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Munster and Ulster out to close gap on Leinster as Connacht look for more depth

The Irish provinces are starting to gear up for rugby’s return in August.

IT WAS FITTING that the first week of Munster being back training concluded with the photo their supporters had been waiting for: RG Snyman in the province’s training gear.

The World Cup-winning lock is one major reason there is optimism among the Munster faithful heading into the return of rugby. His Springboks team-mate Damian de Allende is another.

rg-snyman RG Snyman at Munster training yesterday. Source: ©INPHO

The South African pair are two of the biggest signings in Irish rugby for some years, with de Allende certainly among the best players in his position in the game and Snyman offering something unique in the second row.

It should be expected that both will take time to adapt to their surroundings, as with any new signings, but their familiarity with head coach Johann van Graan should help. Along with very generous private money, Munster’s South African boss was a very important factor in getting Snyman and de Allende over to Ireland after their post-World Cup stints in Japanese rugby.

Irish-qualified fullback Matt Gallagher is another new arrival for Munster, joining from Saracens with the potential and athleticism to push Mike Haley hard for the first-choice number 15 shirt from the off.

Meanwhile, much-discussed prop Roman Salanoa has signed from Leinster to ensure Munster have two very promising young tightheads in himself and Keynan Knox pressing for game time behind senior pair Stephen Archer and John Ryan.

All of this bodes well in an otherwise settled Munster squad. Joey Carbery won’t be ready to play again until September, so will miss the August inter-provincial games at least, but getting him 100% right for the 2020/21 campaign is the real priority.

That said, a Pro14 title winner for 2019/20 still has to be found and Munster will be doing everything in their power to upset Leinster after this extended break to grab a first bit of senior silverware since 2011.

Regardless of whether that does happen in the August/September window, there will be much-increased expectation on Munster for the 2020/21 campaign. The province has had enough semi-final disappointment and know it’s time to back up the big signings by claiming a trophy. Van Graan will understand the need for himself and his now settled coaching team of Stephen Larkham, Graham Rowntree, and JP Ferreira to deliver.

ryan-baird 20-year-old Ryan Baird moves onto a senior deal with Leinster. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

After getting all of their re-contracting business done in impressive fashion, Leinster look well placed for their bid to keep the momentum of the suspended 2019/20 campaign going. Everyone has had months to study Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s side in minute detail, so the chasing pack will be better set than ever.

Equally, though, Lancaster and Cullen have had time to analyse themselves and figure out ways to get even better. By all accounts, Johnny Sexton has used lockdown to similar effect, analysing the game on an individual and collective basis to ensure he, Leinster, and even Ireland improve. The results when Leinster play again should be fascinating. 

Saracens have been somewhat diminished by a raft of loan deals as they prepare for the drop into the Championship but will still be able to call on many world-class players when the sides’ postponed 2019/20 Champions Cup quarter-final is played in September. A thriller awaits.

There are no new signings from outside the province this summer, with Leinster continuing to back their academy system by promoting five talented young players onto senior deals.

They remain the team to team and their squad depth remains enviable to others.

Connacht have benefited from the Leinster production line again with a handful of their new additions, namely second row Oisin Dowling, tighthead prop Jack Aungier, and openside flanker Conor Oliver. Sammy Arnold – IRFU Exiles through Ulster and Munster – is perhaps the most interesting signing, an Ireland-capped centre with huge athletic ability who is backing himself to play more games by shifting provinces again.

The westerners have promoted six young players from their academy too but the senior squad still looks thin at present. Connacht are certainly looking for additional newcomers and with depth having already been an issue last season, their supporters need some good news to approach rugby’s resumption more comfortably. The major financial challenges for all of pro rugby is badly-timed for Connacht in this regard.

sammy-arnold Sammy Arnold has joined Connacht. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dan McFarland’s Ulster have largely gone for continuity and cohesion ahead of next season, with the two newcomers – Ian Madigan and Alby Mathewson – adding more experience to what is a balanced-looking squad.

Centre Stewart Moore steps up from the academy and brings thrilling potential with him, while McFarland understands the value of building on the good work Ulster have done since his arrival as head coach in 2018.

Like Leinster, the Ulstermen have a 2019/20 Champions Cup quarter-final to look forward to in September and though few will fancy them to win away to Toulouse, it represents an ideal opportunity to have a real crack without the burden of expectation.

As with Connacht, Ulster are due to return to pre-season from Monday onwards, a week after Munster and Leinster got going but on a different schedule with regards to rest weeks as the summer rolls on.

Come the final two weekends of August, all four provinces should be ready to launch back into action with two rounds of inter-provincial ties that allow them to battle for bragging rights and Pro14 semi-final spots. By 12 September, one of them will hope to be the 2019/20 champion.

As for the 2020/21 campaign and status as top dogs in Irish rugby, Leinster are the clear frontrunners but Munster and Ulster will feel they can close the gap at the very least, while Connacht are still searching for that additional bit of depth that will allow them to surprise a few people.

- This article was updated at 10.51am on 29 June to correct ‘id’ to ‘is’ in the 16th paragraph.

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Murray Kinsella

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