Nice press release from RaboDirect PRO12 with mentions for Mark Anscombe, Tommy Bowe and Johann Muller amongst others …
The starting pistol is cocked and ready to send the 12 clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales flying out of the starting blocks and into the 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12 season.
Defending champions the Ospreys open their defence of the title against Benetton Treviso at Stadio di Monigo in 10 days time without wing wizard Shane Williams, who marked his last game for the club with two tries in the 31-30 RaboDirect PRO12 final win over Leinster Rugby at the RDS in May.
They will also be without former Wales captain Ryan Jones who will miss the start of the campaign following key-hold surgery on a damaged knee.
Leinster, who narrowly missed out on being the first to do the season’s double of Pro 12 and Heineken Cup titles, start their challenge with a trip to Parc y Scarlets for a clash with a club now coached by former Ireland back row ace Simon Easterby.
The Heineken Cup champions will be without long-term injured players Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney and Eoin O’Malley.
But they have added Kiwi prop Michael Bent, South African lock Quinn Roux and former Leeds lock Tom Denton to their forward strength.
Munster Rugby – tournament champions in 2011 – open their bid under new head coach Rob Penney against Edinburgh at Murrayfield and have been bolstered by the arrival of former All Blacks centre Casey Laulala, who made his 2004 Test debut with Munster’s favourite adopted son Doug Howlett.
Zebre, the Parma-based club who have replaced Aironi as the other Italian club alongside Benetton Trevsio, play their first tournament match against Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade while their home venue of Stadio XXV Aprile will be one of two new stadia hosting Pro 12 action.
The other comes courtesy of Glasgow Warriors having moved home to Scotstoun Stadium, which will be the club’s playing, training and administrative base – the first time they have enjoyed an integrated HQ.
The Scarlets will be the first visitors to play at the ground and the Welsh club could come face-to-face with 68-times capped Sean Lamont who has rejoined the Warriors after 52 appearances for the Scarlets.
While Lamont needs no introduction to the Warriors fans, new faces under head coach Gregor Townsend include Tonga Rugby World Cup star No 8 Viliami Ma’afu, Newcastle Falcons lock Tim Swinson, All Black back row forward Angus Macdonald, former Border Bulldogs centre Byron McGuigan and Canada’s youngest ever international, wing Taylor Paris.
ZEBRE AIM TO EARN THEIR STRIPES
Zebre – the Italian for zebras – are the new Italian franchise and the Parma-based club will make their debut when they travel to face Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade in the first match to kick-off the new campaign at 7.00pm on Friday, 31 August.
They will then welcome Connacht Rugby to Stadio XXV Aprile for their opening home fixture a week later.
Zebre have had three competitive matches to prepare them for the European challenges ahead and Zebre Director of Rugby Roberto Manghi stresses the aim of the new team “is to play total rugby – when the situation is right.
“Our mission is to go for a win in every match we play, although we know that will be difficult as we go into the RaboDirect PRO12 in the bottom position as we were the last team to be entered for the competition.
We have got a good blend of experience and youth that is coming together nicely although it is disappointing that Marco Bortolami, our captain and international lock, was injured playing for the national side and will miss the start of our historic season.
We have respect for all the teams in this tournament but we are keen to make our mark. We will take it one game at a time while we only think of the future.
Our first preparation game, against Perpignan, was historic as it was our first match as a team but the result was disappointing.
Against Aurillac we played some good rugby and against a strong Northampton Saints team we went all out for the win and achieved that with a late try.
Initially we will rely heavily on our hard core of experienced players, like Salvatore Perugini, Quintin Geldenhuys, Mauro Bergamasco and Gonzalo Garcia, but we are all very excited about the challenges of playing in the Pro 12.”
… AND NEW FOR A NEW SEASON
Phil Davies, the 46-times capped former Wales star, is not new to the tournament after two seasons as head coach of the Scarlets between 2006 and 2008 but he is back on the cross-border scene as Cardiff Blues’ Director of Rugby.
Zebre are a new team and Stadio XXV Aprile will be one of two new venues, along with Scotstoun Stadium, the new home venue of Glasgow Warriors.
Cardiff Blues Director of Rugby – Phil Davies
Edinburgh Rugby Forwards Coach – Neil Back
Glasgow Warriors Head Coach – Gregor Townsend
Munster Rugby Head Coach – Rob Penney
Scarlets Head Coach – Simon Easterby
Ulster Rugby Head Coach – Mark Anscombe
ULSTER BANK ON KIWI ANSCOMBE
Mark Anscombe, coach to the victorious 2011 IRB Junior World Cup young All Blacks, is now on a 24-month contract in the Ulster Rugby hot seat and accepts the Irish team must “hit the ground running” when they start their 22-match campaign against Glasgow Warriors at Ravenhill a week Friday.
