fter winning the Rainbow Cup, the Italians went backwards last season and won just six games as they finished 13th. A raft of new signings should strengthen things for head coach Marco Bortolami, but the arrival of the South Africans make the play-offs a long shot.
Last year’s finalists pulled off the shock of the tournament’s recent history with their semi-final win over Leinster. Champions Cup rugby will complicate things for all of the South African sides, but Jake White’s experience will help matters and they’ll be up there again.
Big things were expected of Cardiff last season, but they failed to fire and finished 14th. Wales internationals Taulupe Faletau, Thom Young and Liam Williams and Tonga’s Lopeti Timani should strengthen Dai Young’s hand, but they’ve a job on their hands to prove they can produce week in, week out.
A coaching reshuffle and a bunch of new signings from Leinster appears to have strengthened Connacht’s hand, but they’ve also lost a few heavy-hitters and lack the fire-power up front to compete for honours. Capable of beating anyone on their day, but backing it up is the issue.
The arrival of JJ Hanrahan adds a layer of Irish interest for the Dragons, but Dean Ryan needs more from his existing squad if they are to close the gap on the other Welsh regions. Hard to see them rising much higher than last year’s 15th position.
Having threatened to make a breakthrough under Richard Cockerill but the Scots never took the next step before the coach moved to England to work under Eddie Jones. Mike Blair is in charge now and there are signs they’ll be a force again.
Being beaten out the gate by Leinster in the quarter-final cost Danny Wilson his job, but it reflected worse on the players who were abject that night. In comes Franco Smith who has a strong record and the South African has talent to work with.
Not champions for once, but Leo Cullen’s men are still overwhelming favourites for the title. They have the strongest squad, an international-clad first XV and an academy that keeps producing. Losing on both fronts last season means their hunger won’t be a problem.
The weakest of the four South African sides last year, the Lions haven’t made major changes to the roster but are expected to be more competitive as they adjust to life on the road. Ellis Park is a superb venue if they can harness it.
A new era, but familiar problems. Munster look light up front and with RG Snyman still sidelined they are vulnerable against the biggest teams. The Johann van Graan era ended limply and Graham Rowntree has a big job on his hands if they are to improve.
The best of the Welsh last season, the Ospreys play an unglamorous but effective brand of rugby that earned them 10 wins and a European place but couldn’t get them into the play-offs. Should be strong again this year.
The 2017 winners have added former All Black Vaea Fifita to their ranks as Dwayne Peel looks to resurrect their fortunes. They’ve plenty of good players, but with poor crowds and the internationals’ heads turned by Wales it seems a challenge to consistently compete.
The arrival of Eben Etzebth gives the Sharks some real teeth and the Durban-based franchise are capable of winning the competition. They’ve the strongest roster of any of the South African sides and if they can survive without their Springboks in the next few weeks they’ll be close at the end of the campaign.
The champions rode a wave all the way to the title last summer and the celebrations that greeted their success were genuine. John Dobson is an experienced, clever coach and his team have a tough pack with stunning talent out wide. Unlikely to retain the trophy, but they’re a very good side.
The second best Irish province right now, Dan McFarland’s men came agonizingly close to a home final last season. Their signings don’t look like top shelf additions, but they’ve added depth and it was their bench that let them down. A sparkling backline just needs good ball.
A complete squad overhaul may inject some life into the worst team in the division and making Parma a tough place to go would be a good start. They won once last season, so they’re starting from a very low base.