The Magners League is just around the corner and the Irish provinces have finished their signings for the coming year, which after the successes of last year holds a lot of promise for further improvement in Irish rugby, at provincial and national level.
Munster, after months of speculation and rumours, have completed their marquee signing of the talented Springbok centre Jean De Villiers. De Villiers, captain of the Stormers and Springbok player of the year in 2008, will be expected to replace Rua Tipoki in the centre. He will be battling for his place with Keith Earls and Liefimi Mafi, with the likely outcome being De Villiers and Mafi in the centre with Earls shunted to wing or full back. In terms of developing Earls as a centre this signing is not ideal but many believe his future lies at full back where he shone for the British and Irish Lions.
Toby Morland, a Kiwi scrumhalf, has been signed as cover for Tomas O'Leary and is showing himself to be in a similar style to O'Leary. He's a physical scrum half with good pace but a slow pass. Expect him to go the way of the South African back row Justin Melck who was signed last season as injury cover and moved on in January.
Munster have also signed Leinster full back Felix Jones who had an excellent showing at the Churchill Cup with Ireland A. Danny O'Riordan having been released from Connacht after a very promising start to his career stalled under the rotation policy of Michael Bradley has also signed. Both are solid under the high ball and have exceptional pace. Competition for the backs in Munster will be intense in all positions.
In the pack Munster have signed French prop Julien Brugnaut from Dax. The 27 year is just entering his prime in propping terms but stuggled in the scrums against Sale in the first pre season match for Munster. His signing stalls the development of Irish props such as Dave Ryan and shows why Ryan's older brother, Timmy, moved to Toulon to get more game time. Munster have also signed Damian Varley, the Garryowen hooker who had a successful season at Wasps, however his gametime will be limited with Flannery and Denis Fogarty ahead of him.
The back row remains an area of strength for Munster with high expcectation for UL Bohemians openside Tommy O'Donnell to make an impression this year after procuring a senior development contract. Nick Williams is also back to full fitness and was impressing in the match against Sale before a minor injury forced him off.
Munster have built on the strength in depth of last season and should again challenge for the Magners League and Heineken Cup. With the reintroduction of the maul as a legitimate attacking weapon and the increase in off loading evident from last season they'll be a threat to any team. The big worry is if John Hayes gets injured and Brugnaut fails to step up. The expectation though is for Munster to regain the Heineken Cup and the largest negative about Munster's work in the off season is the new all red kit.
Leinster have also signed very shrewdly strenghting their pack with Cork native Mike Ross who signed from Harlequins. Ross was part of a formidable scrum with the London team and provides an Irish option at tight head. However Tony Buckley put in a much better perfromance at tight head for Ireland A over the summer. Hopefully this was a result of fatigue on Ross's part after a grueling season.
Nathan Hines, the Scottish second row from Wagga Wagga, has also signed for Leinster. He will bring a hard edge to the pack as well as some underrated handling abilities. A second row of Leo Cullen and Hines may not win any modelling competitions but no one would bully a pack with them in it.
Another Munster native has signed with Leinster in Eoin Reddan. Reddan will be replacing Chris Whitaker and is hoping to regain the Irish number 9 jersey. He had a poor season at Wasps by his standards but not many Wasps enhanced their reputation last season. His sniping runs and box kicks will give the Leinster back line lots to work off and he could prove to be the catalyst for a backline that sturggled for consistency last season.
Leinster's biggest loss is Rocky Elsom, undoubtledly the best back row in the world. His bullocking runs, huge tackles and enormous work rate will be sorely missed. However this does present an oppurtunity for Sean O'Brien to gain a regular starting spot for Leinster. The young Carlow man is hugely promising and is strong with ball in hand on and on the floor. Expect an Irish cap for the youngster before the end of the year.
Other Leinster players who can expect their first Irish cap are Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton. The loosehead prop offers an offensive weapon in the scrums as well as the habit of scoring tries on the wing shared by his rival Marcus Horan. If Sexton carries his form and confidence into the new season we could see a new first choice out half for Ireland, it's a big if though.
Leinster have a lot of expectation on their shouders after last season's Heineke Cup success but expect them to be there or thereabouts again this season.
Ulster have a new Head Coach in former Irish skills coach Brian McLaughlin and have placed a lot of faith in new Operations Director David Humphreys to steer them back towards success of any kind after a few poor seasons.
Unfortunately for them the bad news began before a ball was kicked with their captain Rory Best being ruled out for the season. Andy Kyriacou, who some may remember from a brief spell at Munster, will be an able replacement but Best is part of the backbone of a young Ulster team.
The best Ulster can hope for is a mid table finish in the Magners League and some good performances in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. They have a lot of promising young players, Ian Whitten, Darren Cave, David Pollock to name a few but Ulster should be planning for the future rather than the short term this year.
Michael Bradley continues coaching in Connacht so expect another year of mediocrity interspersed with one or two good wins and some foreign signings. It's hard to motivate yourself for Connacht when Bradley's losing record is never punished despite the fact that when a quality coach, Warren Gatland, was in charge Connacht made the most of what they had and became the first Irish team to win in France in a European competition and were generally expected to make the semi finals of the European Challenge Cup most years. However, the IRFU don't seem to want to replace Bradley at the moment.
I'll save any predictions for the national team until before the autumn interantionals but with Kidney in charge another good season should be on the cards.