The 54-year-old, who has just finished a three-year term as head coach of the Auckland ITM Cup side, is no stranger to Irish rugby as he coached Dublin club Old Wesley between 1994 and 1996 he coached famous Dublin 4 club, Old Wesley.
“We are really looking forward to the new Pro 12 season – a good, long and challenging competition,” he said.
“We lost 10 games in last season’s tournament so we accept we have to be more consistent and do better than that but it is a tough competition with really good teams and there are certainly no easy games.
You cannot judge opponents on previous seasons and if you start getting complacent and selective you will quickly find yourselves in real danger and trouble, you have to be wary of every team you come up against.
All the clubs will be looking for positive starts and although it is a long season you do not want to start lagging behind.
After Glasgow we play the champions the Ospreys and then Munster but I hope you will see both a different and better Ulster team.
We started back on 25 June and it has been a bit frustrating having the players back in batches over the following month but it was also good to have the extra time with the young group looking to have a real crack this year.”
BACK ON THE BREAKDOWN
Neil Back – an England 2003 World Cup winner with – has joined Michael Bradley’s coaching staff at Edinburgh Rugby as forwards coach and is set to have a major influence on the loose play of stars like David Denton.
“It is all about detail as the breakdown is very complicated area and it is all about decision making,” said the former Lions and Leicester flanker. “You put players in different situations in training and help them make better decisions. It is a key area in the modern game and hopefully my experience will benefit Edinburgh going forward.
Edinburgh probably did not do as well as we could have in the domestic competition last season, but Michael has identified key signings that will add strength and depth to the squad.
I am looking forward to hopefully be able to facilitate and maximise everyone’s potential and give a good account of ourselves this season.
I don’t want anyone looking in the mirror at the end of the day, the week or the year and thinking ‘what if’? If you have given everything and failed, difficult as it is to accept failure, you can sort of accept it.
What you don’t want to do is to be looking back and saying ‘what if, if I had done this, tried harder, been more attentive to me own personal development and not given everything to the cause.’ If we can do that we will be strong this year and build on the successes of last season.”
SCARLETS LAMENT FOR LAMONT
Wales wonder wing George North can’t wait to catch-up with former Scarlets team-mate Sean Lamont when the Welsh region become the first team to play a RaboDirect PRO12 game against Glasgow Warriors at their new Scotstoun home on Friday, 7 September.
Lamont played 37 tournament games for the Scarlets before transferring back to Scotland in the summer when he joined the Warriors. In his three seasons as a Scarlet he saw players like North, Jonathan Davies, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams and Liam Williams all graduate into the Welsh team.
Nobody made a bigger impact than North, who became the youngest try scorer at the Rugby World Cup finals in New Zealand last year and became the record teenage try scorer in international rugby – and Lamont was there from the start, partnering him on the wing in his first competitive home start against Connacht in September, 2010.
“Sean was a massive influence on me. He bases a lot of his game on physicality and I saw the way he did that, and how he used his power and strength as a weapon,” said the 20-year-old North.
“He also looked after me in camp when I first stepped up into the Scarlets squad. He would make sure I knew what I was doing, what lines to run and what my role was on the wing.
I was really disappointed to see him leave and to see the team lose his experience and talent. He always wished me luck when I was playing for Wales and we still keep in touch by text.
I made a short and sharp rise in my career and it was always nice to have that reassurance from Sean that I was doing things OK. It will be good to see him again in Glasgow.”
With the Scarlets looking for a fast start to the new RaboDirect PRO12 campaign after finishing fifth in three of the last four seasons, North could well find himself back in club action sooner rather than later despite having played 16 Tests in the past 12 months.
With a new coach at the helm this season, the former Ireland and British & Irish Lions flanker Simon Easterby, the Scarlets will be something of an unknown quantity, although desperate to overturn an away record that points to seven defeats in their last eight league visits to Glasgow.
“There have been changes over the summer at the Scarlets, but the squad is fine. The last few weeks have been really positive and we are looking forward to seeing the influence of Simon coming through,” admitted North.
He was always very committed as a player and always strove to be the best he could be. Now he expects that of us as a coach.
We have also got some new guys coming into our backline in Kristian Phillips and Gareth Owen and it will be exciting to see what they bring to the team.”
TRYING TIMES FOR TOMMY
The race is on to find the first player to score 50 tries in the RaboDirect PRO12 tournament – and it could be either Tommy Bowe or Tim Visser.
No-one would have bet against Bowe, with 46 tries in 116 games, becoming the first player to reach the landmark in recent years, but the arrival of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ at Edinburgh has dramatically changed the picture.
Visser has notched 37 tries in 57 appearances for Edinburgh in his first three seasons in the competition and is scoring at a rate of one try every 1.54 games. His 14 tries in the 2010/11 campaign eclipsed Bowe’s old record for a season and he followed that up with 13 more in 2011/12.
