Mathew Brown – The Rugby Channel Column
The Guinness Pro12 Kicks Off!
The start of any new season is an exciting time for rugby fans, mostly because at the very beginning of each campaign almost every group of supporters can justifiably be optimistic about their squad’s chances.
Whether it’s a new coach, a marquee signing, veterans returning from injury, or promises from management that the club will be better, every side’s partisans are given reason to hope that this year will bring a return to success, a first title, or simply being competitive in all their matches.
For the first two weekends of the 2016/17 season The Rugby Channel will bring you three live matches from the Guinness Pro12. In the first round we’ll feature the last three champions, two teams with serious semifinal plans, and a squad that’s ready to be this year’s surprise package.
Leinster are a side that’s used to winning titles. Losing last year’s final to upstarts Connacht must have left the Dublin-based unit more than a bit disappointed and wanting to get back to raising silverware.
During the offseason Coach Leo Cullen called upon the experience and knowledge of former All Blacks leader Graham Henry to try to get his side back into title winning form. After finishing top of the table and then coming up just short at the final hurdle, perhaps a bit of the mental focus that Henry preaches is exactly what this team needs to get the job done in 2016/17.
The Leinstermen won’t totally be at full strength in the early rounds as they await the returns from injury of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, and Robbie Henshaw, but are still stocked with plenty of talent.
Since Benetton Treviso joined the competition back in 2010/11, the best finish they’ve been able to produce is 7th. More often they find themselves nearer the bottom of the ladder.
That dismal record may be about to change heading into this season as new coach Kieran Crowley is looking to improve the Lions’ overall consistency and cut down on their tendency to commit costly mistakes and commit inopportune penalties.
Benetton won two of their three preseason matchups, including the last one against Zebre, so they will have some renewed confidence heading into their opener on Friday.
Scarlets would dearly love to get off to the same start this year that they did last season, winning their first six contests.
Coach Wayne Pivac acknowledges that the talent was there in his squad but the lack of real depth as the campaign wore on was what kept them out of the playoffs at the end. Addressing that need for more backup resources to add to a star-studded backline was a number one priority in the offseason.
Another target for 2016/17 is to earn more bonus points. Despite winning fourteen matches, Scarlets scored four tries just twice and only notched a total of seven bonus points, second lowest in the competition.
Munster have won this competition three times but not since 2010/11. That lack of recent success at this level likely prompted the recent hiring of Rassie Erasmus as Director of Rugby.
One of the most astute rugby brains around, Erasmus is sure to want his new charges to play with more physicality and aggression. Munster’s record against Scarlets in the various iterations of this tournament is 22-10-2 and they split their two meetings last year.
Both sides need a win to get off on the right foot so I can’t wait to watch what promises to be a real battle.
Simply put, Connacht’s run to their first ever title last year was a dream come true for their players and fans. A team that had never finished higher than 7th in the tourney (except when it was split into pools in the first two years) won fifteen matches and then proceeded to eliminate the two most recent champions in the knockout rounds.
With success however, comes greater expectations. Coach Pat Lam has lost some key players like AJ MacGinty, Robbie Henshaw, and Aly Muldowney but the Sportsground faithful will want to see a repeat of last year’s form regardless of who is filling key positions.
The Warriors know full well how hard it is to repeat as champions having lost last year in the semifinals on the way to what would have been back-to-back titles. This opening round fixture will give them a chance for a small measure of revenge against the team that quashed their repeat quest.
The big news for Glasgow centers not on the players but on their coaches, current and future. This will be Gregor Townsend’s last year at the helm before he moves on to the Scotland job next year. His replacement will be Dave Rennie, coach of the Chiefs.
Normally this kind of news would probably be jarring to the players in a successful side like Glasgow but Rennie’s sterling reputation as a two-time Super Rugby winning coach should keep everybody focused on the task at hand.
Again, this is a clash that I can’t wait to see unfold.
The always entertaining World Rugby TV has done it again this week with two particular segments that you won’t want to miss. First, check out the short profile of the coaching career of the aforementioned Gregor Townsend and then be sure to look at a cool package of all the tries from the first round of the Rugby Championship.
The last episode for this season of Grassroots Rugby is a really good one. The majority of it focuses on a memorial match for Norm Berryman, a former All Black who died of a heart attack last year at the age of 42.
The match featured a lot of his former teammates and friends, guys like Justin Collins, Troy Flavell, Glenn Taylor, Greg Somerville, and Tana Umaga. It seems everybody has a good Norm story to tell.
I happened to be working with the Sky Sports crew at Berryman’s final match for Northland in 2000, right before he left to go play rugby in France for Castres, and his postgame interview with Ian Smith was a classic.
This event was an outstanding display of Sevens rugby and the competition level was noticeably raised a couple of notches as several serious new teams entered and a couple of previous attendees returned. I recommend watching at least the last five matches on Sunday as well as the Cup quarter and semifinals to get a real feel for the depth of the talent at this fantastic tournament. Enjoy!
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The current lineup includes the Guinness Pro12, the RBS Six Nations, and all men’s and women’s USA Eagles test matches, plus the most anticipated match of the Fall, the United States vs Maori All Blacks on November 4th in Chicago.
The domestic schedule currently features all of the men’s and women’s USA Rugby Emirates Airlines National Championships in 15s and 7s.
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