The 2016-17 Guinness Pro12 rugby competition began its 16th year of competition on the first weekend of September. It was originally called the Celtic League; however, with addition of teams from Italy the league was renamed 4 years ago. Guinness is in its third year of a sponsorship deal that continues to highlight some of the best rugby in Europe.
Twelve teams make up the competition: four Irish, two Italian, two from Scotland and four from Wales. Connacht are the reigning champions after they defeated Leinster 20-10 in last year’s final. Munster and Ulster make up the remaining two teams from the Emerald Isle (three of last year’s semi-finalists came from Ireland with Munster missing out). The two teams representing Italy are Benetton Treviso and Zebre. These two teams occupied the bottom positions in last year’s table and that promises to be the case again this year. The two Scottish teams, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, will be competitive again this year. The Glasgow Warriors took the fourth semi-final spot in 2015-16 and took the title the previous year. The final four teams are from Wales. The Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, the Ospreys and the Scarlets will be sure to provide strong competition throughout the season.
The competition operates a regular league format with the teams playing home and away. The top four teams in the league at the conclusion of the regular season will play-off against each other in the semi-finals. These games take place with the team finishing top going up against the 4th and 2nd against 3rd. The higher ranked team will have home advantage. The final is scheduled to take place on 27 May 2017 in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Connacht are the defending champions and will feature strongly again this season. They had the joint top try scorer last season in Matt Healy. Healy should have another enjoyable season behind a confident and strong pack. The squad has strength in depth and they have invested in four Ireland U20s into their academy who featured in Ireland’s squad in the first ever Irish U20s side to reach the final of the World U20s championship last May.
Last year’s beaten finalists Leinster should also feature strongly again this year. Sir Graham Henry, the world renowned coach, joins the club in a consulting role and will be sure to offer head coach Leo Cullen great support. The team has the largest contingent of Irish internationals of any of the four provinces. Leo Cullen says that Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien are ‘making good progress’ and that Jonathan Sexton is ‘a couple of weeks away’ from making a return to action for the province. They will be strong upfront and creative in the back-line. However, they could suffer from player fatigue and injury due to Ireland’s heavy international commitments this November and in the Six Nations.
Munster finished mid-table last season and will look for much improvement this year. However, changes off the field could largely dictate Munster’s 2016-17 season. Rassie Erasmus, the former Springbok captain, came on board last summer as director of rugby. This famous club was stricken early on in the season when their enigmatic coach, Anthony Foley, tragically passed away in Paris. Former Munster and Ireland captain Paul O’Connell joins the club and will be working with the young academy players. Munster may be going through transitionary phases on the field and a great deal of emotion off it and the 2017-18 season could be more fruitful.
Last season’s other beaten semi-finalists Ulster make up the last of the four Irish teams. The current Irish captain, Roy Best, was in good form during Ireland’s summer tour of South Africa and will continue to lead from the front. Last season also provided the joint try scorer in Craig Gilroy, a player sure to feature in Ireland’s international squad. They have a massively creative, experienced and exciting back-line boasting Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Gilroy. If Best’s young forward pack can provide good quality ball then Ulster could well be in the frame once again.
The two teams from Northern Italy have been a welcome addition to the competition. However, it could be another long season for Benetton Treviso and Zebre. We must applaud the Pro 12 organizing committee for having continued faith in both these teams and it speaks volumes for the focus on development. We should be optimistic about both teams having squads largely made up of Italian born players. Both teams had sporadic victories against higher placed teams last season; however, they both lacked consistency, especially away from home. If either team could provide a string of victories it would do wonders for the game in Italy. Also both teams have excellent youth development programs and that can only bode well for the future.
Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh make up the Scottish participation. The Warriors won the competition in 2014-15 and made the semi-finals last year. They also provide a large contingent for Scotland’s national squad. They could be on course for another fine season and should be tough for all the other teams to overcome. We should not be surprised if this team makes the top four come next April/May. They will be well aware that international call-ups will make strong demands on the team and will hope that injuries will not be to disruptive. However, it’s the coaching changes that are making the news this coming season. Dave Rennie has agreed a two-year deal to take over from Gregor Townsend as the Warriors’ head coach next summer. Rennie, 52, will complete his contract as coach of Super Rugby outfit The Chiefs in Hamilton, New Zealand, before moving to Scotstoun, with Townsend replacing Vern Cotter as Scotland head coach. Edinburgh had mixed fortunes last year. They won 11 and lost the same and they will be hoping for more consistency away from home. They will also hope that the all Scottish international front row of hooker Ross Ford and props Rory Sutherland and Willem Nel will stay fit and healthy; much will depend on this quartet.
