their hands Joel Hodgson returning to the place where he started back 2010 is the most interesting signing.  He looked an incredibly raw yet talented Fly Half when he left since when he’s been used as a Scrum Half too but if Dean Richards trusts him to run the Falcons backline they could be a very attacking team this season.

Wasps have made use of their shiny, new and almost unlimited chequebook as they have signed Kurtley Beale, Willie Le Roux, Kyle Eastmond, Danny Cipriani, Guy Armitage and Jacob Umaga to boost their backline (not that it needed boosting).  They’ve also signed Matt Symons, Marty Moore and Tommy Taylor (amongst others) to boost their forward pack, they have however lost 12 players too so they may have a transition period to work through in Coventry.  Bradley Davies loss could be bigger than some imagine and when allied to Lorenzo Cittadini’s move to France it could have a negative impact on their scrummaging power.  George Smith returning to Japan combined with James Haskell’s injury absence will affect their breakdown prowess and despite Le Roux’s arrival Charles Piutau’s loss will be felt for a while.

Leicester Tigers have added Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen to a backline that already included Peter Betham, Manu Tuilagi and Matthew Tait so they won’t be lacking behind the scrum.  Whether or not they can avoid the insurmountable injury tally they notched up last season remains to be seen but with the addition of South African Prop Pat Cilliers and Hooker George McGuigan they have added two impressive front rowers to the squad.  Luke Hamilton’s signing from Agen is an interesting one, he’s not got the size or bulk that the Tigers usually look for in a back rower but he’s tenacious, he was one f the top tacklers in last year’s Top 14 league and as a youngster (he’s still just 24) he was a prolific try scorer for Cardiff Blues.

Here’s a wild stab in the dark at the Aviva Premiership table come next May-

  1. Saracens (stability is key)
  2. Leicester Tigers (Mauger was just getting them going by the end of last season)
  3. Exeter Chiefs (stability, remember)
  4. Bath (I have blind faith in Todd Blackadder)
  5. Wasps (depends how quickly Beale returns to fitness)
  6. Harlequins (not sure about the coaches but there’s oodles of talent in the field)
  7. Northampton Saints (love the forwards and the outside backs, don’t trust the half backs)
  8. Sale (it’ll take a while to bed in all the newbie’s)
  9. Gloucester (love Andy Symons addition but they always seem blighted by injury)
  10. Worcester Warriors (Dean Ryan’s pack could be difficult to stop, it won’t be pretty but it’ll be effective)
  11. Newcastle (Dean Richards is a canny operator, but it’ll take a while to get a starting XV out of 47 players)
  12. Bristol (love the Welsh contingent but a squad with 8 Centre’s points toward total confusion)

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