Plenty to get fans excited but change on horizon for league

Three reasons to relish the return

1 Fly-half battles

Jonny Sexton’s decision to seek fame and fortune in Paris left many assuming Ian Madigan would stride straight into the Leinster No 10 shirt, following an immense breakthrough season that saw him showcase his versatility and finish as top scorer. New signing Jimmy Gopperth is a very able operator with Super Rugby and Aviva Premiership experience, but Madigan is numero uno for the big games, right? Not so, says the province’s skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy: “It’s not the case and it’s not what we would want here. We always want competition for places.”

It’s a similar story in Munster as they begin life without Ronan O’Gara; Ian Keatley is the man in possession but having only got five starts last year — and only one at fly-half — JJ Hanrahan will be breathing down his neck.

2 Wings on a prayer

For a variety of reasons, there are a ton of exciting finishers with plenty to prove in the Pro12 this season. Much of that attention is focused in Munster, who are set to bear the fruit of Andrew Conway’s excellent development with Leinster, while South African Gerhard van den Heever will want to show he can fill Doug Howlett’s sizeable boots.

Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble was on fire at the tail-end of last season with five tries in six games for Ulster, and will be keen to impress new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt having found his international chances limited under Declan Kidney. And let’s not forget Tim Visser — the perennial Pro12 top try-scorer was left out of the Lions squad and with Edinburgh buying adroitly over the summer, he could get a greater platform to shine.

3 European qualification uncertainty

Rabo sides are still in the dark about how they will qualify for the next season’s Heineken Cup — if such a tournament will even take place. The current accord, which allows the two Scottish and Italian sides direct qualification regardless of position in their domestic league, runs out in May and the English and French clubs want European qualification from the Rabo to match their methods.

There’s a whole lot more to this debate than we can fit in here, and the uncertain future of the competition isn’t good for the game, with fears a solution is unlikely to be found before the end of the season. That’s not welcome news for either the coaches or the bean-counters of the affected teams, but it might benefit the fans as every club is forced to finish as high as possible to best position themselves for a place in European rugby’s brave new world.

Three reasons to fear

1 Welsh worries

They may have backbonedthe Lions’ success Down Under but it’s been obvious for a while now that Wales are in a spot of bother domestically.

The ever-diminishing finances available to the regions have seen them unable to hold on to their top stars; Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne and Gethin Jenkins are long gone to pastures new and the likes of George North, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate have followed them out the exit door this summer. Worse, even rising stars like ex-Scarlets scrum-half Tavis Knoyle have already flown the nest too.

Gloucester’s director of rugby Nigel Davies believes the national team’s success is “papering over the cracks” beneath and unless Wales can sort out an England-esque policy of only picking domestic-based players, their regions will continue to be uncompetitive.

2 Italian, erm, worries

Finance is also a major headache for the Italian franchises, who are getting even less return in terms of on-field success for the national federation’s investment.

2014 marks the end of a four-year trial in which Italian chiefs promised to give €3m per season to enter Treviso and Aironi — the latter have been replaced by Zebre. Azzurri flanker Josh Sole said in 2010 he was targeting a top-eight finish and some away victories for Aironi, but they and Zebre have won just five games between them in three seasons. Treviso have shaken things up by claiming some big scalps in Europe but with an average finish of ninth, are hardly bothering anyone at the business end of the table too much. A TV deal to broadcast the matches in Italy was only sorted at the last minute this week, and there are no soccer-style oligarchs waiting to pump money into the franchises. The on-field returns should be better this year, but the uncertainty over who will bankroll the teams in future is hardly conducive to long-term planning.

3 Boring, boring Irish dominance?

The Irish dominance of the Celtic League in its 12-year history is becoming increasingly embarrassing for the other participant nations and adding more fuel to the fire for the competition’s detractors. Of the 24 final contestants over that time, 15 have been Irish and the recent record would be even bleaker if it wasn’t for the Ospreys flying the flag for, well, everyone else. Leinster have reached five successive finals and if it wasn’t for their propensity to blow up in the wake of Heineken Cup victories (Munster in 2011, Ospreys in 2012), they would now be heading for a four-in-a-row. Even with a new coach in Matt O’Connor and Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa gone, things still look rosy for them; Zane Kirchner is a fine replacement for Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll is giving it one more year and the rest of their stars have stayed put. Ulster will be their main rivals again and the Ospreys’ powerful front five puts them in contention, but it would be of benefit to the competition to see Glasgow take another step forward, proving last season wasn’t a one-off and breathing some new life into a predictable battle for supremacy.

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