10 Bold Predictions for the RaboDirect Pro 12 Season
With little more than a week left to run until Leinster begin their title defence of the RaboDirect Pro 12, the best talents in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy are readying themselves for the return of one of Europe's biggest competitions.
Though in nine months' time it may seem folly, the following predictions have been made with the aim of foreseeing just how the season will take shape; who will win and who will lose.
Over that space of time, a multitude of mitigating circumstances and other factors are sure to have their say in altering the course of fate, but read on for some top-notch premonitions nonetheless.
1. Welsh Territories Continue to Plummet
Roberts: Now of Racing Metro
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Over the last two summers, it’s become increasingly obvious as to just what short-term fate may await Welsh rugby unless serious revision is given to their clubs’ finances.
Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne and Gethin Jenkins are just some of the Welsh national players to have benefitted from moves to France and England in recent years, although Jenkins has now returned to Cardiff.
However, the damage is on-going and with bigger pay packages awaiting Wales’ biggest stars abroad, the territories’ quality is suffering.
This summer, North, Lydiate and Roberts have all left for more lucrative pastures, diminishing the playing ranks of Scarlets, Dragons and Blues, respectively.
Although one would like to think the youth production in Wales might be enough to see the territories survive, they simply can’t compete financially in the current format, with money unfortunately doing more than just talking in the sport now.
2. Ulster Firepower Again Too Hot to Handle
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In the regular campaign, only Leinster managed to outscore Ulster last season, with the eventual Pro 12 champions amassing a total of 585 points compared to the 577 of Mark Anscombe’s men.
Under the New Zealander and with more than a little help from their South African contingent, Ulster have risen to become a veritable force in the European game and will continue to challenge for silverware this term.
Looking at the side’s back line, it’s easy to see why, too.
With Ruan Pienaar providing a very staunch presence at scrum-half, it makes life a lot easier for Paddy Jackson and, in turn, allowing Luke Marshall, Paddy Wallace, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble the means to inspire great things going forward.
That versatile Irish combination has done wonders for the club in the last year and will only improve in terms of synchronisation and fluidity for the coming months.
3. Scots Fly a Strong Flag
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Not so long ago, Scotland was looked upon as the minnow of the British and Irish isles, a notion that transpired through to the strength of their club sides.
Even now, a Scottish team is yet to ever win a Celtic league title and has only once produced a top-two finish (Edinburgh, 2008-09).
However, following Glasgow’s third-place finish last season saw them through to a semi-final appearance, and although the same couldn’t be said for Edinburgh, who languished down in 10th place, it speaks for how well Scotland’s game is improving.
Earlier this year, the northern nation managed to claim a third-place finish in the Six Nations, and are now gradually garnering more and more respect on the international scene.
It’s again the Warriors’ squad which is far more likely to pose a challenge for the top four places this campaign, but one can expect Edinburgh to improve on their 2012-13 season, also, after Alan Solomons’ side made some good recruitments in the summer market.
4. Penney Comes Upon Munster Riches
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Domestically speaking, last season was a bit of a blip in form for Munster, a club currently going through a state of transition, one would say.
The Irish province did well to reach the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, a competition they have now become intertwined with, but could only manage sixth place in the Pro 12 as a result of their European commitments.
However, the team will be in better shape to cope with the loss of Ronan O’Gara this time around are now having to come to terms with some of the Old Guard’s departure.
Paul O’Connell will continue to pose his customary game-changing presence as long as he can stave off injury, and the summer additions of Gerhard van den Heever and Andrew Conway have significantly shored up the backs.
With the retirements of O’Gara, Dougie Howlett and Marcus Horan, Munster have undoubtedly lost some substantial experience, but can now bring through several others in their stead, and one can expect to see The Red Army challenging for honours across the board once more this year.
5. Scarlets Lose Their Roar
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In the 2012-13 campaign, Llanelli Scarlets stood out as the most successful Welsh outfit, having had the least damage done to their squad the summer before.
However, with the departure of George North, Simon Easterby has lost probably the finest weapon from his ranks, along with Matthew Rees, Owen Williams, Tavis Knoyle and several others.
