The preseason drills have started weeks ago and playing squads (for the most part) are thick in the middle of preseason preparations. For Connacht and Ulster, it is an opportunity for players to impress new head coaching appointments to secure sufficient game time this season. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads.
Irish Province Squad Transfers:
The standard bearers last season in European Club Rugby have lost several legendary players in the off-season. Given the talent in the academy ranks which have graduated to the senior contract ranks, it would be remiss to say that the side will not miss the presence and stature of players such as Jamie Heaslip, Richardt Strauss and the legend that is Isa Nacewa.
Nacewa’s leadership at the business end of the season was incredible; he took over the kicking tee responsibility in the European Rugby Champions Cup final. Three guys whose presence, work ethos and professionalism is beyond reproach.
The other transfer departures saw notable exits for Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery to Ulster and Munster respectively; with a RWC 2019 fast approaching, players will need sufficient game time and this was a key factor for their departures from the club. Yet again, two players whose talent will be missed in the squad depth of the side which will be tested again given the international contingent at the club.
It is not all doom and gloom from a Leinster Rugby perspective. The academy talent has being immense and it is rewarded with several keynote contracts to the senior team. Jordan Larmour had a superb debut season in the first team; capped at international level and his try scoring exploits had rugby writers in euphoric tone.
Doris and Murphy signings are incredibly exciting for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster; two players who will play senior international test matches soon and when you consider the likes of Max Deegan with another preseason under his belt, the talent pool still remains strong.
Joe Tomane is the marquee signing for the province; a powerhouse back line option to have. If Tomane is half as good as Nacewa, Leinster Rugby are in a good place. Interesting start to the season given the international players unavailability at different parts of next season but if Leinster Rugby can negotiate the opening Welsh road trip fixtures, they are well set for another good season.
A coaching era has arrived in Galway. Andy Friend has being appointed the new head coach of Connacht Rugby, a coach with an excellent resume, experience aplenty in SH / NH rugby as well as spending times in the Sevens game. His mantra will be for the players to express themselves with ball in hand, promote creativity while providing teamwork and defensive organization without the ball.
Andy Friend replaces Kieran Keane who was dismissed after only a season in June; seven Pro 14 wins from twenty-one fixtures last season is the baseline for Friend to surpass for the upcoming season and the personnel brought into the club should help get past this miserable mark given the existing talent pool in the squad.
The recruitment had already commenced by the time Kieran Keane walked the Lough Atalia plank. Connacht Rugby had already secured the services of versatile centre Godwin and a potential astute move for Horowitz from Australian rugby.
The back line has being boosted by the signing of Reece who is a speed merchant with ball in hand. Robin Copeland comes from Munster looking to prove a point; personally thought that Munster Rugby did not see the most of the player. Copeland was versatile in filling second row and back row positions but it is at eight where the player excels; look at his performances when with Cardiff Blues is enough.
The academy continues to deliver aplenty and no surprise that a couple of players move to the senior contract ranks. Claffey if he continues his progression looks an excellent lock in the making. Gallagher and O’Donnell will need to mature and work hard this season to secure any significant game minutes.
The side saw numerous departures with several players released from their contracts while also paying an emotional farewell to Galway native John Muldoon who retired from the game to join Pat Lam at Bristol Bears as a coach. Huge void left in the dressing room but it is up to the senior players and Copeland to provide the experience and leadership in the ranks.
The fixture sees a colossal opening five game stand; four of which are at home. Connacht Rugby will need to be on point for the visits of Leinster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors. If they can secure a couple of early home wins, confidence should soar and the Connacht fan base will look forward to the season; otherwise, it may be a season of attrition with European Challenge Cup Pool of Death to look forward to. Friend will demand high standards from minute one this season, an interesting team to watch this season given the dynamic style of play that the Westerners execute.
After a season of near misses at the business end of the season, it is fair to say that Munster Rugby are a side that need to get over the hump and win a competition. The squad personnel has seen several keynote departures and arrivals.
The arrivals are spearheaded by the acquisition of Joey Carbery for this season; a player who has the potential but needs the game time to develop at the ten channel. The prospect of Carbery and Murray in the half back pairing is something to whet the appetite at Munster. Carbery is not a lock for ten though as the likes of Keatley, Bleyendaal and Hanrahan will look to impress Johann van Graan in early preseason to secure vital preseason friendly game minutes.
