Ireland internationals return as provinces prepare for demanding season

Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster face a testing time in Europe again.

RESTED AND REINVIGORATED, one hopes, most of Ireland’s international players return to their provinces this week to begin pre-season training ahead of what promises to be an exciting and demanding campaign for the four Irish sides.

Increasingly, the fear is that the English and French clubs will make their short-term acceleration away from the Irish provinces into a long-term trend, meaning it is paramount that Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster make their mark in 2016/17.

Pat Lam Pat Lam and Connacht have been busy in pre-season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While some of their teammates have been slogging away for five weeks now, the majority of the men who toured South Africa with Joe Schmidt will look to get up to speed in the coming days following a much-needed period of recuperation after an incredibly demanding 2015/16 season that lasted 11 months.

The challenge for the Irish provinces is clear: re-establish themselves in Europe.

Last season, Leinster, Munster and Ulster failed to advance from the pool stages of the Champions Cup, leading to a general depression about the prospects for Irish rugby. Connacht’s utterly remarkable journey to the Guinness Pro12 title was the saving grace of the provincial season.

With Premiership Rugby having just announced a new £224 million partnership with the RFU, the IRFU’s warning that it can no longer be the “lender of last resort” rings out even more clearly for the provinces.

Over in France, the Top 14 clubs are looking forward to graduating onto a new €388 million TV rights deal from 2018. Many of the English and French clubs also continue to benefit from the financial boon that private ownership can provide, meaning their clout in terms of attracting the best players in the world is only likely to increase.

‘Produce from within’ is the IRFU mantra and they have made a number of moves towards achieving more quality in that regard. Shorter-term, they need the provinces to follow the lead of Connacht and achieve the utmost with their current resources.

Pat Lam’s men are building towards their return to the Champions Cup, while also striving for the head coach’s stated goal of retaining the Pro12.

Wasps will provide feisty opposition in their European pool, although Toulouse are not the power they once were and the presence of Zebre in Pool 2 should really mean 10 match points for Connacht.

Marnitz Boshoff Connacht hope Boshoff will bring kicking prowess. Source: Photosport/Clay Cross/INPHO

It will, once again, be fascinating to watch Connacht’s tactical approach. The signing of South African out-half Marnitz Boshoff is a move to ensure the westerners have a strong tactical kicking option, and Lam will be keen to ensure more variety in their play.

Certainly the highly-skillful, wide game plan of last season will continue to develop and morph, but Lam knows that his side will need balance as they compete at Europe’s top table.

Down in Limerick, new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus should benefit from the Munster squad all finally being based in one location. The province’s new training facility is nearing completion and there is a sense that renewal on the pitch is on the way.

The highly-regarded Erasmus bring the expertise of Jacques Nienaber with him to a coaching ticket that also includes Anthony Foley, Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery.

Jean Kleyn, Sam Arnold and Darren O’Shea are all players with major potential for further growth, although any Munster fans waiting on a world-class signing to bolster their ranks might be disappointed.

In truth, Munster’s squad has not seen much change from the group that struggled under Foley last season.

The major goal for Erasmus is to lift the standards and mindset that steadily declined during 2015/16. Munster possess enough quality to compete, but only if their players are regularly peaking and consistently improving. Racing 92, Glasgow and Leicester will mean that Munster’s Champions Cup knock-out goal will be demanding to achieve.

Leo Cullen’s second season as head coach of Leinster will be intriguing to watch. After European disappointment, a surge into the final of the Pro12 looked to be something of a redemption but the eastern province were dismantled by Connacht in the decider, underlining that growth is required.

Graham Henry Henry has come in for a short-term stint. Source: William Booth

Sir Graham Henry joins for a short-term stint that could be important for Cullen and his staff in the coming weeks. Ideally, the Kiwi would have come on board for longer but even if Cullen gains only one or two key lessons, as seems probable, it will have been worthwhile.

The Wicklow man was rushed into head coaching and it’s very positive to see that he remains open to the idea of learning from a more experienced coach.

Leinster have plenty of impressive component parts and will be hopeful that Johnny Sexton returns in a good place after his enforced absence from Ireland’s tour of South Africa due to shoulder surgery.

The same could be said of Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, who also missed out on the series versus the Boks, as they attempt to underline that there is plenty more to come from two of Irish rugby’s most explosive athletes.

While there are some concerns over depth in midfield after the retirement of Luke Fitzgerald and the knee injury to Robbie Henshaw, Leinster have enough individual quality to negotiate a Champions Cup pool containing Montpellier, Northampton and Castres. Cullen must pull it all into a more convincing collective effort this season.

Les Kiss is another who faces into his second season in charge, with Ulster also having come up short in Europe and fallen – to Leinster once again – at the semi-final stage of the Pro12.

In Charles Piutau, they have one of the finest signings anywhere in Europe this summer to add to their already stacked backline options, while Paddy Jackson returns from the South Africa tour having proven his Test credentials.

The pattern of Ulster coming close and then failing under pressure has been alarming but Kiss is confident that his reign will see the northern province growing from last season’s experience.

Ireland’s Paddy Jackson Paddy Jackson had a good June tour. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Captain Rory Best spoke last season about how Jackson has been increasingly seizing control and influence over the squad, and it is hoped the likes of the out-half, Stuart Olding and Iain Henderson can bring a trophy-winning edge with their growing maturity.

Exeter Chiefs, Clermont, and Ian Madigan’s Bordeaux will provide the European competition for Ulster, while Kiss will feel that a Pro12 trophy would be a major step for his squad.

In a fortnight’s time, the pre-season campaign kicks into gear for Ulster as they travel to Navan RFC to face Cullen’s Leinster.

Before that, Connacht begin their own pre-season campaign by participating in the Challenge Vaquerin in France, while Munster start life under Erasmus against Zebre in Waterford on 19 August.

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With the Pro12 kick-off to follow at the beginning of September, important foundations will be laid down by Lam, Erasmus, Kiss and Cullen in the coming weeks.

Munster pre-season fixtures:

Zebre, Friday 19 August, Waterford RSC [KO 7pm]

Worcester Warriors, Friday 26 August, Musgrave Park [KO 7pm]

Leinster pre-season fixtures:

Ulster, Saturday 13 August, Navan RFC [KO 3pm]

Gloucester, Saturday 20 August, Tallaght Stadium [KO 3pm]

Bath, Friday 26 August, Donnybrook [KO 7.30pm]

Ulster pre-season fixtures:

Leinster, Saturday 13 August, Navan RFC [KO 3pm]

Exeter Chiefs, Saturday 20 August, Sandy Park [KO 3pm]

Northampton Saints, Friday 26 August, Kingspan Stadium [KO 7.30pm]

Connacht pre-season fixtures:

Montpellier, Thursday 11 August, Saint Affrique [KO 8pm local]

Other fixtures still to be officially confirmed

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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