Sport: Oval Digest – The Season In Preview, Part 2
After starting with Connacht and Munster last week, and with the big kick off now just a matter of hours away, this week we’ll take a look at the two remaining Irish provinces, and at the league as a whole. The hard pre-season has been done and real rugby is back, plus the Heineken Cup first round is less than 45 days away, so let’s take a look at last year’s finalists.
The Ulstermen had a crazy season last year. A mixed Rabo performance saw them miss out on qualifying for the playoffs, but some excellent European displays like facing down Leicester at a rainy Ravenhill (is it ever not rainy up there?), edging out Munster at a packed Thomond and even matching Clermont for power away meant they got a shot at dethroning the European champions in Twickenham. Of course, this didn’t go to plan, but overall, it was a positive year for the Northerners. This year, Brian McLaughlin returns to youth coaching, to be replaced by New Zealander Mark Anscombe. Despite having caused some controversy in his native NZ, Anscombe comes North with a fairly promising C.V., though many were slightly perturbed at the dismissal of McLaughlin.
There’s been quite a bit of movement in and out of Belfast over the Summer, with Monaghan’s prodigal son Tommy Bowe returning from a stint in Wales, and Number 8 Roger Wilson back from Northampton. There have also been the key losses of Ian Humphreys to London Irish (obviously annoyed at being left out of the HEC Final 15), and Saffer colossus Pedrie Wannenburg, though there’s still the nucleus of a very good squad there.
Ulster have been handed a fairly manageable HEC draw with Northampton, Castres and Glasgow, and the Belfast faithful will be hoping to see the team kick on and retain their position as number two in the Irish provincial rankings, while perhaps becoming more consistent in the league.
Irish internationals Best, Ferris, Bowe, Wallace and Trimble will all be key to a good follow up year, while Southern Hemisphere pack leaders John Afoa and Johann Muller will be crucial to Rabo ambitions.
However, it’s South African scrum half Ruan Pienaar that’s central to Ulster’s ambitions. Kicker and playmaker, the former Sharks man will need to help out rookie outhalf Jackson and create space for the pacey outside backs, and it’s him that really makes the team tick.
Watch out too for Kiwi recruit Jared Payne, who had his season cut short by injury last year.
Young Gun to Watch:
Ulster have some excellent youngsters on the books, including already established winger Craig Gilroy, a ready made successor to Ferris in Iain Henderson and centre Luke Marshall. Unfortunately prop Paddy Mcallister will miss most, if not all of the season with an injury, leaving a hole in the front row division, but it’s at 10 that Ulster’s main worries may lay. The loss of Humpreys has led to a return of the much-maligned Niall O’Connor from Connacht, but Paddy Jackson looks set to retain the 10 jersey from Twickers. Jackson has a lot to learn about outhalf play, but has shown some glimpses of becoming a star, and his development will be key to the season.
Was it a great season or a good one? The loss of a third Rabo Final in as many seasons on a roasting day in the R.D.S. certainly put a dampener on the Leinster season, and indeed captain Leo Cullen and coach Joe Schmidt have both talked about the hurt that the loss to Ospreys caused them over the Summer.
Leinster have been relatively quiet on the transfer front, with squad players like Irish Qualified Michael Bent and Tom Denton coming in, and second line Southern Hemisphere players Quinn Roux (a bustling second rower) and Andrew Goodman (a kicking first centre) also recruited. These could turn out to be shrewd buys.
Overall though, it’s a squad which doesn’t need much improvement should injuries stay away, and Leinster should be looking to put that Rabo hoodoo right in 2012-13. To regain the Heineken Cup in the Aviva may prove a step too far you’d think, particularly with Clermont in their Heineken Cup group. However, nothing is beyond this Leinster team, and with Schmidt set to possibly leave after this year, it would be a fitting send off for one of the best coaches Irish rugby has ever seen.
Leinster do start with big injuries, and the first four games will be a struggle, with the likes of Fitzgerald, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Rhys Ruddock and Sean O Brien not expected to be back until at least November, and possibly later.
As with Ulster, there are numerous leaders in the Leinster team whom you could say are key players. Obviously Sexton at 10 makes the backline tick and Ross at tighthead is incredibly crucial to the team’s chances, as we saw in the Rabo Final last year.
O’Driscoll and Heaslip’s fitness will also play a big part in the season, while Nacewa and Boss will be put on ‘child-minding’ duty in the Rabo during international periods, providing that much needed cool head for the young guns around.
The big issue for Leinster this year though comes in the second row. The academy is producing swathes of backrowers, props and outside backs, but Leinster’s second row depth chart isn’t what you’d expect from a top level HEC team. It’s for that reason that the partnership of Leo Cullen and Devin Toner will be crucial. Toner had an excellent season last year, with a real bite about his play, and of course he basically guarantees lineout ball. He’ll need to step it up again this year and really look to cement his place for big games. Cullen on the other hand has turned quite the enforcer in his old age, perhaps by design. The captain will be hoping to stay at the top level for at least another year, though he did show signs of slowing down last year. The loss of ‘Big Bad’ Brad Thorne back to Japan is a big one, though this is mitigated by the excellent performances of grizzled Galway man Damien Browne. This area is where Leinster will be tested come the big games.
Young Guns to Watch:
Leinster are in the fortunate position that even with a full team of internationals not available, there’s still academy talent to come in. This is a huge year for Ian Madigan, as he looks to continue his form at 10, while props Jack McGrath and Martin Moore (watch out for this guy at TH) will be hoping for some Rabo game time. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough season is expected of backrow Dominic Ryan though. A 6/7 with pace and a powerful tackle, Ryan has been on the fringes of the team for a year or two now, and will be looking to push on past Jennings for big games. Backs Macken and Conway may see a lot of gametime in the league too.
Italian new boys Zebre have been installed in place of Aironi this year and will surely prop up the table, with compatriots Treviso providing some shocks. In Wales, Cardiff look set to struggle, with the loss of some big names like Gethin Jenkins, Dan Parks and Casey Laulala, while Scarlets continue to blood new talent and Dragons will, as always, provide stiff opposition at Rodney Parade. League champions Ospreys will again be play off contenders, but have also lost a bit of squad depth, including stars like Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams.
In Scotland meanwhile, Glasgow make the much needed move to a new stadium and look set for another crack at the Rabo playoffs, but it’s Edinburgh who have impressed this writer with their recruitment, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they challenged for the title.
Players to keep an eye out for include Osprey’s Justin Tipuric (a late Lions bolter perhaps?), new Edinburgh recruit Ben Atiga and Glasgow Warrior’s flying youngster Stuart Hogg.
Let the season begin!