We saw Irish teams playing a lot of rugby through the month of August but none of it actually counted towards anything! So with the World Cup still a tantalising seven days away, it’s good that we have the kickoff of the new-look RaboDirect Pro12 to get the competitive ball rolling on the 2011/12 season!
And of course the question most Irish fans will be asking is…just how can our provinces possibly match their success from last season? With Munster claiming the title, not to mention three of our teams making the final four playoffs and a fourth qualifying for their first Heineken Cup, this season could be a hard act to follow, wouldn’t you say?
Only time will tell and a key phase of the new campaign will of course be that which takes place while the World Cup is going on in New Zealand. This evening Ulster and Leinster get going against Glasgow and Ospreys respectively.
The Ravenhill faithful will have high hopes for the coming season as the additions of names like Jared Payne and John Afoa from SupeRugby will no doubt boost their squad. Yet although neither have arrived and of course they also have big names at the World Cup, they still have an impressive line up to start the season.
Ian Humphreys will lead a quality young backline with top prospects like Spence, Cave, Cilroy & Adam D’Arcy around him and Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy will lead from the front in the pack. Their opponents Glasgow I fear will have been hit harder than most by the big tournament down under and could well struggle. Connacht fans will no doubt be wishing their former favourite Troy “Maori Leprechaun” Nathan all the best in his new Warrior colours and he lines up for the visitors at inside centre.
Meanwhile the Liberty Stadium Swansea may already be enjoying Premiership football this season (if enjoying is the proper word given the Swans results so far) but tonight local rugby fans get to witness the arrival of the reigning European Champions Leinster.
Joe Schmidt’s squad may be more depleted than most by the World Cup but his match day 23 still features 7 who were in his lineup for the Heineken Cup final, including Luke Fitzgerald wearing an unusual -for-him 12 jumper which will be interesting to see.
The Ospreys have familiar names of their own such as Dan Biggar at outhalf, skipper Jason Tipuric and Duncan “Hairbear” Jones, but given the quality throughout the Leinster side particularly Mat Berquist at outhalf who impressed greatly in preseason, this could see a rare victory on Welsh soil for the visitors.
Then on Saturday afternoon it’s Connacht’s turn to get thair exciting new season started as they travel to Italy to play Benneton Treviso. Of the Irish provinces only Ulster managed to win there last season as Treviso helped themselves to 8 wins out of 11 at home in their maiden outing in the competition.
Eric Elwood will no doubt have one eye on the Heineken Cup campaign as he attempts to mould together virtually a brand new squad which over the summer saw many departures replaced by arrivals from clubs in Ireland, England, Wales, South Africa, New Zealand and even the return of former Sportsground favourite George Naoupu from a stint in Japan!
Last but certainly not least, reigning league champions Munster begin the defence of their title on Saturday night with a clash at Musgrave Park against the Newport Gwent Dragons.
Much like the Leinster & Ulster lineups, you can’t help but be impressed by particularly the backline as selected by Tony McGahan with none other than Peter Stringer at scrum-half, new recruit from Connacht Ian Keatley outside him, and recognised stars like Johne Murphy, Howlett, Hurley, Mafi and even young Danny Barnes who impressed towards the end of last season.
Which leads me to my predictions for the four Irish provinces – I think we’ll click three out of four with sadly Connacht falling short. I’m seeing nothing but a gloomy year ahead for Glasgow and I reckon a trip to Ravenhill is the last way they wanted to start the season, so it could well be a double-digit victory for the home side there.
Over in Swansea I think it could be close with Leinster prevailing by about 4-6 pts. Treviso should be at least a converted try better than Connacht while I expect Munster to comfortably earn a bonus-point triumph in Cork.
All in all it should be a fascinating weekend’s rugby with of course the Aviva Premiership kicking off across the water and the marathon French Top14 already in its second week.
Be sure and enjoy your rugby wherever you are this weekend and I’ll be back next week to preview round 2. JLP
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