None of the Welsh teams finished above fifth in the table and that proved a great disappointment in the valleys of Wales. The Scarlets proved to be the most successful Welsh team last season and will be hoping for further improvement. They have a strong representative presence in the Welsh international squad and last season’s World cup made many demands on the club. However, the side looks more settled this season and should improve through the season. They could be a strong contender for a semi-final place. Strength in depth could be an issue and there are concerns whether they have enough firepower up-front. Welsh international props Samson Lee and Rob Evans both need to overcome injuries. They do boast a back division that’s potentially one of the best in the Pro12, if not Europe, with Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell at half-back, Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies at centre,
The Ospreys also look to be going in the right direction. The record four-time league champions posted their worst finish in history when they came eighth last year. But with a significant contingent who missed the start of last season because of the World Cup available this time, you suspect they will be back challenging at the top end of the table. International back-row forwards, Justic Tiperic and Dan Lydiate have returned from lengthy injuries and should provide mobility in the loose. And with two imposing second rows in Alun Wynn Jones and Bradley Davies, the pack looks capable of testing any other in the league.
The Cardiff Blues, similar to Edinburgh, had mixed fortunes last season. They also had an 11 to 11 win/loss ratio and will be looking for more consistency this year. They also had, in Rhys Patchell, last season’s top point’s scorer with 174. Patchell will hope to continue his successful run of scoring form after a move to the Scarlets. Coincidently, last season, the Blues lost their first six away games before Christmas. However, they had a strong final quarter of the season and won their last 5 games. If they can “travel” better, a top five finish is well within their capabilities. They have also strengthened the squad considerably – No.8 Nick Williams and centre Willis Halaholo in particular will add depth and size – you have to expect them to do better than last season. With the burly Williams on board and Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Josh Turnbull in harness as well, the Blues have real class, power and experience at loose forward.
Newport Gwent Dragons could be the Welsh team to struggle the most of this coming season. They will enter the tournament with enthusiasm and confidence; however, strength in depth could be the key. Last season was one of extreme disappointment, they finished 10th in the table, and with Italian outfits Zebre and Treviso having strengthened their squads for this season, the scrap at the bottom could be as compelling as at the top. They also lost director of rugby Lyn Jones before the campaign ended while Wales and Lions star Taulupe Faletau jumped ship to Aviva Premiership club Bath.
There are many talking points in the world of rugby these days: Restructuring of the Six Nations competition is seriously being discussed along with the more serious cases of player concussion and athlete burnout. Another interesting topic for discussion this coming season concerns expansion of the Guinness Pro 12 tournament.
Earlier in 2016, in an interview with The Irish Times, IRFU CEO Philip Browne intimated that the Pro 12 was seriously considering a U.S franchise in the near future. Browne highlighted the recent growth of rugby in the US as an opportunity to help close some of the financial gap between Pro12 and Europe’s other major domestic leagues, the Aviva English Premiership and France’s top 14. An option being touted is to provide a club on the Atlantic coast.
Philip Browne admitted that “radical” change is needed for Irish provinces to remain competitive in Europe. “The east coast of the US, why not?” said Browne after the union’s annual general meeting at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The one thing we can bring to bear, as four unions, is if you operate a franchise model we can provide the coaches, we can provide the administrative expertise. We can do what is needed to get a franchise up and running pretty quickly.”
Pro 12 managing director, Martin Anayi added weight to the argument. “We’ve had really early discussions, with USA Rugby, broadcasters, sponsors,” admitted Anayi. “Everyone’s saying the same things, that if it’s good for the tournament across a whole range of areas, player welfare, if it’s good commercially, for the fans, and does it form part of their strategic plan too, then we should explore how far we can take it. They believe in the same things we do, which is the only way for a tier-two nation to become a tier-one nation is through professional club rugby.”
There are logistic considerations to overcome: travel and time differences for example. However, a franchise based in the London or Dublin areas- for example- could travel to the Boston/New York cities for three week home periods. If we take into consideration the strong Irish and Italian presence on the east coast, flight times and distances between the airports; we could be facing some exciting times.
Kieran’s will endeavor to show Guinness Pro 12 rugby whenever possible. It’s a well-known fact that rugby coverage in the U.S is “sketchy” at best. We hope that this may improve in the next few years. The Guinness Pro 12 is a live stream feed and the quality is generally very good.