It is the end of July. Guinness Pro 12 teams are well into their preseason preparations ahead of the new season which should contain more excitement with the introduction of South African teams: The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings. In a four part series, Hawkeye Sidekick first looks at the Ireland provinces and sees how they are set for the new season.
A new era at the Sportsgrounds with the arrival of New Zealander Kieran Keane who replaces Bristol bound Pat Lam. The euphoria of the 2015/16 season Pro 12 triumph is a long distant memory as the team struggled to get into the playoff mix last season with early result reversals and then news of Lam’s departure midway through the season.
The province need a new face to come into the setup and shake things up. Keane glancing at his resume looks like he will fit well with the province with expansive style of play coaching in his forte. Players will need to prove themselves again and the battle for squad berths should be interesting in the coming weeks.
Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:
The Connacht Academy has provided several keynote players in recent years so it is no surprise that three additional academy players get their chance with professional contracts. Brennan, McKeon and O’Toole will bring enthusiasm to the squad but they will be a work in progress this season. The key acquistions are Gavin Thornbury from Wanganui and Jarrad Butler from the Brumbies who can play multiple positions in the pack.
The Connacht squad said goodbye to a number of long serving players who have being loyal to the province through thick and thin. Ronan Loughney, Danie Poolman were released along with Shane O’Leary, Rory Parata, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Ivan Soroka and Rory Moloney. Player departures within provinces saw John Cooney move to Ulster; prompted by the move of Pienaar to France. Ben Marshall, an exciting prospect was forced to retire while Danny Qualter moved to Nottingham in a bid to get game minutes. Lewis Stevenson made the move up north joining up Bangor in a coaching role while Josh Rowland was signed to the Ireland Sevens side.
The side looks still weak in the half-back options. Bosch was injury plagued. Cooney is gone to Ulster. Minimal options for Keane in the scrum-half and fly-half positions so would expect more SH moves towards the end of the year. The pack looks decent with the likes of Bealham, Dillane, Muldoon in the ranks. The back line has genuine pace but Aki needs to stay at the club and also stay match fit to establish an attacking platform.
Connacht’s squad depth may be tested if there is a repeat in the injury toll like last season. The academy player pool will then need to fill the void left and this is an arduous task for any youngster. Connacht for me will be a work in progress next season. Top six is optimistic; top eight potentially the aim truth be told.
A season which was going so well for Leinster last season fizzled out in the last five weeks of the season. The defeat to Clermont was a devastating blow; a game which Leinster will still rue as they contributed to their demise. This loss perhaps was a factor in their dip in performance levels in the Pro 12. A loss to Ulster in the final regular season fixture resulted in a semi-final tussle with an in-form Scarlets who won with plenty to spare despite playing with fourteen players for three quarters of the contest.
The end of season dip will something that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will look to address this season. The season was pretty positive with the emergence of several young players such as Eric and Adam Byrne and Dan Leavy, The team played with purpose and intent throughout early and mid-season with a comprehensive win over Munster at the Aviva and then a 100% record during the RBS 6 Nations phase of the tournament.
Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:
Indigenous academy players form the majority of new signings as Andrew Porter, Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery, Nick McCarthy, Rory O’Loughlin, Peader Timmins and James Ryan securing their first professional contracts. Carbery is such a talent; versatile in playing fly-half, three quarters and full back. His game management is a work in progress but the talent is there; exciting times for the province and national side with this player.
The key acquisitions come from Australia with Scott Fardy and James Lowe joining the team. Fardy’s inclusion will be intriguing to see how the player fits in given the strength in depth in the back row positions. Fardy conceivably could be a second row option so it will be interesting to see how that goes. Lowe is an accomplished player, should fit well in the Leinster system. Nice signings particularly when the Leinster players go away on international duty.
There has being experience lost in the dressing room. Zane Kirchner departs for the Dragons. Mike Ross owes nothing to the Leinster jersey and retires with his reputation as a solid, reliable prop assured. Hayden Triggs retired; a player whose candid interviews made him a firm Leinster fan favourite along with Mike McCarthy whose work rate and abrasive second row play will be missed.
Dominic Ryan’s decision to move to Leicester Tigers is a good move for the player, gets to play for ex-Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor. A player who will revel in England but Leinster have sufficient coverage in the back row options to negate the loss. Best of luck to Ryan on the move!
Leinster’s squad depth is the best in the league (among the Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams). Leinster will look to continue their form from last season but game management tweaks may be required this season as opposition started to read their attacking lines with more conviction at the business end of the season.
