The preseason is over and it’s time to start playing for real. As is the norm for this time of year, the coaches have a challenge to put together a competitive starting XV, deprived as they are by both injuries and the IRFU’s player protection programme.
So without any further ado let’s get down to looking at the opening round of matches…
NG Dragons v Zebre, Rodney Parade, Friday, 7pm (Local time)
The most ironic tie of the round. For the second season in a row the Dragons are the only Pro12 side denied Heineken Cup rugby, while the newly-formed Zebre jumped the queue straight into the competition. I reckon the Welshmen will exact a measure of revenge by a hefty margin to open their account this season.
Treviso v Ospreys, Stadio Comunale Di Monigo, Friday, 7:05pm (Local time)
The champions open their defence with a tricky away match, but have selected an extremely strong selection which includes as many as seven starters from last May’s Grand Final at the RDS including match-winner Dan Biggar. The Treviso lineup is becoming more and more recognisable with time as they begin their third season in the competition but still I feel the visitors will have enough to win by 5-7pts.
Ulster v Glasgow, Ravenhill, Friday, 7:05pm (Local time)
Big changes at Ravenhill over the close season, and expectations are high. New coach Mark Anscombe will be more than aware of the challenges ahead after the achievements of his predecessor.
His first selection is no doubt a long way from that which will start their Heineken Cup campaign – more than half the team is aged 21 or less. But who better to organise such a crop of youngsters than the man who has been entrusted with the fortunes of the “Baby Blacks” for the past few years?
Paddy Jackson more than anyone else will be itching for his first competitive start of the season. A superb 2011/12 campaign was slightly tarnished by a disappointing outing in the Heineken Cup final – tonight he is one of the more experienced backs in the Ulster lineup and will be hoping for a good September.
The Ravenhill faithful will also be delighted to welcome Jared Payne back to the side after missing the bulk of last season with injury, his experience at full-back will be critical especially in these opening weeks. Another player returning to Irish provincial rugby is number 8 Nick Williams who makes his first start in white tonight after stints at Munster and Aironi.
The Ulstermen will certainly be targeting a top 4 finish in the Pro12 this season and to do so they will have to get the better of teams like the Glasgow Warriors. Sean Lineen’s men will be no pushovers this season and welcome back the Lamont brothers, of whom Sean starts on the wing Friday. However I fear the loss of Richie Gray to the Sale Sharks may prove too much for them over the long haul.
I expect a keenly fought contest here, especially in the scrums with the new rules plus experienced names like Tom Court and Moray Low on the bench. Home advantage should be enough to give Ulster the spoils by more than a converted try.
Connacht v Cardiff Blues, Sportsground, Saturday, 5pm (Local time)
After what was easily their most successful season ever, Eric Elwood’s men will be looking for even bigger and better things this time around. A raft of exciting signings will help their cause, though many are unable to make their opener in Galway, like former Scotland international Dan Parks.
The out-half duties are left in the capable hands of Miah Nikora with Matt Jarvis backing up. In the most part they start the season with a XV similar to that which they were fielding last season, but with a pack very close to their strongest with Swift, McCarthy, Muldoon and O’Connor all available for selection.
Gavin Duffy is team captain once more and he will proudly lead his side out on Saturday evening. I will also be keen to see the progress of young Irish Under-20 winger Tiernan O’Halloran, we could be hearing a lot from him this season.
They face a Cardiff Blues team who are coming off a disappointing campaign…fortunate to get out of their Heineken Cup pool before getting a thrashing from Leinster in the quarters. They are in grave danger of being overtaken by the Scarlets as the second best Welsh region and with names like Martyn Williams and Xavier Rush gone from their lineup they will have to rely on new names coming through.
I’m going for a home win to get the Sportsground fans’ spirits up for the new season, though it will probably be a tight one by 3 or so points.
Scarlets v Leinster, Parc y Scarlets, Saturday, 6:30pm (Local time)
For all the success that Joe Schmidt has had at Leinster, September hasn’t exactly been his favourite month. Having said that, their long unbeaten run last season began with a victory in Llanelli.
It’s probably with this in mind that the Scarlets have picked an opening day squad packed with internationals, even if many of them are on the bench. Matthew Rees, Rhys Priestland and Jonathan Davies are all ready to join George North, Scott Williams and skipper Rob McCusker should the going get tough.
It could be said Leinster have been hit hardest by the injury/player management combo and have a very young centre pairing in Noel Reid and Brendan Macken. There’s a quality back three though in Nacewa, Carr and my tip for the Pro12 top try-scorer Andrew Conway, and the half-back pairing of Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan can certainly get the job done.
In Leinster’s pack Shane Jennings has the captain’s armband while Damien Browne shares the second row duties with Devin Toner, another of whom I’m expecting big things this season.
I’m expecting it to be a tough opening fixture for the reigning European Champions – they’ll be carrying an even bigger target on their back than they did last year and will have to fight for every ball in front of a hostile home crowd.
Still, I was asked my prediction for this game a while ago and I said a draw – I’m not wavering from that position.
Edinburgh v Munster, Murrayfield, Saturday, 8pm (Local time)
There are many who think Munster will struggle this season. I’m not one of them.
It’s true that Rob Penney has a tough task ahead, but he didn’t win four ITM Cups on the bounce with Canterbury by accident. Also despite all the changes in the squad, I feel the right men are coming into the side in the right positions, particularly in the backline.
Doug Howlett as club captain was an inspired choice. With niggling injuries added to Paul O’Connell’s international absences, it’s important to have someone there week in week out and Howlett, though no stranger to the treatment table himself, is just the man for the job.
It’s in the centre where I feel Munster will surprise many. A brand new pairing of Casey Laulala and James Downey start in Murrayfield tomorrow night, but both have the experience to hit the ground running for their new team.
Meanwhile in the pack, they have a couple of youngsters in Butler and Dougall surrounded by a fair amount of experience both starting and on the bench.
Overall it’s a fascinating blend of a Munster squad with experience, youth and new acquisitions which I feel could surprise many of the doubters.
As for Edinburgh, coach Michael Bradley has quite the challenge after the heights of last season. He needs to respond to the criticism that his Heineken success was down to disregarding the Pro12 and a win over Munster will do that no harm. I think he’ll fail however, and that Rob Penney will get his first northern hemisphere victory albeit by a tight margin.
That’s it for me this week, see you back here next Friday when there’s another round of Pro12 matches to look forward to. Enjoy your rugby wherever you are this weekend!
You’ll find my blog at HARPIN ON RUGBY