The best pieces of business in the PRO12
August 27, 2013
Craig Clarke (right) is a superb piece of business for Connacht © Getty Images
The new season of RaboDirect PRO12 rugby is nearly upon us and despite seeing several top players leave the league and opt to take up a contract in the Top 14, the 12 sides in the Celtic competition have had a busy summer as they look to bolster their resources. Several top internationals have decided to give the PRO12 a shot and we have picked out a selection of eye-catching transfers in the latest Scrum Sevens.
For us, this is the best piece of recruitment by any club in the PRO12. Any player who has managed to win back-to-back Super Rugby titles must be worth their weight in gold, and in Clarke's case, he captained the Waikato franchise to their memorable feats. You would have thought he could have had the pick of Europe's best sides, but Connacht flew under the radar to secure their man.
With Connacht now under the tutelage of Pat Lam, Ireland's ugly duckling of a side may cause a few surprises this year. They are still a team who seem to be doing their best off the scraps dropped from Leinster, Ulster and Munster, but Connacht are going about their business in an impressive fashion. We think Clarke's recruitment is inspired and could be the catalyst needed in Galway.
© Getty Images
He was in danger of becoming one of the forgotten men of Welsh rugby with Richard Hibbard, complete with his long flowing blonde locks, the number one No.2 for those to the west of the Severn. While Hibbard and co. flourished in Australia turning out for the British & Irish Lions, Rees would have watched on from his sofa reminiscing about his experiences from 2009 when he started the second and third Tests against the Boks.
Rees clearly felt his career needed a new spark and he has swapped Llanelli for Cardiff. He will line-up alongside fellow Lion Gethin Jenkins at the artificially turfed Arms Park this term and will give them a considerable physical presence in their front-row. That familiarity may also aid his international prospects as he looks to add to his 57 Test caps.
How do you go about replacing Isa Nacewa? That must have been a constant conundrum for then Leinster boss Joe Schmidt last season. In the end, he opted for 24-cap Springbok fullback Kirchner. The Sideshow Bob-lookalike has the ability to tear up the PRO12 but Leinster, now under Matt O'Connor's tutelage, will have to work out the best way to utilise his talents.
Similar to James O'Connor, Kirchner's versatility sometimes works against him and with Willie le Roux the current darling of South Africa at No.15, Kirchner will just have Leinster to focus on this term rather than international honours. He should flourish at the Dublin side and if they continue in the same silverware-laden manner under O'Connor as they did Schmidt, then he will need to get an extra suitcase to carry all the pots, pans and gongs back to South Africa when he eventually returns.
Zane Kirchner has linked up with Leinster after leaving the Bulls © Getty Images
© Getty Images
Fly-half Burton has 21 caps for Italy and a wealth of experience at Test level. He is unlikely to do a lot of attacking with ball in hand, but on a wet and windy night at Rodney Parade, he will put the Dragons in the right areas of the field and will provide a level head at No.10.
He will vie with Jason Tovey for the fly-half shirt and for once, Lyn Jones and his Dragons side have real depth at No.10. They are unlikely to light up the Welsh regional scene in the same manner as Rhys Patchell, Dan Biggar or Rhys Priestland but they have plenty of big game battle scars to show and between them, the Dragons are in safe hands.
It would have been an unfamiliar feeling for Leinster fans when Jonathan Sexton announced his move to Racing Metro last season. They seldom see their best players leaving the club, let along Ireland's first choice fly-half. But even Ireland's premier charges are having their head turned by the huge piles of Euros on offer over the Channel.
Leinster have gone for the pragmatic approach in choosing their replacement for Sexton. Gopperth was superb for Newcastle Falcons during his four years at the club, but you cannot deny the No.10 wanting to have a shot at winning some serious trophies at Leinster. He should prosper at the RDS and alongside Ian Madigan, the Dublin side should have enough strength in depth to cover the sizeable void left by Sexton.
Jimmy Gopperth will hope to lift more silverware at Leinster © Getty Images
© Getty Images
Big name and lucrative transfers sometimes fall flat on their face - think Stephen Donald's time at Bath, Gethin Jenkins' sojourn to Toulon or Chris Jack's move to Saracens. But if a Munster fan sat down and momentarily day-dreamed of how they hoped Doug Howlett's switch to Thomond Park would work out, they would have been deeply satisfied with how the try-scoring record holder for the All Blacks did for the Irish giants.
He was superb, but all good things have to come to an end and Van der Heever is the man chosen by the Munster hierarchy to replace the now retired Howlett. He has bags of ability and aged just 24, he has that youthful exuberance which could help him become a crowd favourite on that famous Cork turf.
For us, John Barclay's decision to swap Scotland for Wales was a slightly bizarre move. Barclay, you would expect, would have had a couple of options open to him in the Top 14 as he is one of the PRO12's most consistent back-rowers. But he chose to move south to the Scarlets.
For the Llanelli region, it is a brilliant signing while Barclay clearly hopes the move will reinvigorate his Test prospects with a number of players ahead of him in the Scotland pecking order. The days of the 'Killers Bs' - Kelly Brown, Johnnie Beattie and Barclay - from the 2010 Six Nations are now a distant memory but Barclay, aged just 26, still has a number of years left him at the highest level. He's a great signing for Scarlets and should complement captain Rob McCusker nicely in their back-row.
© Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.