Glasgow Warriors. Expectations have significantly risen in Glasgow and this is testament to all at the club. The club plays out of the recently refurbished state of the art facility Scotstoun and their on-field success has coincided with their move into the facility after some time playing out of neutral venues. The Warriors have secured top-four finishes in the last three seasons, and last term, they made history by reaching the Pro12 final, only to lose out narrowly to Leinster in Dublin. Al Kellock will remain captain for the coming season and this will be the Scottish lock’s ninth successive season as the Warriors captain. But it is perhaps head coach and Scotland legend Gregor Townsend that will have a big influence on the team’s performance again. The young coach guided the Warriors to their historical season last time out, but from someone who never settled for second best during a glorious playing career representing his county and British and Irish Lions, Townsend will be expecting his team to push on. For Townsend and his captain Kellock, the only improvement on last season is to win the Pro12. Last season’s final defeat will still hurt but they can put that behind them with a win against Leinster on Saturday in Glasgow.
Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Ulster & Cardiff Blues. Both the Warriors and Leinster looked so strong throughout the whole campaign last season and the clubs have struck up a real competitive rivalry that will continue to dominate the championship this season. They play one another on the opening weekend in Glasgow, in what will be a repeat of last year’s final. Expect both sides to reach the top four, with the Warriors coming out on top this season after so many near misses. Although Leinster must move forward without the services of the retired Brian O’Driscoll, big personalities will play a big role this year, with Jaime Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy and Jimmy Gopperth to name just a few. Ulster have re-installed Rory Best as captain and although there have being changes and retirements at the club, expect the Ulster men to make that top four finish again this campaign with exciting players such as Paddy Jackson and Tommy Bowe and the experienced back row from New Zealand Nick Williams adding steal to the Ulster force. Cardiff Blues showed a real sign of intent by signing iconic Welsh prop Adam Jones. The Blues will of course have Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton in their ranks for the season also. Playing in Europe’s second competition will allow them to focus more on finally getting one over their Welsh rivals on the pitch and making the play-offs.
The new-look competitions. After much negotiations and re-developing of the European structure, the inaugural European Champions Cup will start in mid-October. Reigning champions RC Toulan will entertain the Scarlets as the Top 14 French champions go about the defence of their European title. Toulan has tasted European success for the last two seasons. Expectations will again be high at the ambitious French club with strong characters such as Mathieu Bastareaud and Bryan Habana. In rugby’s elite competition Leinster and Munster will be hoping to revive their European success from yesteryear as two of the main representatives from the Pro 12. The European Challenge Cup will see the lesser teams of Europe compete for glory. It even offers opportunities for clubs from Romania and Georgia to take part. The Challenge Cup will offer a chance to Pro 12 clubs such as Connacht Rugby, Zebre and the Cardiff Blues to showcase their talents, but Edinburgh Rugby should do the best out of the Pro 12 clubs. Scotland’s capital club pulled off some great results in Europe last year, by beating Munster and Gloucester, but they should find their level in the Challenge Cup and the quarter finals should be a realistic expectation for Alan Solomons side at the very least.
Ulster. Much similar to Glasgow Warriors, Ulster’s ground and training facilities has seen some vast improvements that have been of great benefit to the team’s performance on match day. Ulster’s pedigree and stature has grown in recent seasons and they have made their ground in Belfast a fortress having put many teams to the sword there. They will be competing in Europe’s elite competition again this season, and although the 2012 finalists have seen changes in coaching personal with Ireland defence coach Les Kiss brought in on an interim basis, one expects Best and his men to make the top four in the Pro 12 as they have done for the past two seasons. Best will captain Ulster for the coming season with the Hooker regarded as one of the finest players of his generation and a firm favourite with players and fans alike in Ulster.
Wales internationals getting to play for their clubs. After a summer of uncertainty surrounding contracts within the Welsh Rugby Union, the Welsh governing body finally got their house in order. The WRU signed a deal with Regional Rugby Wales reportedly worth £60m. The landmark deal will allow Wales internationals to sign for any of the four Welsh clubs competing in the Pro12, with a more assured commitment regarding the financial stability of the clubs. So although there are plenty of Welsh men playing for French and English clubs, Wales captain Sam Warburton was able to re-sign for Cardiff Blues ahead of the opening weekends fixtures in the Guinness Pro12.
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