While much of the focus, as ever, is on the Celtic behemoths, the two Italian teams are also ready to show they can compete rather than be the perennial whipping boys.
“We want to compete with other teams in Pro12 and improve our performance in Europe. I can say that our target for the next season is to finish between seventh and ninth in the table.”
That is what Zebre head coach Andrea Cavinato told this reporter in an interview at the end of the last season after the Italians finished bottom of the table and lost the chance to qualify for the new European Rugby Champions Cup by just one point.
Undoubtedly, Zebre have done a good job during the summer. New players have come in, like Italy international utility-back Mirco Bergamasco and South African duo Andries Ferreira and Hennie Daniller from the Cheetahs.
Key players have also been retained, like talismanic captain Quintin Geldenhuys, and former All Black Brendan Leonard, whose contribution in terms of experience and quality has been outstanding.
Another player to watch is Guglielmo Palazzani; the versatile youngster started last season as full-back but he can play scrum-half as well, and in this position he won his first cap for Italy.
Last season, Zebre won five matches and drew two, but the most important aspect to focus on is that among the 15 matches lost, at least five or six could have finished with a different result.
Cavinato must build on these results and use the advantage of having a group of players who have been playing together for more than a season, and know each other very well.
Zebre won both of their pre-season friendlies against Calvisano and Rovigo, respectively the Italian champions and runners-up, but despite the success of those teams, they were uncomparable to a Pro12 team. The Bianconeri performed very well, showing some good individuality—like outside-half Kelly Haimona, one of the new signings from Calvisano—and, more importantly, playing well as a team.
Prediction: This will be one of the toughest, if not the toughest, Celtic League rugby seasons yet. Zebre have a challenging start to the season with Cardiff Blues at home, then Ulster and Munster away, and Ulster at home to finish their September. Despite all the difficulties, Zebre can reach their target, but to achieve that, they must win at least seven or eight matches.
Their biggest rivals for the 7th-9th places will be Connacht and Newport Gwent Dragons, along with maybe Edinburgh Rugby and Cardiff Blues.
A new head coach, loads of new players, but Treviso face the same problem as they attempt to establish themselves into Celtic rugby.
New head coach Umberto Casellato is a former Treviso player and knows the environment very well. After a troubled season, his first task is to restore calm and confidence, even before to start rebuilding the group.
Several Italian international players were among the 19 players to leave Treviso this summer, including the likes of Leonardo Ghiraldini, Robert Barbieri, Michele Rizzo and Japanese nternational Christian Loamanu (all Leicester Tigers), Manoa Vosawai (Cardiff Blues), Kiwi points machine Mat Berquist (Hawke’s Bay), Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps), Luke McLean and Alberto De Marchi (both Sale Sharks).
It will be tricky for Casellato to replace their individual talents, despite signing 23 players, and the three pre-season friendlies last month showed that he and his staff have a mountain to climb if they want to restore the Leoni’s pride and repeat the great results of their first season.
Among the new players, a one to watch will be outside-half Joe Carlisle, picked up from Wasps, as well as Australian prop Salesi Manu, who arrives from Super Rugby champions Western Force along with Kiwi centre Jayden Hayward.
Some good news for Treviso is the return of Luca Morisi. The Italian international suffered a terrible injury last November during the Autumn Series against Fiji in Cremona, leading to career-threatening surgery. His recovery has went well and the centre has started the pre-season scoring at least a try in every match.
But it will take more than a victory in Swansea on Friday to erase the memory of their 75-7 thrashing by the Ospreys last season—their biggest defeat—and the ultimate failure in what most of the rugby experts thought to be “the season of the definitive confirmation” for the Leoni as they finished 11th, just ahead of Zebre.
The pre-season friendlies showed that Treviso are not ready to compete for the top-six positions, and they will again face a tough start to the season in terms of results.
Prediction: Treviso will struggle to avoid the bottom of the table. Their challenging start to the season with Ospreys away, Munster at home, then Scarlets and the Dragons away. The target should be to try and win the match with Dragons, in order to recreate the confidence in the group and build team spirit, but it will not be easy at all.
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