The RaboDirect Pro12 kicks back into action this weekend and with all four Welsh regions eager to get off to a good start.
The four teams have seen plenty of comings and goings over the summer in both playing and coaching personnel, and with the Cardiff Blues even having a new pitch they will all be hoping to move on to bigger and better things this season. The Newport Gwent Dragons will be determined not to finish as the bottom Welsh region, the Cardiff Blues will be itching to join in the fight for a play-off spot, the Ospreys will want to take the spot of best Welsh region again and the Scarlets will be looking to emulate and better their semi-final place of last season.
Despite the success of the British and Irish Lions tour and the huge positive of having so many Welsh players involved, there still remain large doubts over the domestic game in Wales. The WRU have finally given a small amount of ground with a one off payment of £1 million being available this season to help the regions retain their Welsh Internationals, who are now starting to slip over the border at an alarming rate.
The Newport Gwent Dragons have been quick off the mark in getting the excellent Toby Faletau to put pen to paper and extend his contract but the other three regions are truly going to be up against it to retain their stars. As Jon Davies of the Scarlets has stated, after having so much success with Wales he wants to have success domestically as well. It is therefore vital that the regions remain competitive, and it is even more important that the WRU works together with them for this to be achievable which sadly has not always been the case to date.
The first round of the Pro12 is a perfect time to steal a march on your rivals, where your early season form can see you carried through to the tough end of the season. With the competition for play-off spots getting fiercer each season every point really does count.
Newport Gwent Dragons v Ulster
Ulster travel to Newport with a side depleted of many of its main stars either through compulsory rest or injury. It is an ideal time for the new look Dragons to make a big impression in this league under the new Director of Rugby Lyn Jones and new coach Kingsley Jones brought in to aid head coach Darren Edwards. The Dragons have opted for a more youthful pack rather than sticking with the likes of Sidoli in the second row which also sees lock Andrew Coombs get his first start as Captain, and with Richie Rees and Jason Tovey at scrum half they have the experience there to control the game.
Ulster pose their own problems in the forwards with Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry likely to pose huge threats. With Paddy Jackson also controlling things from the fly half shirt they also have the ability to take the game to the Dragons despite missing so many of their more first choice players.
A tough season opener for both and the Dragons will be glad they have this game first up and at home.
Dragons: Dan Evans; Tom Prydie, Pat Leach, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos; Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Aaron Coundley, T. Rhys Thomas, Dan Way, Matthew Screech, Andrew Coombs (capt), Jevon Groves, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans.
Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Phil Price, Francisco Chaparro, Adam Jones, Netani Talei, Jonathan Evans, Kris Burton, Ross Wardle.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, C Farrell, D McIlwaine; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, R Lutton; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson.
Replacements: N Annett, T Court, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, S Doyle, I Porter, J McKinney, D Cave.
Referee: Claudio Blessano (FIR)
Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:15pm
Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues
The Blues face an incredibly tough trip away to Glasgow in their first game of the season. With their youthful squad now a year on in their development, they will want to further their progression with improved performances and results this season. At times last season their defence would crumble and there was a clear lack of leadership but with the additions of Welsh veterans Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees to their pack there should be a big improvement.
It is Matthew Rees who is to lead out the side against the Warriors as Jenkins joins the injured Warburton and the rested Halpfenny and Cuthbert on the side lines. With the likes of Patchell, Robinson and Owen Williams in the team it is a very exciting backline but they will once more be up against it in the pack to provide them with any decent possession to work with.
Glasgow are fielding a good mix of youth and experience and are notoriously difficult to beat at home. Captain Kellock and flanker Chris Fusaro are likely to be their key men and with Dunbar, Pyrgos and Lamont in their backline they pose big dangers of their own.
A very difficult season opener for the Cardiff Blues but if Glasgow start the season slowly they still have the players to cause an early round upset.
Glasgow: Peter Murchie; Sean Lamont, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, Byron McGuigan; Scott Wight, Henry Pyrgos; Jerry Yanuyanutawa, Pat MacArthur, Ed Kalman, Tim Swinson, Al Kellock (capt), Rob Harley, Chris Fusaro, Richie Vernon.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Moray Low, Tyrone Holmes, Jonny Gray, Chris Cusiter, Ruaridh Jackson, Tommy Seymour.
Blues: Tom Williams; Harry Robinson, Owen Williams, Gavin Evans, Chris Czekaj; Rhys Patchell, Lloyd Williams; Taufa’ao Filise, Matthew Rees (capt), Scott Andrews, Bradley Davies, Filo Paulo, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Marc Breeze, Sam Hobbs, Benoit Bourrust, James Down, Luke Hamilton, Lewis Jones, Gareth Davies, Dafydd Hewitt.
Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU)
Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:35pm
Scarlets v Leinster
As with last season the West Wales region yet again kick off their campaign against Leinster. There have been more departures than incomings for the Scarlets over the summer yet they will hope new star signing John Barclay will make a big difference when he returns from injury in a couple of weeks’ time. Their biggest depletion came in their back three however with the loss of wingers George North and Andrew Fenby to English clubs and full back Morgan Stoddart to injury. The conveyor belt of talent continues to work well out West however and U20’s world cup star Jordan Williams is an exciting presence on the bench as a back three option.
The Scarlets are fielding a strong pack against Leinster, with captain Rob McCusker again having to take on the no. 8 duties. There is a very welcome return for fly half Rhys Priestland after his troubles with an achillies injury and he partners Gareth Davies at halfback. Liam Williams is moved to the wing to allow for Gareth Owen to slot in at full back and returning Scarlet Steve Shingler slots in at twelve to partner Wales international Scott Williams.
An exciting backline linking with a hard working pack should stand the Scarlets in good stead although Leinster under new coach Matt O’Connor are fielding a side with a good blend of youth and experience. Jennings captains the side in the place of the missing Leo Cullen but D’Arcy, McFadden, Cronin and Reddon all pose huge threats. New fly half Jimmy Gopperth will also be keen to impress and the Scarlets will have to focus and perform to a very high standard if they are to get off to the start that they want.
A nervy opener perhaps with so many unknowns and new faces, yet there is the mix of experience from both sides to make this a good encounter.
Scarlets: Gareth Owen; Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Steve Shingler, Kristian Phillips; Rhys Priestland, Gareth Davies; Phil John; Ken Owens; Samson Lee, George Earle, Jo Snyman, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull, 8 Rob McCusker (capt).
Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rob Evans, Jacobie Adriaanse, Jake Ball, Craig Price, Rhodri Williams, Adam Warren, Jordan Williams.
Leinster: Dave Kearney; Darragh Fanning, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Tom Denton, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings (capt), Jordi Murphy.
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack O’Connell, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy, Dominic Ryan, Isaac Boss, Noel Reid, Brendan Macken.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Kick-off: Friday 6th September, 7:05pm
Benetton Treviso v Ospreys
The Swansea based region face a very tricky first away game. Treviso are continuously improving and at home they are a difficult team to break down and beat, and with most of the Ospreys’ Lions contingent due to be rested they will be seriously up against it.
The Ospreys do however benefit from a great deal of strength in depth in their pack and with the summer break allowing many of their backline to return from injury they will hope to be able to field a much more balanced side then they did at times last season.
Treviso should have access to nearly if not all of their key Italian players and will be eager to get off to the best of starts against a team that is usually a top four contender.
Both to be confirmed.
Referee: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Kick-off: Saturday 7th September, 6:30pm