Friday, September 2, 2016

Pro 12 Preview 2017

This season’s Guinness Pro12 kicks off this weekend, promising to be the most exciting and competitive yet. Here’s a team-by-team guide suitable for everyone, from avid fans to those who need a little help deciphering their Zebre from their Munster.

Benetton Treviso
Treviso endured a terrible season last year – finishing rock bottom – that they should easily better this time around. A combination of international additions on the field and new coach Kieran Crowley off it should boost them. Suffered badly during the World Cup and didn't recover.
Best Signing:  The international quality of Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Tommaso Benvenuti will help their cause, but Kiwi former miner Marty ‘Screech’ Banks is a real class act at 10 or 15.
Biggest loss: Centre Sam Christie was a potent attacking instrument for the Italians, but has returned back to his native Waikato.
Key player: New Zealand fullback Jayden Hayward racked points for the Italians to finish the league’s second top points scorer for 2015/16, they will need that reliable boot from the tee and hand again this time. Alongside it comes attacking ability that boasted 4 assists, 22 clean breaks, 29 offloads and over 1,400 metres gained. Not bad for a man in a team that finished last.
Likely finish: Won't worry any of the teams fighting for a top 6 finish. A mini league with Zebre will be their first target, but Crowley will want more. Eighth would be an achievement, but is possible.

Cardiff Blues
Something is quietly building at Cardiff Arms Park. Head coach Danny Wilson may just be one of the best in the hemisphere and the Blues started to come together under him last season. Intelligent summer signings should give Blues fans something to be happy about. The tight five looks a little light, but Wilson has a knack of turning packs into beasts (see Scarlets, Wales and Bristol for details).
Best Signing: Matthew Morgan is an exciting runner and Nick Williams an ox, but hot stepping centre Willis Halaholois on a different planet with an average of six defenders beaten per game.
Biggest loss: Whether fly half or fullback Rhys Patchell looked fantastic last season - creative in attack, strong in defence and consistent with the boot - and backed it up on the tour to New Zealand. 
Key Player: Back row turned lock Josh Turnbull had an incredible season; 254 tackles, 86 lineouts won and 20 turnovers putting him high up the stats charts. How important will he be this time around?
Likely Finish: Could be the Pro12's surprise package. They finished last season strongly and have recruited superbly since; the playoffs may be possible.

Connacht
What an incredible feat from Connacht last season. Once the fourth Provence of Ireland and seen as little more than a development team, they stormed their way to the Pro12 title. Any defence of the title will be tough this time around, especially with injuries already going against them.
Best Signing: The signing of South African Marnitz Boshoff seems to be the perfect replacement for AJ McGinty who has left for Sale.
Biggest loss: As well as McGinty's move, losing Rodney Ah You to rivals Ulster is a big loss. However, it is centre Robbie Henshaw's departure that may just hit hardest.
Key Player: Connacht performed well as a unit last term. That said, Bundee Aki was named the league's player of the year for good reason; 276 carries, 88 defenders beaten, 25 offloads, 6 tries,  5 assists and 18 turnovers.
Likely Finish: Despite last year's heroics, it's difficult to see Connacht mounting a bid for the title again. Expect a battle for a top six finish and a Champions Cup spot... But then who thought they would win it last season?

Edinburgh
With the leanest defence in league Edinburgh, still one managed to finish 9th which proves just how toothless their attack was. Move from Murrayfield in January could provide a boost of not having to play in a largely empty stadium.
Best Signing: The pivot that Duncan Weir offers will be vital. If he can be consistent and get Cornell du Preez playing on the front foot, Edinburgh can prosper.
Biggest loss: Scottish international centre Matt Scott has been in fine fettle and his move to Gloucester will hurt.
Key Player: Excellent in attack and key to Edinburgh’s rock solid defence, Cornell du Preez is vital to the cause.
Likely Finish: Typically mediocre. Don’t expect them to be dragged into a wooden spoon battle, but the top six is a few steps too far.





Glasgow Warriors
Glasgow will be hurting after the end to last season, an incredible unbeaten ended with two defeats at the worst possible time. This time around it's Gregor Townsend’s last season at Scotstoun before he takes up the national role. At Scotstoun a new artificial pitch will help with the Warriors fast game plan and without the disruption of the weather.
Best Signing: At 35 Corey Flynn may be nearing retirement, but he’s a great player with bags of experience and plenty to offer.
Biggest loss: Behemoth winger Taqele Naiyaravoro was a fantastic and strong runner in his short spell in Scotland, but Leone Nakarawa has been Glasgow's talisman for some time and is virtually impossible to replace.
Key Player: There was a palpable sense of excitement when Richie Gray emerged into Scottish rugby, but now Jonny Gray has truly stepped out of his big brother shadow and become a truly world class player – and leader - in his own right.
Likely Finish: Genuine title contenders. Anything outside the playoffs will be viewed as a huge failure and no silverware would feel like a disappointment too.

Leinster
Stung by their Grand Final disappointment where they were blown away by Connacht in the final after topping the league; Leinster will want to go one step further this time and land a record fifth title. They have plenty of great player and a good, young coaching setup. Some have questioned their depth in certain areas, but in all the squad looks strong.
Best Signing: For sometime Robbie Henshaw has been considered the natural successor to Brian O’Driscoll. His move to Leinster gives him the chance to cement that.
Biggest loss: Both Ben Te’o and Ian Madigan have departed from the back division, but it’s the enforced early retirement of Luke Fitzgerald that will hit hardest.
Key Player: Leo Cullen will be praying Sean O’Brien can stay fir as they look a different beast with him, but Johnny Sexton needs to regain his form if Leinster are to land the title.
Likely Finish: In the playoffs and pushing for something to add to their trophy room.