That mixture of rising prospects and standout players leaving Parc y Scarlets in such a concentrated space of time promises to hit the club hard in the coming months and will need some getting used to.
Easterby has just about as difficult season ahead of him as any of the Welsh sides’ head coaches, which combined with their incredibly tough Heineken Cup group against Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins and Racing Metro, seems a massive obstacle.
6. Celts Not Surrendering to Foreign Powers Just Yet
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For three seasons now, Benetton Treviso have flown the Italian flag in the Pro 12 along with Aironi in the first of those campaigns as well as Zebre last term.
However, while those additions may improve the diversity and expansion of the league, the Italians have struggled tremendously in reaching the necessary standards of the rest of their competition.
Treviso have been slightly more successful in their endeavours, averaging a ninth-place finish across their three campaigns, but not really staking any claim for great things.
Unless there’s to be some sort of massive cash injection for the Italians or a certain onslaught of young, aspiring rugby talent in the nation, that case isn't going to change much in 2013-14.
7. Ian Madigan Thrives in New Responsibilities
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Last season, Ian Madigan proved that despite Jonny Sexton’s then-ongoing contract negotiations with the IRFU, Leinster had an extremely talented backup waiting in the wings.
Now that Sexton’s move to Racing Metro has been completed, Madigan’s time at outside-half is set to get a massive boost in the coming season, much more than what he experienced simply due to Sexton’s injury woes last term.
The 24-year-old Ireland international managed to end the 2012-13 term as the Pro 12’s top scorer and will bring a direct and versatile presence to the fly half spot once more as a reformed centre.
With the weight of Sexton no longer threatening him, Madigan is set for another pivotal season at the RDS, with time as Sexton’s understudy only ever going to improve him.
8. Andrew Trimble Finishes as Top Try-Scorer
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One of several predictions on an altogether more individual scale, Ulster’s attacking proficiency has to produce several standout players, particularly in the backs discussed earlier.
Andrew Trimble, now looking firmly over the injury woes that plagued his career five or so years ago, could be the one set to benefit from that success as much as anyone.
At 28 years of age, the winger-come-centre is entering the part of his career that should create the best results, and it only helps that there’s such a talented group of players to help him in that cause.
Towards the end of last season, Trimble managed to cross over for five tries in his last six appearances of the regular season and entered a fine patch of form that he'll look to replicate in the coming campaign.
If that’s to be the case, reaching double figures doesn’t look out of the question for the eight-year Ulster veteran.
9. Andrew Conway Wins Young Player of the Year
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Another Andrew set for great things this coming season, Andrew Conway crosses enemy lines into Munster after spending the latter stages of his development and first professional years with Leinster.
At the RDS, it was only last season that Conway really started to figure as part of the Blues’ setup and the 22-year-old repaid that gesture with some extremely encouraging displays at centre.
Unfortunately for Matt O’Connor, however, the youngster’s contract expiration has seen the Dublin native now move to Thomond Park, where he’ll seek an even more assured place in Rob Penney’s back line.
Competing alongside Casey Lualua, Keith Earls, Van den Heever and James Downey, Conway has shown the potential to make a real go of things at the Pro 12 level, evidenced best in his Round 22 hat-trick performance against Ospreys last season.
In 2012-13, it was another centre and aspiring Ireland international, Luke Marshall, who won the award, proving Conway with the inspiration to go and weave similar magic himself.
10. Leinster Dominance Lives on
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Ultimately, the most important prediction one can make is to whom the spoils go to, and it’s Leinster will continue to ride their current wave of glory in 2013-14.
Simply put, Matt O’Connor’s side hasn’t lost enough quality to mean their squad is diminished beyond repair, while actually adding in great talents for those key figures that have left.
As aforementioned, Ian Madigan is a more than adequate replacement for the now departed Sexton, whereas Zane Kirchner adds a brutal presence at fullback that could go on to be even more impressive than fan favourite Isa Nacewa.
Combine those new faces with the already existing talents of Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Gordon D’Arcy, Jamie Heaslip and a raft of other superstars, and it seems of little wonder that the Irish club have won three European titles in three years.