Shock, horror… A rugby blog that’s not about the Top 14

Here’s my second blog for Rugby Wrap Up

Friday, September 6, 2013, marks the beginning of the end for the RaboDirect Pro12. Next season, the competition will be called something else, sponsored by someone else, and broadcast for the first time on Sky Sports. But first, there’s the question of who will win the third and final RaboDirect Pro12?

1) Scarlets
In: Steve Shingler, John Barclay, Kyle Evans, Darren Harries, Josh Lewis, Frazier Climo
Out: Matthew Rees, Owen Williams, Andy Fenby, George North, Dan Newton, Tavis Knoyle, Johnathan Edward, Peter Edwards, Kieran Murphy, Rhys Jones, Dale Ford, Richie Pugh
Analysis: Scarlets are genuine title contenders – no coulda-been-Larries about it – which is why we have them first, but their ambition will be tested on opening night when they entertain Leinster. They will be without new signing Frazier Climo until November, too, but if Simon Easterby’s youngsters can hang tough until then, they will be right up there when the play-offs arrive.

2) Leinster

In: Mike McCarthy, Jimmy Gopperth, Zane Kirchner
Out: Fionn Carr, Tom Sexton, Jonathan Sexton, Andrew Conway, Heinke van der Merwe, Ica Nacewa, Jamie Hagan, Damian Browne, Mark Flanagan, David Doyle, Eoin O’Malley
Analysis: No Joe Schmidt, Jonny Sexton,  Ica Nacewa, Heinke van der Merwe means no hope, right? Not likely. Leinster are too good to be written off easily. Ian Madigan, who has signed an extension to his contract to stay at the RDS until 2016, was ideal cover for Sexton, while new boy Jimmy Gopperth is no slouch with the boot. And they’ve still got Brian O’Driscoll.

3) Ulster
In: James McKinney, David McIlwaine, Bronson Ross
Out: Niall O’Connor, Nigel Brady, Ali Birch, Adam Darcy, Blane McIlroy
Analysis: Last season, Ulster reached the knockout phase of the Heineken Cup and the Pro12 final, but won nothing. Not that coach Mark Anscombe is worried. He’s thinking long-term. Give him a couple more years to bed in academy stars Stuart OldingChris FarrellIain Henderson, and Craig Gilroy – then he’ll want to see the titles racking up. That said, they’ll be in the mix at the business end of the season.

4) Glasgow

In: Richie Vernon, Tyrone Holmes, Jerry Yanuyantawa, Gabriel Ascarate, Leone Nakarawa
Out: John Barclay, Nick Campbell, Ofa Fainga’anuku, Taylor Paris, Graeme Morrison, Rory Lamont
Analysis: Coach Gregor Townsend looked to the southern hemisphere for new blood. The result? Argentine Gabriel Ascarate,  South AfricanTyrone Holmes, and Fijians Leone Nakarawa and Jerry Yanuyanutawa signed for the Scotstoun club. They may prove that last season’s third-placed finish was no fluke.

5) Munster
In: Niall Scannel, Duncan Casey, James Cronin, Gerry Hurley, Cian Bohan, Andrew Conway, Ronan O’Mahony, Gerhard van den Heever
Out: Sean Henry, Marcus Horan, Wian du Preez, Christy Condon, Peter Stringer, Scott Deasy, Ronan O’Gara, Danny Barnes, Doug Howlett, Sean Scanlon
Analysis: Just as Leinster should not be written off despite the departure of key players, so Munster remain a force to be reckoned with, even without Doug HowlettMarcus Horan andRonan O’Gara. In November, South African flyer Gerhard van den Heever will add a speedy new dimension to the south-west Ireland side.

6) Ospreys
In: Tyler Ardron, Jeff Hassler, Tito Tebaldi, Matthew Dwyer, Jamie Murphy, Sam Williams, Aisea Natoga
Out: Kahn Fotuali’i, Campbell Johnstone, George Stowers, Jonathan Thomas, James Goode
Analysis: Ospreys have fallen victim to French raids in recent years. So, a key job will be to keep hold of Adam JonesAlun-Wyn Jones and Ian Evans, who are all out of contract next summer. If they can do that, there may be hope for the future. Not that it will help this season, when upper-mid-table mediocrity is all fans can wish for.

