Old heroes keep leaving but success still keeps coming to Leinster and Matt O’Connor’s men can once again top the Pro12 table and look to be the team to beat in the race for the title. The departures of the old guard that dominated Europe for three years from 2008-09 to 2011-12 heave made a difference on the continent but domestically Leinster have proved immoveable, landing the last two titles, and a third straight success looks to be very much on the cards here.
Leo Cullen and Brian O’Driscoll are the key figures to leave this season but the spine of the team remains as strong as ever with the Kearney brothers, Luke Fizgerald, Fergus McFadden and Zane Kirchener offering a mix of pace and strength in the backline while Gordon D’Arcy still has plenty to offer in the centre.
At halfback, even with Johnny Sexton set to return next year the choice between Jimmy Gopperth and Leo Madigan is not a shabby one and the latter’s versatility with moving into the centres is a big help although Noel Reid scored 7 tries when filling in last season and can also switch between the two.
Upfront, Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy and Mike Ross are a devastating set of front-row options for both set pieces and also carrying, and in the middle of the pack Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin, Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan and captain Jamie Heaslip make for an incredibly strong spine that no other team in the league can boast in such numbers and Matt O’Connor’s men showed the same skill and calmness in their knockout wins that was set in place during the Schmidt era, which has not resulted in a transition year or hangover.
The recruitment has been on a small scale but of the highest quality with Kane Douglas coming here a Super Rugby champion from the Waratahs; The arrival of Ben Te’o, from the Rabbitos – set to play in the centre – is potentially even more explosive if he takes to Rugby League in the same way that notable converts such as Sonny Bill Williams have before.
Muster are second favourites, a position in the betting market which looks fairly reasonable given just how little separated them from Glasgow last season in the semi final even though the nature of a defeat in which the Scots had little trouble breaking them down despite the margin at the end being just a point.
It was a disappointing end to a campaign that had promised much and the key to changing their track record will be getting the best out of a backline that has all the ingredients for major success.
In this regard, the departure of Casey Lualua doesn’t help matters and Andew Smith has big shoes to fill, while the departure of Rob Penney, who had the team making a steady improvement from sixth to third with two European semi finals on the way, leaving a significant question mark.
Tyler Bleyendaal looks to be a superb addition to the backline from the Crusaders and his versatility should prove to be a real boost in a backline that already had Ian Keatley and Conor Murray at halfback and Felix Jones, Keith Earls and the outstanding Simon Zebo in attack; But Simon Mannix (backs’ coach) departure leaves questions about just how they’ll be managed and that is likely to be the difference between success and defeat. The huge pack strength – led by Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell – has been boosted by Robin Copeland’s arrival from Cardiff and it should prove to be an asset, but there’s a large amount of uncertainty surrounding them and that does not make them appealing.
Much of those same questions revolve around Ulster, who have had coach Mark Anscombe and director of Rugby David Humpheys leave along with a host of senior names from the squad.
Leader Johann Muller has called it a day, and Stephen Ferris’s injuries have sadly proven to be too much for him, so the losses of Tom Court and John Afoa are serious engine room departures in terms of power and experience and there are significant questions over Ian Humphreys – clearly second in line to the ever improving Paddy Jackson, who (along with Raun Piennaar) runs the rule over a big amount of backline talent with Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Stuart Olding, but they may feel some of their outgoings heavily despite the move to New Ravenhill being a bonus and Glasgow make more appeal.
The Warriors have been the only team to break the Irish stranglehold since Ospreys won their last title in 11/12, and despite some notable withdrawals, still look set to launch a strong challenge. Taken apart after the break in last year’s final, they have finished fourth, third and second in the last three seasons and once again they should look to make the semis.
The problem is the loss of a few notable figures at the club in recent years – Moray Low has left to go to Exeter, Chris Cuister to Sale and Rhuaridh Jackson to Wasps – but the majority of the squad that has proven to be a match for every other side in the Pro12 has stayed. James Downey’s arrival from Munster is a big boost in terms of experience and so is the capture of Euan Murray from Worcester, and if Alex Allan and Rossow De Klerk can show their best form then they should prove to be smart additions with another youngster in Adam Ashe hoping to shine after a first Scotland cap.
13 of the 15 that started last year’s final are still present – including last seasons; top tryscorer in the shape of Niko Matawalu (pictured), captain Alistair Kellock, and international Sean Maitland – and they look too big for the title and for the regular season of the best of the rest – the 11/2 on them managing to do it this year appeals more than any other bet.
Ospreys were fifth last season but have lost a trio of Welsh Internationals in hooker Richard Hibbard, No.8 Ryan Jones, and prop Adam Jones, and none of the replacements are of the same calibre. They should still remain clear of their Welsh rivals in Scarlets, who have recruited smartly but come off worse in a trade with Clermont in getting Regan King for Jonathan Davies and not strengthened considerably; It is hard to imagine anyone else contending for the playoffs.
3 pts Leinster to win the regular season (9/4 Spreadex)
1 pt Glasgow to win the Grand Final (11/2 general)