The eyes of the Rugby world might be on happenings in New Zealand but the new look Celtic League begins its 11th season and the League is now looking stronger than ever.
The RaboDirect Pro12 kicks off on Friday evening as last year’s beaten finalists and Heineken Cup winners travel to Wales to take on the Ospreys.
There is no running away from the fact that the World Cup means that the best players from the twelve competing sides are away on international duty but there is still plenty of quality and experienced players on duty for the beginning of the Pro12.
As I mentioned, Leinster kick off the new campaign with a tricky away trip to the Ospreys’. Leinster are perhaps one of the sides who are most affected by the absence of the international players but their steady flow of young talent will hold them in good stead.
Despite this Leinster have named a very strong side for the Liberty Stadium clash, with internationals Kevin McLaughlin, Luke Fitzgerald, Heinke van der Merwe, Devin Toner and Dominic Ryan all lining up for the European champions.
Add those international quality players with the youthful talent of Fionn Carr, Dave Kearney, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin O’Malley, not to mention Isa Nacewa at full back; he was one of the stars of Leinster’s European success last season.
The Osprey’s side is a little more depleted and it shows the strength in depth that Joe Schmidt has at his disposal. Last year’s top point’s scorer Dan Biggar starts at out half for the Welsh side while Ian Gough provides experience in the pack. I can’t see any result but a Leinster victory in Wales on Friday evening. Kickoff is at 7.05pm
Ulster also kicks off their new season on Friday evening at Ravenhill. They were beaten in last year’s semi final by Leinster and Brian McLaughlin’s men will be looking to go one step further this year. They begin with an easier match then their Irish counterparts but none the less, Ulster won’t be taking Glasgow lightly when they travel to Belfast.
Ulster’s strong overseas and youthful look means McLaughlin has a largely full strength squad to pick from apart from the likes of Andrew Trimble who is in Durban with Ireland. Ian Humphreys will be hoping for another good season as he looks to push for a berth in an upcoming Ireland squad but for now the out half has to settle for a starring role with Ulster.
Glasgow Warriors came second bottom last time round and only were saved from the wooden spoon by Italian side Aironi. Despite their bad season, Glasgow have won their first game in the past three seasons but you can’t see past a home win on Friday and perhaps a perfect start for Brian McLaughlin’s men. Kickoff is at 7.05pm.
In the other game on Friday, Edinburgh hosts the Cardiff Blues at Murrayfield. Both sides will be affected by the absence of players on international duty but a good open game could be expected. Kickoff is at 7.30pm.
The action continues over the weekend and Saturday sees four more teams begin the 2011-12 season. Italian side Treviso, who impressed last campaign host Connacht on Saturday afternoon. It’s a big season for Connacht as they have qualified for the Heineken Cup for the first time thanks to Leinster’s successes last year but Eric Elwood will want a strong league campaign to build on their achievements in the last few years.
They have built a new stand in Galway and have nearly sold all their season tickets already so things are looking up for Rugby in the West of Ireland and more good results on the pitch will go a long way to developing the game in Connacht. Gavin Duffy will skipper Connacht for the first time in Italy but they have lost Fionn Carr and Sean Cronin to Leinster during the summer but can still rely on the likes of Jonny O’Connor, John Muldoon, Mark McCrea, Frank Murphy and Duffy himself.
It will be tough for Connacht in humid conditions on Saturday but they might just be able to come away from the Stadio di Monigo with four opening weekend points. Treviso mind you have won their last two League games at home so will provide a stiff opposition for Elwood’s charges. I reckon Connacht might just nick it, kickoff is at 2pm.
Last season’s winners, Munster begins their title defence with a home game against the Dragons at Musgrave Park. Inevitably Tony McGahan is without a number of his big name stars due to the World Cup but he has a lot of experience and talent to call on. The Munster backs look very good despite the absence of O’Gara. Howlett, Stringer, Hurley, Mafi and Johne Murphy all start on Saturday evening while the pack isn’t too bad either. Marcus Horan, Mick O’Driscoll and Niall Ronan are all experienced campaigners and should be too strong for the Dragons.
If things aren’t going to plan, McGahan can call on John Hayes or Tomas O’Leary off the bench which also includes flying winger Zebo and Wian du Preez. Munster will be far too strong for a Dragons side who exceeded expectations last year after finishing mid table. The visitors to Musgrave Park on Saturday beat Munster last year at Rodney Parade and the Welsh side have incredibly won their first game for the past six years but they have lost their last four games against Irish provinces. Paul Turner’s side looks a bit bear as they travel to Cork but they cannot be underestimated as they showed last season. Munster should this one win comfortably and should probably pick up all five points. Kickoff is 7.45pm.
Finally, Scarlets and Aironi conclude the opening weekend of the RaboDirect Pro12 on Sunday afternoon. The Welsh club have fallen in recent years after becoming a European force but they are still a very good side who are always up there come the end of the season. Aironi are yet to record an away victory in the competition since joining it at the start of last year and they lost all eight games against Welsh opposition in their maiden season. Kickoff is at 4pm.
So the domestic Rugby season kicks off, somewhat in the shadow of the big one, the Rugby World Cup but you can be sure to see some top quality rugby across Europe in the next eight months. The RaboDirect Pro12 starts here!
by Ryan Bailey, @ryanbaileysport