The scrum-half position has being bolstered by the signing of Neil Cronin. Cronin was an UBL standout in recent seasons with Garryowen and the Limerick native gets another opportunity to stake a claim at the professional ranks. Cronin has an excellent all round game, excellent pass, good kicking game as well and should complement the competition in the squad depth charts. Murray is number one but the battle for the backup will intensify with Hart, Williams and now Cronin vying for this spot. Training ground competition should see improvement off the bench in this position on game day.
Mike Haley comes to Munster Rugby with an excellent reputation from Sale Sharks; versatile player whose line break skills are a key facet will be a good replacement for the departed Simon Zebo who moves to Racing 92. Zebo’s talent cannot be replicated but what Haley will bring is an overall solid game who will contribute to attack when hitting the line. Stephen Fitzgerald and Andrew Conway look like viable full back options too so the depth chart yet again is bolstered in this position.
Arno Botha for me is the dark horse signing for Munster this season. The player is a specimen; his mobility allows the player to play in either second row or back row. Botha will be required particularly when the likes of O’Mahony and Stander are away on international duty. Botha’s ball carrying is abrasive and I think the Munster Rugby fan base will love his style of play. His discipline though at times can be an issue but something to watch out for.
Academy players such as Calvin Nash and Liam O’Connor are rewarded with encouraging cameos last season with senior contracts. O’Connor if he is fully recovered from injury is a key prop asset. Nash is a player with tremendous upside; pace, power and ability to spot a line break. Two exciting homegrown talents for Munster Rugby to nurture further this season along with Fineen Wycherley, a player who has being part of the senior squad for a couple of seasons now, amazing that he is now only getting a senior contract!
A season of expectation but the keyword will be patience for the Munster Rugby fans. The new signings will take time to bed in but when they do, it will be an interesting season. The business end of the season is where Munster need to prove themselves so judgement on the squad will ultimately take place there.
If any side were happy to see the back of 2017-2018 season, it was Ulster Rugby. Turmoil off the pitch with legal proceedings of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, a head coach who jumped ship midway through the season and incumbent who did not want to take on the position long term. Turmoil on the playing side with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have to move to France to resurrect their careers and then a plethora of retirements. The names who bide farewell to Kingspan Stadium are massive; Bowe, Payne, Trimble and then you throw other players who departed like Piatau, Diack and Black and it has being a tough off season of departures.
Hope springs eternal. Dan McFarland takes over the head coaching role and several signings look interesting early doors. Jordi Murphy’s arrival will boost the physicality and work rate of the back row. Murphy was an unsung hero for Leinster Rugby and Ireland last season; his tackle count was high consistently and his breakdown support work while continuing to be a threat with ball in hand set the foundation for all that was good in both sides Murphy represented last season.
Marty Moore arrives back to Ireland with a point to prove after an indifferent playing spell with Wasps; some good cameos but some frustrating times sidelined with injury. Moore if on form should get game minutes to increase his profile back with Joe Schmidt and the national side. A nice signing for Ulster if the coaching team can get the best out of Moore.
Billy Burns is an interesting fly-half signing. The Gloucester Rugby arrival is a player with plenty of skill set to offer the side; good kicking game, astute game management to launch his runners. The key issue with Burns is performance consistency at times. The ten jersey needed competition given the departure of Jackson and with McPhilips starting to emerge late last season, the battle for the ten jersey can only benefit the side long term.
Several academy players make the jump to the senior contract ranks. The key guy to look out for if given game time is Johnny Stewart. The scrum-half is being tipped even at this early stage as a player of promise, words comparing the player to Ruan Pienaar have being bandied around. It will remain to be seen how the player will evolve this season with Cooney the incumbent first choice at the position. If Stewart were to impress, could Cooney’s versatility see a switch to ten?
A season which Ulster Rugby will need everyone rowing in the same direction. Last season was a disaster for the club both on and off the pitch, this season has to be the platform for better things to come. The back line and half back options have being depleted but it is down to the senior players in the squad to lead by example. The core talent in the squad and academy is impressive; the question is whether the pack and half back recruits can provide the extra impetus to get the team over the line in key match-ups this season. A question to be answered in due course.