Hello everyone and welcome to our live chat previewing the PRO 12 season for the Irish provinces. Feel free to put any questions or observations you may have to the Irish Examiner's rugby correspondent Barry Coughlan. Our own Ian Cusack will be joining us as well to give us his views on the chances of the Irish sides.
Okay Barry, let's start off with the Heineken Cup winners Leinster. Joe Schmidt's men will undoubtedly be pleased with their Twickenham win in May, but will the loss of the PRO12 title bring any niggling doubts?
Not really. It's nigh impossible to string together two big cup final victories. Look around the world at different sports and you'll find not too many have done the double. It's particularly difficult when two finals are rolled into the back end of the season against opponents who would know them to a tee....
The first few weeks of the tournament will be particularly taxing, I figure, for the Irish teams. None of the big boys will be available and when they are in week three they will take a bit of time to bed in.....
I see what you mean, but maybe Schmidt will see the double as a next target. Should the rest of the PRO 12 teams be running scared?
Leinster had a mixed pre-season with the notably heavy 43-0 defeat to Northampton being a major blip. Do you think it will affect them much?
@Barry Coughlan It seems Andrew Conway was in good form in pre-season, will he get much of a look-in this season? Maybe the early stages will be his chance to shine....
Schmidt's first introduction with Leinster rugby wasn't great but he knows what he's doing; Leinster are coming from a position of far greater strength than say Munster, Ulster, Connacht or many others. They're HC champions and that means they can afford to experiment a bit more than others.
Andrew Conway? Yes, he's a very good player, an equally good prospect but there are a lot of other quality backs in the Leinster set-up. Schmidt will reward form with selection though, and that's good from Leinster's point of view.
They have a very settled look to them, but maybe too settled. I am thinking specifically of the likes of Leo Cullen, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. For instance, will we see so much of the 36-year-old Cullen, especially with the acquisitions of Tom Denton and Quinn Roux?
@StephenTreacy1 Certainly the competition has been cranked up in the centres for Munster. It maybe the case of Penney looking ahead to when Earls is playing for Ireland, but I definitely think Earls will have a big job staying in centre.
That's an interesting question, you just never know. The two newcomers still have a lot to prove in the particular environment rather than individuals. You would expect that both will throw down the gauntlet to Rob Penney but will neecd to show a bit more form than they have in the couple of recent friendly games. Keith has already thrown down the gauntlet to both Penney and Declan Kidney by signalling where he figures his future is, but that's not guarantee he will get his way. Midfield tends to be cluttered in the modern game and Earls revels in a bit of freedom.
@Barry Coughlan I wouldn't imagine Keith being able to dictate to Rob Penney where he plays. He will just have to put up with it and step up his game.
Speaking of centres, who will give D'Arcy and O'Driscoll the time off from duty in the Leinster line-up? With the Irish internationals not due back for another couple of games, and with their extensive injury list, Schmidt will have to rely more on his younger players, any that stand out for you?
I agree, just what I said, the coach will decide where he plays unless the edict comes from on high; however, Kidney is likely to have his own views on where Keith would fit the bill better from his point of view, so it will be interesting where Earls is slotted in when he becomes available.
@StephenTreacy1 How do you feel about Mafi leaving Stephen? There were some bemoaning it, but I for one was glad when he was let go....
Sorry, a likttle bit behind on signal....well, Leinster do have McFadden and O'Malley, two quality players. I've got time for both of them and particularly in the centre for O'Malley. He has a low centre of gravity, is incredibly strong and elusive and doesn't get the same credit that Fergus undoubtedly deserves.
@StephenTreacy1 We are forgetting about Danny Barnes and Simon Zebo too. Should they not be given game time to develop?
I might jump in on the Mafi point. I agree Peter I think it was time he went. He had his moments with Munster, no questions there, but he hasn't been nearly as effective since Tipoki left. His attack play has become very predictable ie. crash ball every time and he has proven himself to be a loose cannon in defense, big hits are all well and good when they come off but too often he rushed out of the line and didn't nail his man and ruining the defensive line in the process. Far too many sin bins for swinging arms or dangerous tackles too. Downey didn't really click into gear in the two games I saw him play at Musgrave Park but he has proven himself to be a very effective 12 at Northampton.
I figure Penney will be looking closely at the Downey/Laulala combo whilst hoping that jumping out of the line defence by either/both is not going to cause problems.
@Ian Cusack So maybe Earls is safe for now in centre? Munster are definitely side in transition, in your opinion what is the best Rob Penney can hope for this season?
@StephenTreacy1 If you are going to use Downey and Laulala in the Heineken, then they are going to need game time in the PRO 12 though. Can still see Zebo and Barnes losing out.
Zebo will be ok - having met him more and more over the last 18 months he is a guy that strikes me as having matured. And he is class; power, strength and speed. He will give that Munster back division the crucial element of pace that others might take advantage of.
Do you think Penney has done enough to bolster the Munster back row?
@Barry Coughlan O'Malley is a good player, but McFadden for me is the best of the two. I don't see Leinster suffering in any way in the centre this season.
Very hard to predict where Earls will play this year, Downey looks a nailed on 12 and Laulala a 13, Earls's versatility could come back to haunt him putting him on the wing or at fullback until Jones recovers. I'd like to see Penney vary the combinations in the backs and see which seem to gel best in midfield. In terms of the season as a whole I think Penney needs to be given some leeway, he is inheriting a team that has lost a host of experienced players so he's trying to build a relatively fresh team while also incorporating his vision for Munster. Having said that, Munster are still one of the European heavyweights and should progress from the pool stages in the Heineken while anything less than a top 4 in the Rabo would have to be considered very disappointing.
The Munster back row will undoubtedly miss the presence of David Wallace, but time doesn't stand still. It's time to move on but in Peter O'Mahony and Paddy Butler, on top of the likes of Niall Ronan and the underestimated James Coughlan, there is still some real decent talent. Newcomers will need to stand up
Getting back to the midfield, there is nothing cast in stone. The newcomers still have a bit to prove before one would dismiss the claims of keith Earls.
I don't know if Munster will get into the top 4 this season. I can see Ulster, Leinster, Ospreys and Edinburgh finishing above them (puts on tin hat).
Again, the two of them need to prove themselves because Niall Ronan is on his way back too, remember......
@StephenTreacy1 Stander will need to hit the ground running to help Munster in the Heineken though.
@StephenTreacy1 Would you be unduly worried about Munster's two defeats in their three pre-season games?
I thought Sean Dougall looked sharp against Bristol and London Irish. A real seven who likes to get involved at the breakdown and he was nailing the tackles. I agree Stephen, I've seen a bit of CJ Stander and he looks a real powerhouse; pace and physicality. Definitely hard to call what the starting back three will be by Christmas.
Edinburgh? Don't think so, they had a good HC run but they will suffer like the Irish teams in that the SRU are paying the bills and calling the shorts therefore. They'll be understrength as often as any of the Irish teams
@Barry Coughlan Forgot about him.....
@Barry Coughlan Yeah, but Michael Bradley is used to dealing with a lack of resources from his Connacht days. I just have a sneaky suspicion they may do well this year.