Pro 12 Rugby – Preview of the major threats to the Irish provinces

With a little over a month to go until the start of the new Pro 12 season, Ireland’s four provincial sides are continuing their preparations apace.

We’ve already taken a close look at the changes made in each of their respective squads, but what of their rivals?

Which of the sides from beyond these shoes are likely to pose the biggest threat to Connacht’s title defence?

It’s been a busy off-season in terms of player transfers across the Scotland, Wales and Italy, but with most of the major deals now done and dusted, a more accurate picture of the Pro 12’s biggest threats is starting to emerge.

 

Glasgow Warriors may have been installed as second favourites behind Leinster to dethrone Connacht in the coming season, but Gregor Townsend’s men will have to try and do so without several key players.

Scotland fly-half Duncan Weir has decamped to join arch-rivals Edinburgh, Mike Blair has retired and Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa has taken his freakish off-loading talents to Racing 92.

On the flip side, the 2015 Pro 12 champions have drafted in veteran All Blacks hooker Corey Flynn and he will be joined in the front-row by the unmissable figure of Djustice Sears-Duru.

The 118kg prop made a major impact for Canada during last year’s Rugby World Cup and has the potential to become a firm fans’ favourite at Scotstoun.

In the backs, meanwhile, flying Italian wing Leonardo Sarto should also prove to be a crowd-pleaser following his switch from Zebre.

 

The Scarlets enjoyed an improved season last term, eventually finishing fifth and the Welsh outfit have been one of the competition’s most active sides in the transfer market this summer.

Wales centre Jonathan Davies heads an impressive list of new recruits which also includes former Springboks prop Werner Kruger, ex-Crusaders wing/fullback Johnny McNicholl and the similarly versatile Rhys Patchell who arrives from Cardiff Blues.

Steven Shingler (Cardiff Blues), Maselino Paulino (Lyon) and Rhodri Williams (Bath) have all moved on, but the West Walians remain optimistic that they could emerge as genuine title contenders this term and should certainly be regarded as potential dark horses.

 

The same can be said of Edinburgh who finished a disappointing ninth last season, but look to have recruited well, drafting in Weir from Glasgow, Junior Rasolea from Super Rugby’s Western Force, the versatile Jason Tovey from Newport and former Ulster wing, Rory Scholes.

The loss of Scottish international duo Matt Scott and Greig Tonks has weakened their backline options, but Alan Solomons’ men still look capable of registering a significant improvement in 2016/17.

 

The Ospreys, meanwhile, will again have their backers as they attempt to secure a first title since 2012.

All too often, the Swansea-based side have failed to fulfil their potential, but the arrival of Bradley Davies from Wasps will undoubtedly bolster both their physicality and resolve.

And ex-Scarlets man Rhodri Jones will provide them another quality option in the front-row, softening the blow of losing fellow-Wales international Aaron Jarvis to Clermont-Auvergne.

Coach Steve Tandy again has a superb squad on paper, but can he blend that talent into a winning side?

 

As for serial under-achievers Cardiff Blues, they have recruited three players from local rivals the Scarlets, namely Shingler, Kirby Myhill and George Earle, while also picking up exciting Wales international fullback Matthew Morgan and rugged prop Rhys Gill from Bristol and Saracens respectively.

The Arms Park faithful are desperate for some success in a competition that has rarely been kind to their side, but losing Craig Mitchell to Newport and Patchell to the Scarlets will certainly not enhance their prospects of improving upon last season’s seventh-place finish.

 

Newport Gwent Dragons appear to face a similarly uphill battle as they adapt to life without marquee man Taulupe Faletau who will play his rugby over the border with Bath next term.

New Zealander Sam Beard should shore up their midfield, as will ex-Munster and Northampton man Patrick Howard, while Nick Macleod could oust Angus O’Brien to slot straight in as the starting fly-half following his arrival from Sale.

The retirement of long-serving forward Andrew Coombs and Tovey’s move to Edinburgh, however, will rob the Dragons of a wealth of experience and nous and when added to the absence of the inspirational Faletau, it’s hard to make case for Kingsley Jones’ side doing anything other than struggle again this season.

 

The biggest turnover of players has come at Benetton Treviso where 15 players have come in to replace the 13 that have moved on.

Among the most notable of the new recruits are a trio of gifted current Italian internationals in fly-half Tommaso Allan, wing David Odiete and centre Tommaso Benvenuti and their presence should at least enable the perennial strugglers to improve upon last season’s miserable return of just three wins.

 

Treviso’s Italian rivals Zebre have also been busy this summer, recruiting four South Africans including dynamic flanker Derick Minnie, along with veteran ex-Wasps hooker Carlo Festuccia.

But the loss of a host of big-name players, notably Sarto, Mauro Bergamasco, Luke Burgess, Kelly Haimona and Mils Muliaina, suggests that Gianluca Guidi’s men are set to find themselves scrambling to avoid the wooden spoon yet again.

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