Munster
Barely scraped into the Champions Cup spaces last season and looked a little flat at times while financial turmoil continues to dog the club. New Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus could be just the tonic the need, but there has been few personnel changes to help.
Best Signing: In truth, the coaching staff, but on the field 6’8” Jean Kleyn is destined for big things in the traditional South African number 4 style.
Biggest loss: Not too many of note, though South African prop BJ Botha has departed for France. Age and injury had curtailed his play time of late.
Key Player: After his World Cup injury, Peter O’Mahoney returns having missed most of last season. In his place, CJ Stander did a remarkable job in a misfiring team. He hands the arm band back this year, but expect him to still lead by example on the pitch.
Likely Finish: Disappointed to miss out on the playoffs, Erasmus will need to get the backs firing again if he wants to make the top four. May have to settle for a European Champions Cup spot however.

Newport-Gwent Dragons
Things aren’t looking great in Newport. There are plenty of good young stars coming through the system, but they lack real depth and experience is at a premium. Kingsley Jones takes over the reins and his job of turning around the ailing region started well at the end of last season. It difficult to see them maintaining that this year though.
Best Signing: A difficult choice among journeymen and mediocre players.
Biggest loss: Without doubt, Toby Faletau. Arguably the best number eight in World Rugby, Faletau carried the region through numerous games throughout his career. 
Key Player: Though Rynard Landman’s commanding presence, leadership and lineout jumping are important to the Dragons, it’s Nic Cudd who really shone last time with 20 turnovers and 218 tackles to his name he will be vital to a Dragons team who are often playing on the back foot. 
Likely Finish: Battling it out at the foot of the table. They were fortunate to escape the clutches of both the Italians last year, this time it could be worse.




Ospreys
The disruption of the World Cup and injuries largely hampered the Swansea based region last year – though it did allow youngsters like Sam Underhill and Sam Davies to shine – and they did recover. This year, with experienced players returning and the European Champions Cup not a distraction, the Ospreys will be gunning for the top four again. Steve Tandy’s job and reputation may ride on whether they get it.
Best Signing: Kieran Fonotia is a much need addition to an understaffed midfield, but Bradley Davies will bolster the forward division and getting Ospreys playing the tough abrasive rugby they are used to.
Biggest loss: Not a sale but Sam Underhill’s injury could have a big effect. The flanker was superb last year and four months without him looks bleak.
Key Player: In a Lions season it’s a possible captain of the British team that could hold the key to Osprey success;Alun Wyn Jones has become a talisman for region and country who could return the Ospreys to Europe’s top competition.
Likely Finish: They will want to avenge last season’s disappointment. Though recruitment hasn’t been extensive it has been intelligent, covering what were problem areas last year with international players. Anything outside the top four will feel like failure this term.

Scarlets
Consistency and lack of guidance cost the Scarlets a play offs place last year. They have recruited superbly in the summer with some very exiting signings, but still remain over their tight five. If they can get and keep the ball they are deadly behind.
Best Signing: Arguably the best recruitment in the Pro12 this summer. Rhys Patchell, Werner Kruger and Johnny McNicholl are all excellent signings, but the return of Jonathan Davies from France is straight of the top drawer.
Biggest loss: A lot of players past their best or not quite good enough, but prop Rhodri Jones remains a prospect and his move to bitter rivals Ospreys will be interesting. With Rob Evans and Samson Lee missing the start of the season the Scarlets may miss him.
Key player: James ‘Cubby’ Davies showed just how good he can be last season with more turnovers than any Pro12 player (30) and 6 tries too; all before earning an Olympic medal. However, Scarlets have really struggled to find solid, consistent 10 and Rhys Patchell could answer their problems if he performs as he did for the Blues.
Likely Finish: Consistency is the key. If their forwards perform they can make the playoffs. If not, they could even miss out on the Champions Cup such is the strength of this year’s competition.

Ulster
There’s certainly plenty of class in Ulster’s squad and try scoring ability aplenty. There is a slight injury problem at prop which they will have to overcome to get out of the blocks quickly.
Best Signing: Certainly the most exciting is Charles Piutau. Nominated for both Premiership and European player of the year for Wasps his switch signals Ulster’s intentions this year.
Biggest loss: Man mountain Nick Williams has been a fierce competitor for Ulster and, though his participation may have lessened of late, his impact will be missed.
Key Player: Craig Gilroy did a fantastic job of putting Ulster on the front last season - 32 clean breaks, 63 defenders beaten and 10 tries scored – and Paddy Jackson piled up the points, but due to Ulster’s injury problems, new boy Rodney Ah You will be vital to their cause.
Likely Finish: Will be pushing hard for the playoffs and anything outside the top six will be seen as failure

Zebre
Times they are a changing in Parma. 17 players out have gone out the door at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi as they look to build on their 11th place last year. It’s a team in transition though and it’s another hard slog ahead for them.
Best Signing: Plenty of good signings for the Italians, Josh Furno, Derick Minnie and the return of Giovanbattista Venditti. The signing of Carlo Festuccia from Wasps is perhaps the most exciting however.
Biggest loss: With 17 players out of the door, there are certainly plenty to choose from, but Leonardo Sarto looked truly international quality.
Key Player: New boy Derick Minnie. To succeed beyond just the odd victory throughout the season, Zebre need a competitive back row. Minnie is a big part of that.
Likely Finish: Scrapping it out in the basement. Last season’s 11th place was their highest finish so far and landed them European Champions Cup spot, Treviso look the strong of the two this time around though.

So there we have it. The Pro12, back and ready to go.


Ready To Go - Republica

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