By Alex Shaw
With the start of the Guinness Pro12 now less than a month away and all teams well into their pre-season preparations, we take a look at eight of the biggest off-season signings in the competition and how they can impact their respective teams over the coming season.
The likes of Jonathan Davies, Robbie Henshaw, Bradley Davies and Kieron Fonotia all narrowly miss out and although the league hasn’t quite been able to attract the plethora of stars that the Aviva Premiership or Top 14 has, it certainly shows that plenty of very talented rugby players are still choosing to make their way to the competition.
Charles Piutau, Ulster
Not too much explanation needed here. The All Black full-back was in excellent form for Wasps last season and was one of the larger contributing factors in their march to the semi-finals of both the Premiership and Champions Cup. In addition to his obvious class, Piutau will also give Ulster greater flexibility in their back-line, capable of lining up across the back three or at outside centre. He should combine well with Jared Payne, the man he replaced in the Blues team following Payne’s move north in 2011, and will bring incision and the ability to keep plays alive to the province’s backfield.
Marcell Coetzee, Ulster
Having already recruited Piutau, Ulster’s luring of Coetzee to Belfast should go down as one of the best one-two punch pieces of rugby business in recent years. Unfortunately, a serious knee injury will delay the South African’s Ulster debut but once he returns to full fitness, a date which looks likely to be early in the new year, he will add plenty of workrate, breakdown expertise and physical edge to the Ulster back row. He brings test-calibre attributes to the unit and that has been something the men from Northern Ireland have been missing of late.
Johnny McNicholl, Scarlets
Much of the attention in West Wales may be on the return of prodigal son Jonathan Davies but in McNicholl the Scarlets have added a winger whose play over the last five months has been as good as any wing in the world. Although his consistency has been at times questioned during his stint with the Crusaders, his pace, power and support running have always been beyond reproach. Alongside dynamic full-back Liam Williams and playing in the Scarlets’ ambitious system, McNicholl is a more than solid bet to trouble the PRO12 top try scorers’ table this season, even with his arrival delayed by domestic duties in New Zealand.
Willis Halaholo, Cardiff Blues
Another Kiwi to have had a stellar season, Halaholo has filled the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith-shaped voids in the Hurricanes midfield with aplomb over the last few months. His lines and powerful carrying have split many a Super Rugby defence asunder this season and he will be hoping to replicate that form this weekend in the tournament final. As good a player as Halaholo is, he is not enough to singlehandedly put the Blues back into contention at the right end of the Pro12, but he is certainly a significant step in the right direction for the region.
Jamison Gibson-Park, Leinster
Halaholo’s Hurricanes team-mate Gibson-Park is also moving north this summer, linking up with Leinster, where he will attempt to replace the retiring Eoin Reddan and the departing Isaac Boss. The scrum-half has been largely limited to bench appearances during the 2016 Super Rugby season but with TJ Perenara entrenched ahead of him, that is not an indicator of any lack of ability on Gibson-Park’s part. His void of International caps make him appealing to the Ireland Rugby Football Union, whilst his Super Rugby experience will endear him to Leinster, who only have one other senior scrum-half on their books, Luke McGrath.
Leonardo Sarto, Glasgow Warriors
Glasgow have replaced the hammer of Taqele Naiyaravoro with the rapier of Sarto. Since making his Azzurri debut in 2013, Sarto has been one of the more consistent players in Italian rugby, despite playing in international and club (Zebre) teams that have struggled overall. A move to Glasgow should see him given more front-foot ball and the opportunity to play with players of a higher calibre and that could be the making of Sarto. Mark Bennett’s star continues to rise and defenders are becoming more and more drawn to him, potentially creating plenty of space for the Italian to operate in out wide.
Marnitz Boshoff, Connacht
AJ MacGinty, star of the USA’s Rugby World Cup campaign, had a profound impact in Connacht last season, helping them to a maiden Pro12 title with his control and playmaking in the ten jersey. He has since departed for Sale Sharks and that same responsibility will now fall on Boshoff’s shoulders. The South African soared to prominence with a stellar campaign in the 2014 Super Rugby season, shining for the Lions in their return to the competition, but he has since been usurped by Elton Jantjies in the pecking order. Pat Lam will be hopeful he can unearth the 2014 Boshoff and if the South African can replicate the kind of control he exhibited that season, Connacht’s fortunes in the Champions Cup could look relatively favourable this season.
David Odiete, Benetton Treviso
The balance of power in Italy seems to see-saw on an almost yearly basis but luring Odiete over from Zebre has to be seen as a real coup for Treviso. The young full-back/wing impressed in his debut campaign for the Azzurri last season and looked like one of the most threatening Italian backs of the last ten years. His counter-attacking ability will be invaluable for a club that is likely to find itself on the back-foot for much of the season and his form will of no doubt be of considerable interest to new Italy boss Conor O’Shea.