Bowe, back on his old stamping ground at Ravenhill this season, notched his first tournament try back in the 2003/04 season. He has 28 tries for Ulster and 18 with the Ospreys. He needs just four more to reach the half-century mark, but his rate of scoring has eased to one per 2.5 games. At that rate he will need to play at least 10 games this season.
SWIFT AIMING TO FLY TO 150
Connacht stalwart Michael Swift could give himself an early 35th birthday present if he plays in all five RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures in September.
The London-born former England U16 and U18 lock became the first player to win 200 caps for the Irish province last season and also overtook Deiniol Jones at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 tournament’s leading appearances chart. One of the few surviving players to have appeared in every season of Celtic Rugby / PRO12 tournaments since 2001/2002, Swift took his tally to 145 matches last season.
Now he needs five more appearances to become the first to reach 150.
Connacht have five games in September and there is every likelihood that Swift, who turns 35 on 18 October, could reach the landmark by the end of next month after signing a year extension to his contract at the club.
Hot on his heels in the race to 150 appearances are Cardiff Blues outside half Ceri Sweeney (139), Connacht clubmate John Muldoon (136), Ospreys prop Adam Jones (135), new Connacht recruit Dan Parks (132) and Glasgow Warriors skipper Ali Kellock (132).
LOCKS ARE THE LEADERS
The locks have it – over half the RaboDirect PRO12 clubs will be captained from the second row and only two backs will skipper their teams.
The magnificent seven are Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Leo Cullen (Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Munster), Johann Muller (Ulster), Al Kellock (Warriors), Antonio Pavanello (Treviso) and Marco Bortolami (Zebre).
Three more back row forwards – Andries Pretorius, Rob McCusker and Lewis Evans at Welsh clubs Cardiff Blues, the Scarlets and Dragons respectively – make it 10 forwards with outside half Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh) and full back Gavin Duffy (Connacht) the only backs.
WELSH FESTIVE BRAGGING RIGHTS
The final piece of the jigsaw for the first half of the season is in place – the confirmed details for the Welsh derby matches over the festive season in late December.
Cardiff Blues will take on Newport Gwent Dragons at the Arms Park on Boxing Day – Wednesday, 26 December – with a 2.05pm kick-off in front of the BBC Wales cameras. Later in the day S4C will broadcast the Ospreys hosting the Scarlets (5.30pm).
Before that double-header, however, Cardiff Blues will meet the Scarlets on Friday, 21 December with a 7.05pm kick-off in front of the BBC Wales cameras with Newport Gwent Dragons against the Ospreys on Monday, 31 December (7.05pm with S4C) completing the Welsh derby programme.
The Round 11 and 21 fixtures involving Cardiff Blues and Scarlets will be reversed, with Blues now at home in December and Scarlets at home in April.
In addition Ospreys have confirmed that they will play their Round 7 fixture against Connacht on Saturday 27 October, kicking off at 2.30pm at the Liberty Stadium.
DRAGONS AND ZEBRAS FIRST UP
Rodney Parade will be the venue where the 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12 tournament kicks-off when Newport Gwent Dragons take on newcomers Zebre on Friday, 31 August with a 7.00pm start.
Five minutes later Ulster Rugby and Glasgow Warriors clash at Ravenhill with Benetton Treviso meeting the reigning champions the Ospreys at Stadio di Monigo.
The Saturday action sees home advantage for Connacht Rugby, the Scarlets and Edinburgh Rugby against Cardiff Blues, Leinster and Munster respectively.
WHERE TO SEE THE FIRST ROUND ACTION
(All kick-offs LOCAL time)
|Fri 31||19.00||Dragons||v||Zebra||Rodney Parade|
|Fri 31||20.05||Treviso||v||Ospreys||St di Monigo||SportItalia|
|Sat 1||18.30||Scarlets||v||Leinster||Parc y Scarlets||S4C|
|Sat 1||20.00||Edinburgh||v||Munster||Murrayfield||BBC ALBA|
WHO HAS DONE WHAT … SO FAR
London Wasps 32-15 Benetton Treviso
Benetton Treviso 14 Saracens 11
Cardiff Blues 25-30 Worcester Warriors
Gloucester 20 Cardiff Blues 8
Exeter Chiefs 6 Connacht 8
Harlequins 45 Connacht 11
Newcastle Falcons 21 Edinburgh Rugby 3
Sale Sharks 49 Glasgow Warriors 27
Leinster 33 Gloucester 22
Northampton Saints 43 Leinster 0
La Rochelle 31 Munster 7
Munster 24 Bristol 9
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS
Biarritz Olympique 40 Newport Gwent Dragons 3
Newport Gwent Dragons 18 London Irish 12
ASM Clermont Auvergne 49 Ospreys 25
Ospreys 10 Bath 21
Narbonne 17 Scarlets 8
Worcester Warriors 22 Scarlets 7
Bayonne 15 Ulster 20
Ulster 14 Leicester Tigers 14
Perpignan 33 Zebre 5
Zebre 33 Aurillac 24
Zebre 30 Northampton Saints 28