These conferences still have bad names. Conference A was predicted yesterday, so Conference B is where we will go today.
Leinster, Ulster, and Scarlets will all fancy their chances of getting out of this group without too much fuss. Other sides should look to build for next year to make the breakthrough.
Head coach: Wayne Pivac
Munster was outstanding last year and overall were the best side in the competition. They were beaten soundly only twice, to Saracens brute strength and Pivac’s tactical masterclass with the Scarlets. The Scarlets made it into the playoffs in 3rd place in the league and then pulled out a couple of outstanding performances against Ireland’s big two in their own back yard. Under Pivac, they did playing some thrilling rugby. Expect more of the same from them this season.
Key Player: Tadhg Beirne
The Irish second row is being targeted by the provinces to come home and with good reason. He was a force of nature in the Grand Final last year. Would not be surprised to see him getting a phone call from a certain Joe Schmidt about wearing the green jersey come Test time.
Any of my top three could finish anywhere in the top three. I’m basing this on last years performances leading to more players being selected by Warren Gatland for Welsh duties. If this happens then I don’t think they have the strength in depth compared to their Irish rivals.
Head coach: Leo Cullen
With the help of Stuart Lancaster, Leo Cullen has seen the style that was sorely missed under Matt O’Connor. This includes establishing a solid partnership in Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the centre where Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll ruled with an iron fist. Interesting to see what he brings this season when last year he was close, but no cigar.
Key Player: Sean O’Brien
The Tullow Tank was a thorn in the All Blacks side for the Lions until he was injured in the final Test. The 30-year-old will come roaring back as he always does. Appears hungrier than ever to taste more success at club and international level after missing out on the Chicago victory over new Zealand last November.
The sheer depth and quality from which to pick from for Cullen make Leinster the favourites for the conference and the trophy as a whole. The perfect blend of winning experience and fearlessness of youth means another trophyless season would be close to unacceptable in the eyes of some of the critics.
Newport Gwent Dragons
Head coach: Bernard Jackman
Jackman’s back. After earning his stripes with respectable performances with Grenoble in the cutthroat league that is the Top 14, he’s back to what he knows in the Celtic league. This time it is as a coach and will be desperate to make his mark with the Dragons.
Key Player:; Gavin Henson
Perhaps a controversial choice as the key player, but Henson’s experience can be an example to the younger players. Henson is an outrageous talent who can be mercurial on his day but can be equally frustrating. Time will tell for Wales’ one time favourite son.
With Jackman at the helm, they have the potential in a couple of years to be the next side to make the big breakthrough. This year may be too soon for that though.
Head coach: Les Kiss
The former Ireland defence coach must have learned a lot from his first season at Ravenhill and will know more than most where his side can improve. Defence, attack, aggression, you name it, Ulster will be better all over the park this season. The northern province flattered to deceive and was arguably the most disappointing side last year because they are usually so clinical, especially at home.
Key Player: Paddy Jackson
Court case aside, when Jackson plays well, Ulster play well. His goal kicking is impeccable, especially when you think back to his shaky debut for Ireland. His running game is also very underrated and has all the tools to kick on and challenge Johnny Sexton for the green #10 jersey.
It can only get better for Ulster, with the potential signing of Australia international Christian Lealiifano minimising the blow of losing Ruan Pienaar. Like the Cheetahs, they should benefit from having fewer internationals in the side.
Head coach: Richard Cockerill
Cockerill has a wealth of experience as a winner with Leicester and is the perfect man to build on Bradley’s foundations. His brilliant work with the forwards will also make them a menacing side to play against.
Key Player: Hamish Watson
The funny thing is, Watson could also be fighting for his place, with John Hardie – another favourite of mine – battling for the seven jersey both for Edinburgh and Scotland. Both guys love to get stuck into a ruck but Watson’s performances in last years Six Nations, against Wales in particular, made me mark him as a punt for the Lions.
Might fall just short of a playoff position, but along with the Dragons, I have them earmarked with the potential to be a dark horse as were Connacht, Glasgow, and Scarlets before them.
Head coach: Kieran Crowley
Another former World Cup winner as part of the New Zealand squad in 1987. This guy knows what it takes to win and I expect a dramatic change in Treviso’s handling skills and few more tries to their name this season.
Key Player: Alessandro Zanni
Doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves with his back row partner in the Italian side, Sergio Parisse hogging the limelight. Impresses me every time I see him play and the go to man for Crowley when he is looking for leadership and front foot ball..
Expect to see minor improvements but, like Zebre, it will be a long season.
Head coach: Deon Davids
Little is known about the man chosen to lead the Kings into the virtual unknown. He’s coached many sides, all in South Africa, which means he understands South African rugby at its core. It stands to reason that he’ll play a style that captures the essence of South African rugby.
Key Player: Cornal Hendricks
Probably the only familiar face in the Kings squad to us in the North. He has a dozen caps for the Springboks scoring five tries. I expect more of the same here. Defensively suspect but makes up for it in firepower. Will be hungry to make the most of a second chance after recovering from a serious heart condition.
I’ll be honest, I really don’t know what to expect from the Kings, because they don’t even have a full squad yet. I doubt the fans even know what to expect from the team themselves. I doubt they’ll do any worse than Treviso but if they’re not careful, they could become the new proverbial whipping boys of the division. I certainly hope not.
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