7) Cardiff Blues
In: Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Miles Normandale
Out: Tom James, Jamie Roberts, Ceri Sweeney, Michael Paterson Campese Ma’afu, Cory Hill, Jake Cooper-Wooley, Nathan Trevett, Jason Tovey
Analysis: Forget the departures of Jamie Roberts and Ceri Sweeney, or the arrival of Gethin Jenkins. The talking point of the early part of the Blues new campaign will be their plastic pitch. The surface may affect a few results – but Cardiff side are unlikely to trouble to league’s big guns.

8) Connacht

In: Sean Henry, James Rael, Dave Heffernan, Craig Clark, Danny Qualter, Aly Muldowney, Aaran Conneely, Jake Heenan, Craig Ronaldson, James So’oialo, Fionn Carr
Out: Adrian Flavin, Ethienne Reynecke, Dave Gannon, Mike McCarthy, TJ Anderson, Johnny O’Connor, Eoghan Grace, Dave Moore, Matthew Jarvis, James Loxton, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Mark McCrea
Analysis: Coach Pat Lam is determined to drag Connacht out of the shadows of the ‘big three’ Irish provinces – and persuading Waikato Chiefs’ Craig Clark to join the club is a major signal of intent. Lam is also shouting the ‘all for one, one for all’ mantra from the rooftops, but he needs more than a season to get them to play they way he wants.

9) Newport-Gwent Dragons
In: Richie Rees, Kris Burton, Netani Talei, Tataz Chaparro, T Rhys Thomas, Jason Tovey
Out: Dan Lydiate, Tom Brown, Tim Ryan, Dan Watchurst, Tonderai Chavhanga, Hywel Stoddart, Josh Tyler, Jamie Smith, Anitelea Tuilagi
Analysis: The bitter pill of losing Dan Lydiate to Racing Metro was made easier to swallow by news that Toby Faletau had signed for another two years. Everyone at Rodney Parade is busy talking up the club’s chances, and it’s true they’re unlikely to do worse than last season’s 11th, but ninth is the best they can hope for.

10) Treviso
In: Matt Berquist
Out: Tommaso Iannone, Guilio Toniolatti, Tommaso Benvenuti, Kris Burton, Jacobus Roux
Analysis: After nine years, coach Franco Smith bids arrivederci to Treviso at the end of the season. His legend was assured when he guided the Italians to seventh in the league last season, but it’s unlikely they’ll reach such heady heights this time around.

11) Edinburgh
In: Nikki Walker, Jack Cuthbert, Aleki Lutui, Alasdair Dickinson, Grayson Hart, Oliver Atkins, Wicus Blaauw, Sean Kennedy, James Hilterbrand
Out: Richie Rees, Netani Talei, Sep Visser, Mike Penn, Andy Titterell, Allan Jacobsen, James King, Steven Turbull, John Yapp
Analysis: New coach Alan Solomons has the unenviable task of improving the fortunes of a side that finished 10th and 11th in the last two seasons, and has wasted no time delivering the ‘no quick fix’ warning. Taking our cue from him, we reckon Edinburgh will find themselves at the wrong end of the table again.

12) Zebre
In: Dario Chistolini, Brendon Leonard, Tommasso Iannone, Guilio Toniolatti, Dion Berryman, George Biagi, Guglielmo Palazzani, Samuela Vunisa, Kameli Ratuvou
Out: Tito Tebaldi, Sinoti Sinoti, Daniel Halangahu, Alberto Chiesa, Luca Martinelli, Josh Sole, Nicola Belado, Samuele Pace, Flavio Tripodi, Alberto Benettin
Analysis: It’s not purely alphabetical logic that dictates Zebre should be at the bottom of the Pro12.  Last season – their first in the competition – they finished 18 points behind 11th-placed Dragons. Not even the arrival of former All Black scrum-half Brendon Leonard is likely to make things 18 points better…

Play-off semi-final: Scarlets v Glasgow
Play-off semi-final: Leinster v Ulster
Final: Scarlets v Leinster

Be honest. You weren’t surprised. Leinster have too much big-match nous to lose this one – but it could be their last title for a while… whatever the competition is called.

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