The new season starts this weekend and there are a multitude of intriguing sub plots that will soon be answered. We've put picked up seven points we'll be keeping an eye on over the season
Gloucester to pack a punch
Gloucester simply weren’t at the races last season, with a porous defence leaking 60 tries and finishing a lowly ninth. It served to be the undoing of Nigel Davies as he left the club, yet months later, optimism abounds at Kingsholm. Most of it stems from the wallet of Ryan Walkinshaw who seems to have recruited exactly where Gloucester need it; up front. John Afoa and Richard Hibbard look like blockbuster additions to the Premiership and should provide a solid platform for new half-back combo, Greig Laidlaw and the mercurial James Hook to fire a free-spirited set of back. With Laidlaw on international duty, the Cherry & Whites will continue to nurture the sparky England Saxon, Dan Robson. Expect Captain Billy Twelvetrees to be highly-motivated after question marks have been raised as to his ability to nail down the England No 12 spot. Off the pitch, new management team David Humphreys, Laurie Fisher, John Muggleton and Nick Walshe are highly rated but noises from the club suggest they will need time.
Cardiff Blues on the comeback trail
The Cardiff Blues had a tumultuous year losing their head coach and finishing a lowly eighth, testing even the most battle-hardened supporters, but that’s been nothing compared to some of the challenges faced by the playing personnel. Firstly Matthew Rees had to battle back from testicular cancer and then Owen Williams’ suffered a serious spinal injury in the close season, which he continues to recover from. On the field, Phil Davies was relieved of his duties towards the end of the season yet there are finally reasons for optimism. The top brass have recruited head coach Mark Hammett from the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise and talked and Welsh registered fly-half Gareth Anscombe into leaving the ‘Canes for the Arms Park . The biggest coup of all was snatching Lions tight-head Adam Jones from the Ospreys, and allied to another Kiwi, enforcer Jarrad Hoeata, and you have a Blues pack who will not be taking a backwards step.
Ulster have, through canny recruitment, a good crop of youngsters and astute management turned into one of the European heavyweights in recent seasons. Even off the pitch with the renovated Ravenhill, the province continues to flourish. For the first time, there have been wobbles in recent months at management level. After two successful years, Mark Anscombe was relieved of his duties, with barely concealed murmurs or discontent at his departure, then within weeks Ulster stalwart David Humphreys left for Gloucester. This came not too long after John Afoa had notified the province he was off to Kingsholm. Of course there is still plenty of experience at Ravenhill in Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar and Andrew, but it will be interesting to see if instability off the field affects on field results.
Pro12 finally on even keel
The Aviva Premiership has done a very good job of marketing itself, so good that it’s left the Pro12 trailing in its wake. The Pro12 however may be about to make up some ground. With a broadcast deal in place from Sky Sports for prime-time Saturday afternoon slots, the need to fight for a top 7 finish in the league to secure a place in the lucrative Champions Cup and a global sponsor secured in Guinness, the league is at its strongest since its inception in 2003. There is also star quality incoming with Mils Muliaina, Lee Byrne, Gareth Anscombe and Kane Douglas all sure to enhance the competition. With Johnny Sexton returning next year and surely a few Welsh stars on their way back after the World Cup, the Pro12 might just be worth tuning in for.
Racing Metro seem equipped to challenge for Top 14
Through the Euros of Mourad Boudjellal Toulon have usurped Toulouse and the pre-eminent Top 14 club with back-to-back European Cups and a Bouclier de Brennus, but up in Paris, Jacky Lorenzetti, a recent sparring partner of Boudjellal has sought to upset the new order. After finding several million Euros stuck down his sofa, the real estate magnate has assembled a star-studded squad and after a shaky start, they finished the season strongly and have picked up where they left off with an unbeaten start to the season beating Montpellier and Toulon. With Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips and new signings Casey Laulala and Johan Goosen backing up French internationals Dimitri Szarzewski, Brice Dulin and Bernard le Roux and Maxime Machenaud, Racing could emerge from the shadows of their more illustrious Parisian neighbours Stade Francais to pick up silverware.
New Europe, the hard work starts now
For all the rancour and interminable fallout, European powerbrokers have finally got the meritocratic, club run European competition they craved but that’s just half the job done. Now they have to deliver a tournament that lives up to expectations on the field – which looks like the easy part – and reap the promised financial rewards of an elite competition off it to furnish to its cash-hungry ‘stakeholders’. One major hurdle has been passed after Sky and BT Sport finally came to a truce for the betterment of the game. Yet there are still sizeable loose ends to tie up. There must be a hive of activity in the background trying to secure a stable of blue-chip sponsors to replace the former sole title sponsor Heineken with only six weeks to go, while France there is still much to be done, with the broadcasting deal to broadcast the game with BeIN Sports not yet in place.
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While Scotland has often been portrayed as the poor relation of Celtic rugby, the SRU are now emboldened by a large sponsorship deal for Murrayfield from BT Sport, and a pro side that reached the Pro12 final for the first time. While Edinburgh may prosper in the Challenge Cup, and most eyes will be fixed on Glasgow and their ability to contest in two competitions. For the players, it’s all about catching the eye of Vern Cotter. Much is expected of Adam Ashe and Gordon Reid and Glasgow No 2 Pat MacArthur, while young Edinburgh scrum-halves Grayson Hart and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne should benefit from Greig Laidlaw’s decision to move down South. Unlike the other home nations, Scotland used a very liberal sprinkling of names for the summer tours but now is the time to refine those individuals he feels he’ll be able to bring along with him to the World Cup. The countdown is on.