THE Pro12 season got underway last weekend and there were mixed emotions to come out of it for the four provinces of Ireland.
Of the four, Ulster registered the best of the opening weekend results – a 29-8 bonus point win over Dragons – while champions Connacht were given a wake-up call by Glasgow.
With no shortage of talking points on and off the field, particularly at Leinster, here’s five of the key issues to emerge from round one as we look forward to the second week
CONNACHT HAMMERED AT HOME
“Last season has finished,” Pat Lam, the Connacht coach, said after Saturday’s six-tries-to-one hammering by Glasgow. So maybe now everyone will listen. That they lost to one of the league’s strongest sides is understandable. That it was their heaviest home defeat in 14 years was a little harder to comprehend.
Yet the reality is that last season’s Cinderella story is over. “Everyone will want to beat us now,” said Lam. And if they continue to defend as poorly as they did on Saturday, then everyone will.
Still, some context is needed. Glasgow were at full strength whereas Connacht’s line up was radically different to the one who started the Pro12 final in May. The biggest change, though, was in their attack. “We didn’t take care of the ball,” Lam lamented. Still they tried, sticking to their principles.
“We will get better but we have to acknowledge that everyone's hungry to beat us. And what you saw ultimately was how hungry Glasgow were."
LANCASTER LANDS IN LEINSTER
First it was Andy Farrell, now Stuart Lancaster. If there is one thing Irish rugby is gaining a reputation for, it is the rehabilitation of England’s failed coaches. So while it is all well and good getting Lancaster and Farrell on board – there is a flip side.
Their appointments, combined with the presence of Rassie Erasmus at Munster, Pat Lam at Connacht and Les Kiss at Ulster, is having the effect of making Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, the most successful Irish-born coaches in history, a complete irrelevance.
Having said all that, Lancaster’s addition to the Leinster ticket for the season can be seen in a positive light, given how Leo Cullen’s inexperience is matched by the guys he has around him. Interestingly while Kurt McQuilkin had to leave as defence coach – Lancaster’s job title is senior coach, a clear indication he is careful to see how he is perceived.
It is how Cullen is perceived from here on in that will be interesting. If results improve then everyone will credit Lancaster to be the catalyst for change. And if they are no better than last year’s (when Leinster’s good form in the Pro12 was overshadowed by a disastrous showing in the Champions Cup), then Cullen will still ship the flak.
JOEY STEALS THE SHOW
Joey Carbery, the 20-year-old who was handed his starting debut for Leinster, scored a couple of brilliant tries as his side stumbled to an unconvincing victory over Treviso. And given the week that was in it – with Johnny Holland retiring in Munster – the arrival of a new home-grown out-half could not have been better timed.
Home grown? Well, kind of. For the first 12 years of his life, Carbery lived in New Zealand – hence that confidence and skill – before he returned home to live in Athy. Blackrock College completed his rugby education – and after a short spell with Clontarf, he has moved from being a player for the future to being one for the present. How good is he? Well, time will tell. After all, the damage he inflicted was on Treviso, the weakest team in the League. Friday was a good start though.
MUNSTER ON THE MONEY
A new coach and a new direction for Munster. Anthony Foley is still there but Rassie Erasmus – named as their Director of Rugby at the tail end of last season – is the one conducting the interviews, the one seemingly in charge, even if he was downplaying his role in the victory after Saturday’s impressive win away to the Scarlets. “If we can take something out of this game, it’s commitment and guts — things you can’t necessarily coach a lot,” he said.
Other positives were evident, too. Tyler Bleyendaal looked sharp – a performance which could not have been better timed, given how it occurred in the aftermath of Johnny Holland’s enforced retirement. Better again, their defence – which was abysmal last year – excelled. Has the influence of Erasmus and Jacques Niehaber, the respective appointments as Director of Rugby and Defence Coach, already been felt? You would hope so.
And you would hope that Peter O’Mahony and Bleyendaal’s return from injury, coupled with Jean Kleyn’s arrival, will lead to Munster being more like the old Munster. Sam Arnold and Jacob Taute, two new signings, also have potential. Yet every silver lining has a cloud.
Tight head prop is a worry. If your scrum goes backwards, so does your team. Have Munster sufficient strength in depth? Probably not, although the feeling remains that if they get luckier with injuries this year, than they were last season, then they could do well especially as their next four games reads Dragons away and Cardiff, Edinburgh and Zebre at home. Five wins from five is attainable.
PIENAAR WILL BE MISSED
If last Friday in Belfast showed anything, it was that Charles Piutau is a welcome addition and Ryan Pienaar is going to be missed. Five minutes into the second-half of Friday’s win over Dragons, Pienaar charged down a kick and ran away to score, before grabbing the red hand emblem on his shirt and showing the crowd how much playing for Ulster means to him.
That he won’t be playing there next season is a sore point. For now, though, he can lead them to good things and if they avoid injuries in the front row, Ulster may even achieve greatness.