After three rounds of action the Guinness Pro12 table is starting to take shape. All the teams have had enough time to show where they are strong and what needs work.
The unbeaten teams
The Ospreys sit top of the table after three bonus point wins out of three. Contrast this with last season, where they lost their first three, and things are going well. They are undoubtedly a better team than last season, where they were heavily hit by the Rugby World Cup. Eleven Ospreys players went to the World Cup, so this year they will be fresher. The return from injury of Rhys Webb and the signing of Wasps second row Bradley Davies has certainly helped too. So far they have played three of the four worst teams in the league, so expectations must be tempered. While winning the title might be too far, European qualification is a must for the Swansea side.
Ulster have been typical Ulster so far. Three wins over fairly weak sides, lots of flashy backs moves, a lack of ruthlessness. Reassuringly, Clive Ross has exceeded all expectations so far. The flanker was extraordinary in the first two games, far from the former butt of Stephen Ferris rants. Ulster’s weakness in the back row has been a problem since Ferris retired, and the gap between Nick Williams leaving and Marcel Coetzee arriving is too long. Consistency, especially when finishing off line breaks, will be the difference between a home and away semi final.
The Cardiff Blues improved more over the off season than any other team in the league. All three wins have been against strong opposition, and there’s a definite style to their play. What is most impressive is how they have blitzed the breakdown. By squeezing Sam Warburton, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Josh Turnbull and Gethin Jenkins into the same pack, they always pose a threat on the floor. Combine that with Rey Lee-lo’s incredibly creative start to the season and they have a very strong chance of making the playoffs.
Two wins for the rest of the top half
Glasgow Warriors defeat at the hands of the Blues came as a shock to many. The pre-tournament favourites are still probably the best side in the league, but it gave that title some perspective. The manner in which they, or more accurately Tommy Seymour, ripped Leinster to shreds had many writing off the rest of the Pro12’s chances. It’s still hard to see past them finishing in the top two.
Leinster are still waiting on big names to come back from international duty. Effectively their entire season rests on Jonathan Sexton. Sexton’s ability to win games, and raise the games of those around him, will be vital. In his absence, Joey Carbery has been playing incredibly well. Dan Leavy was very impressive against Edinburgh, so they aren’t short of excellent forwards either. Top four is pretty much mandatory, and with the final in Dublin there’s an extra carrot to chase.
Munster have been a mixed bag. Their defence was impervious against the Scarlets, yet leaky against the Blues. Their performance against the Dragons was Ulster-esque, dominated in all facets but never put them away. The back row as always looks strong, and young Irish props James Cronin and John Ryan have made strong starts to the season. The weaknesses are the decision makers, with regular starters Andrew Conway and Ian Keatley not making the most of their talent. They are sitting sixth now after three games, where they finished last season, and that’s probably where they’ll finish this season.
One win isn’t good enough
The Dragons are seventh, and look good value for it. There’s not very much to them, but they have a knack of getting into games.
Edinburgh are sitting on one win, against the Scarlets, and eighth seems about right for them. Not an awful team, but it’s hard to see them overturning any of the teams above them on a regular basis. They might have some luck in the middle of winter, as WP Nel is a beast in the scrum. Their set piece in general is very good, but it’s hard to see a backline made up of largely Glasgow and Ulster offcuts scoring too many tries. Duncan Weir isn’t going to cost them any games, but he’s really just steady. Michael Allen, Rory Scholes and Glenn Bryce are all tidy players, and Scholes in particular has his moments of brilliance, but there’s good reasons why they moved.
Bottom feeders of the Pro12 table
Zebre are very unfortunate. They really should have beaten Connacht only for the weather to intervene and led to the match being called off while leading 22-10. They are a strange team to analyse as they have such different goals to the rest of the league. Neither of the Italian teams will make the playoffs anytime soon, so they only have to finish above the other one. This means they target specific games, such as Connacht at home, to take scalps. Why waste energy and risk injury away to the Ospreys if you will lose anyway? They look more organised than Treviso and that might be enough.
The Scarlets have something seriously wrong with them. The top side in Wales last season look a shadow of their former selves. Their star studded backline has been firing blanks. Liam Williams did everything but score against Munster. Against Ulster Aled Davies butchered a two on one throwing an intercept to Charles Piutau, who had already bumped off British and Irish Lions centre Jonathan Davies. They have the talent to get back up the table, but they aren’t playing anywhere near that level.
Connacht are suffering a hell of a second season syndrome. Saved by lightning from three defeats in a row, they really miss Aly Muldowney and AJ McGinty. When the ball gets out wide they still look a match for any side, but the platform is terrible, and the halves aren’t working. They can’t wait to get Marnitz Boshoff in the team to give them some direction. They need to start winning, and get their first choice pack on the field, but top six is looking a big ask for the champions.
Treviso are last, and should stay there. Maybe a bit more talented than Zebre, but lacking in any structure. At least Ian McKinley and David Odiete provide some entertainment.
Overall, even at this early stage, the Pro12 looks to have sorted itself into a fairly natural order. Last year’s fairytale ending seems a long time ago now as the big spending, established sides are back on top.