By Phil Rice
This weekend heralds the start of a new season for the teams of the Guinness Pro14 league. All the Irish provinces have been busy strengthening their squads during the off season and it will be fascinating to see how the new acquisitions impact the teams’ performances.
Johnny Sexton (pictured below) is the newly appointed captain of Pro 14 champions Leinster and they begin their campaign away to European Challenge Cup winners, Cardiff Blues.
The Welsh side finished last season very strongly and after warm up matches against Leicester and Exeter Chiefs, they will be raring to go against the holders.
Leinster have parted company with backs coach Girvan Dempsey, who has moved to Bath as assistant coach.
Intriguingly he has been replaced by former Leinster captain and playmaker Felipe Contepomi. Famous for his flamboyant style as a player, his impact as a coach will be followed with much interest.
Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss have retired from the game, while Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery have moved to Ulster and Munster respectively.
Australian international utility back Joe Tomane has joined the Ballsbridge based side. Leo Cullen was impressed by Tomane when he played for Montpellier against Leinster in the Champions Cup last season, and he is seen as a replacement for Nacewa.
With the prospect of the World Cup next September, Ireland supremo Joe Schmidt will be keen to keep his key players fresh and as free from injury as possible.
Johnny Sexton, in particular, will probably only feature in Leinster’s Champions Cup and key Pro14 matches.
Yesterday saw the launch of @PRO14Official in Glasgow.
— MyPlayers (@MyPlayersRugby) August 22, 2018
Munster begin their campaign at home against South African side Toyota Cheetahs. The Cheetahs finished one place below Munster in their Conference last season and will be tough opposition for Johann Van Gran’s team.
Munster have been busy during the off season and have made some useful acquisitions. Most notably Joey Carbery joins their ranks as one of four quality fly-halves within their squad.
Schmidt was anxious for Sexton’s deputy at international level to play more rugby at 10 during the season and encouraged Carbery’s move.
Another significant inductee to the squad is ex-Scarlet and newly capped second row, Tadhg Beirne (pictured below).
Player of the season at Scarlets when they won the Pro12 two seasons ago, Beirne is a mobile, ball-carrying player who will add dynamism to the pack.
There is an air of expectation in Munster that this may be the season when they lift one of the major trophies.
Conor Murray has been outstanding for them in recent seasons and his partnership with Carbery will be key this year.
Ulster had a season to forget last year and after much negotiation they have agreed with the Scottish Rugby Union to acquire the services of their assistant national coach Dan McFarland (pictured below).
Originally due to start after Christmas, the SRU have agreed to release McFarland enabling him to start as head coach from the outset of the new season.
Ulster face the considerable challenge of Scarlets in their opening fixture at the Kingspan this Saturday evening.
Former Ireland prop Marty Moore has returned to Ireland from Wasps and will provide much needed ballast to their front row.
Jordi Murphy joins from Leinster, while Irish qualified fly-half Billy Burns has moved from Gloucester.
It promises to be a year of transition for Ulster with Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall all having retired, while Charles Piutau will be sorely missed after his move to Bristol.
McFarland comes with an impressive CV and he will need to establish a more disciplined and structured approach to a province that has considerable talent but has underperformed for the past few seasons.
Connacht have a tough opening fixture at home to Glasgow Warriors this Saturday. Long time captain John Muldoon hung up his boots at the conclusion of last season and has taken up the position of assistant coach to Pat Lam at Bristol.
Robin Copeland (pictured below) has joined from Munster to replace him at Number 8. Connacht have invested in a number of Southern Hemisphere players and will be anxious to improve on their poor showing of last season.
The acquisitions of Carbery and Beirne could be significant for Munster and they can look forward with genuine optimism for the coming season.
They haven’t lifted any silverware for some time and may well take the opportunity to rectify that situation this season. Ulster and Connacht may take time to bed in their new faces.
It seems likely that Leinster will continue to set the standard for the provinces as they aim to retain their European Champions crown and Pro14 title.