How best to describe the off-season for the men in red? Chaotic would be kind as the swirl in speculation and then confirmation of the departures of Nienaber and Erasmus back to South Africa at the end of the year was confirmed. Felix Jones looks primed to take on the head coaching duties in 2018 and it will be interesting to see how results go at the start of the season. A good start to the season and Munster can allow Jones to settle into the role. Otherwise, pressure for results will be instant and a struggle to reach the top six may ensue. Munster have a challenging season ahead of them given these circumstances.
Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:
Like Leinster and Connacht, indigenous academy players form the majority of senior squad additions. Most players have featured for the first team last season with Oliver, Scott, Johnston, Goggin and Fitzgerald all involved in match-day squads. Oliver was a standout last season along with Goggin. Oliver back row play, his speed at the breakdown and pace with ball in hand were major assets to the club last season. Goggin at three quarters is an exciting prospect; his ability to pick a gap and his game management decision making is sharp given his lack of senior squad experience.
The key acquisitions arriving to Munster are Chris Farrell, an imposing three quarter who played with Grenoble last season. JJ Hanrahan comes back to the province after a hit and miss period with Northampton and then Cloete and Grobler arrive to Munster with excellent resumes. Erasmus probably had a key hand in the capture of Cleote and Grobler whose cameos on video look impressive.
The departures were significant to the squad. Donnacha Ryan leaves for Racing 92 and is reunited with Ronan O’Gara in the coaching staff. Francis Saili, a popular figure in the Munster squad departs for Harlequins. His loss is offset by the emergence of Farrell and Goggins with Taute retained this season. Mark Chisholm and Cian Bohane were forced to retire; a terrible blow for both players. McCabe leaves for Connacht hoping for game time minutes. Rory Burke leaves for Nottingham. Dave Foley departs Munster after a frustrating last two seasons, plagued with injuries and moves of Pau reuniting with Simon Mannix and Paudie Butler.
The emotions of last season and the death of Anthony Foley was keynote; drove the team on and the league and European Cup progression were not expected given the struggles in 2015 / 16 season. This season potentially is an arduous task; the management departures midway through the season. A top four spot is the objective; should be achieved with the squad depth in place. The concern is the management direction in 2018 and when results do not go according to plan. An intriguing season awaits and probably the province where most eyes will be focused on.
The arrival of Gibbes to the coaching ticket will bring new energy and focus to a squad who quite frankly underperformed last season. The squad depth is strong; skill set is excellent but performance inconsistency in different parts of the season proved fatal to Ulster’s chances of Pro 12 / European Cup progression.
Player Personnel In’s and Out’s:
The key departure is the scrum-half talisman for Ulster: Ruan Pienaar. The South African did not want to leave the province; his BBC NI documentary showed how much the player and his family loved life in Belfast. IRFU were wrong in this player personnel issue; the player still had plenty to offer in the province and with no discernible scrum-half talent coming through, the decision to move on the player was wrong.
Pienaar’s poise, game management and kicking off the tee / with hand was immense. He helped Paddy Jackson no end in games with composure. A player who leaves a massive void. John Cooney arrives to Ulster but the talent comparison between those two players is unfair on Cooney. Pienaar is world class.
Add Pienaar departure with the decision of van der Merwe moving onto Cardiff Blues means that there is a loss in leadership in the squad. Van der Merwe was the pack leader last season; orchestrated the set piece with Rory Best and led by example. Henderson will now take on the mantle but the squad depth issues in the second row could be exposed in international fixture periods of the season.
Roger Wilson is also a major player loss to the squad. Wilson owes nothing to the Ulster jersey and retires with his reputation as being a superb, athletic and ball carrying eight assured. Three key departures from the playing panel; interesting to see how the rest of the squad respond to the leadership loss.
Several fringe players depart the Kingspan Stadium. Conor Joyce and Mark Best leave for Jersey. Jonny Murphy to Rotherham. Donnan, Dow, Lutton and Mulholland were released from their contracts. Ten players leaving the squad.
The arrivals in comparison are understated. Cooney will add scrum-half depth but is not in the same level as Ruan Pienaar. Schalk van der Merwe comes to Ulster with a good reputation and Jean Deysel showed in his Munster stint of his power and abrasive forward play in second row / back row exchanges. Several academy players climb to the professional contract ranks; Busby, Cairns, Kane, Lytlle, O’Hagan and Owens.
Given the on-going PSNI investigation of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the two players are now in sabbatical mode. Two major losses to compound the loss of Pienaar so it will be interesting how Ulster counteract these losses in the early season fixtures. A good season star t is pivotal and a lot will hinge on Best, Henderson, Payne and Bowe for leadership. Gibbes and the pack will be a work in progress; expect Ulster to come on strong in the second half of the season but how much ground they lose in the early season will determine how well they fare this season.