Rabodirect Pro 12: Splitting the Contenders from the Pretenders

Paul MurphyCorrespondent IAugust 31, 2012

Rabodirect Pro 12: Splitting the Contenders from the Pretenders

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    On Friday night see the return of the Rabodirect Pro 12 tournament. The tournament will see the best sides in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales will go head to head over the next 9 months.

    Last season, the Ospreys claimed the title in a pulsating 80 minutes of action as they defeated the newly crowned European champions Leinster 31-30.

    While it may not have the prestige of history of either the Aviva Premiership or the Top 14, it has showcased some breathtaking rugby in recent years.

    I will break down the top sides in the competition and decide if they are contenders of mearly pretenders.

Ospreys

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    European rugby's self-styled 'Galacticos' turned a corner last year and a return to basics was rewarded with the ultimate prize. 

    Gone are the big name superstars and bottles of fake tan. They have been replaced with a host of talented youngsters and a great team spirit.

    They have lost talisman Shane Williams but young players like Justin Tipuric, Hanno Dirksen, Matthew Morgan and Eli Walker should soften the blow.

    To guide these youngsters they have a good mix of experienced heads.

    Prediction: Contenders

Cardiff Blues

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    For so long they were the big name in Welsh rugby. Now they find themselves playing second fiddle to the Ospreys.

    For all the talent they have on paper it just never quit comes together for the men from the Welsh capital.

    Their team-sheet is a who's who of Welsh rugby. Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and so on are not just Welsh superstars, but global ones.

    This season will be one of change at the Cardiff Arms Park after the departure of a host of big names.

    Much will depend on how Jason Tovey settles in at fly-half.

    Prediction: Pretenders

Scarlets

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    A team that has long been on the brink of success but seemingly incapable of making that final step.

    This current group of players is chock full of talent. Players like George North, Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Davies are already part of the Welsh setup, while youngster like Scott Williams, Rhodri Jones and Liam Williams aren't far away.

    They will need Priestland to regain form if they are to challenge and much depends on how the team adapts to the departure of coach Nigel Davies.

    If it all clicks, they will be hard to beat.

    Prediction: Contenders

Munster

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    I doubt any team has gone through as great of a transition this summer as Munster. A string of retirements has seen them lose of many of the players that were key to the clubs recent success.

    They have lost players with over 300 international caps, and aside from Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara, their team-sheet is almost unrecognisable for neutral fans.

    Rob Penney is the man tasked with overseeing the rebirth of Munster rugby, and he has an impressive pedigree.

    He has put an emphasis on learning this season so they not be the force of old.

    That said if they're new centre combination of Casey Lualala and James Downey click they will be there or there abouts.

    Prediction: Pretenders

Ulster

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    Ulster made huge strides last season and they will be hoping to continue that trend this season.

    Much will depend on how the team reacts to new coach Mark Anscombe, but the players are there to contend.

    Last seasons squad has been augmented with the return of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson, but the loss of Pedrie Wannenburg cannot be understated.

    One player who could surprise many is fullback Jared Payne. Signed last season after a great 2011 Super Rugby campaign he missed most of the season through injury.

    His return should give Ulster one of the most dynamic back three's in the competition.

    Prediction: Contenders

Leinster

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    For a side that has won three of the last four Heineken Cups, their failure in three successive Pro 12 finals has become a sore spot.

    Part of the reason for their failure has been the scheduling of the Pro 12 final the weekend after the Heineken Cup final but the defeats still hurt.

    With no major changes in personnel from last season they are sure to be as strong as ever.

    Due to their dual focus they will lean heavily on the next wave of stars coming through the academy.

    Ireland's recent under 20 World Cup campaign was built on a strong Leinster contingent so there is no doubting the talent.

    Prediction: Contenders

Edinburgh

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    Glasgow were the top dogs domestically last season but I have my doubts about them repeating. If anyone is going to challenge from Scotland it has to be Edinburgh.

    They shocked many in their run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals last year but will need to focus more on the Pro 12 this season.

    Their attack will rely on a couple of Dutch brothers. Tim Visser has an incredible strike rate and if his brother Sep can get anywhere near that level Edinburgh will be dangerous.

    Ross Rennie, David Denton and Netani Talei give them a dominant back-row so the front five will need to step up a level if they are to compete.

    Prediction: Pretenders

The Rest

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    Connacht: The whipping boys of Irish rugby haven't made any major signings so I don't see much room for growth. Another foray into Europe will see them struggle to compete on two fronts. They'll be difficult to beat at home, especially in the winter, but they don't have the quality to compete.

    Zebre: A new addition to the competition as they take Aironi's place, and most of their players. They've got some Italian veterans so will make teams work but they'll be happy to scrape a couple of wins. Their goal will be to finish above Treviso and no more.

    Treviso: The strongest of the Italians team and possibly on the verge of the top 8. They finished a close 10th last season and have brought in a couple of good new players. They'll continue to cause problems but still a year or two of challenging the playoff's.

    Glasgow: They surprised many last season by finishing 4th but they have failed to strengthen this summer. Richie Gray and David Lemi are huge losses and the return of Sean Lamont and Jason White aren't enough to offset the loss to the team. They'll be the best of the rest but well off the pace.

    Dragons: Much like Connacht they are the weak link in the Welsh setup. They have lost a host of big names this summer and have replaced them with a bunch of talented youngsters. Toby Faleteau and Dan Lydiate will help them compete but they'll fall off the pace as the season wears on.