There’s only one place to start and that’s with Leigh Halfpenny. I can’t tell you how excited I am that Leigh is back in Wales and I think the Scarlets is the perfect fit. I wrote last season that I thought Llanelli would be the best place for him if he returned to any of the regions, but I must admit that I didn’t think it would ever happen.
I always thought England was a more likely destination, so the Scarlets and Welsh Rugby Union deserve great credit for getting the deal over the line. I think Leigh will thrive in his new environment and in my opinion he’s definitely the best addition to the league this summer. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
The Scarlets are the most creative team in the PRO14 and we saw that last year with their title win. They’re just brilliant to watch at times and they’ll bring out the best of Leigh. We all know that Leigh is the best defensive full-back in world rugby with his positioning, the way he covers the ground and his tackling. That’s not to mention the world-class goal kicking he brings to any team.
But I also know from having played with Leigh that he can be a hugely dangerous runner, a man capable of troubling the opposition in attack whenever he gets the ball. Sadly, I think that’s been coached out of him to a degree. I’m not sure who by, but it’s a great pity.
Now, I think the Scarlets and Wayne Pivac can be the ones to relight Leigh’s fire. They play a brilliant brand of rugby and throw the ball around. It could be just what Leigh needs at this stage in his career. The Scarlets can certainly be of benefit to Leigh and vice versa. We might have to wait a while to see Leigh in red, but when he does start I think he’ll be very hungry to get going after failing to start a Test with the British & Irish Lions this summer. That will have really stung him.
Leigh is a true professional and he’ll be desperate to impress. I also think if he gets his attacking game going it will only benefit Wales in the future too. All in all, it ticks all the right boxes.
Aside from Leigh, there are a couple of other players who I think will benefit from new surroundings at the regions. Cory Allen is one.
I think he really needed a change of scenery so I was pleased to see him swap Cardiff Blues for the Ospreys. Cory is such a powerful runner, a strong attacker who can offload out of the tackle too. His experience of Sevens means he has all the skills, and I just think he’d maybe gone a little bit stale at the Blues. Sometimes, that happens. Cory is the sort of guy who can help bring the likes of Keelan Giles and Dan Evans into the game at the Liberty Stadium. I wish him all the best for his move because he’s a lovely bloke who has all the talent.
Elsewhere, I must admit I’m surprised to see the Blues and Dragons haven’t invested more in their forward packs. For me, that’s the area they should be looking at because that’s where both teams struggled last season. They use the same players pretty much all season, so it’s inevitable some are going to run out of gas. I know the Blues have signed Damian Welch from Exeter, but I’m not sure it’s enough. Let’s hope Seb Davies, who impressed on Wales’ summer tour, steps up.
One man I am looking forward to seeing with the Blues is Jack Roberts. He slipped off the Welsh radar when he was in England, but you don’t impress at Leicester Tigers without being a handy player. He offers a different dynamic to Cory in that he’s shorter and runs slightly different lines. Time will tell as to how well he goes.
Back to the Dragons, now. I think Bernard Jackman could be light up front, but I’d be excited about what I was going to see behind the scrum at Rodney Parade if I was a Dragons fan. Gavin Henson and Zane Kirchner are both excellent signings. They’ve got huge experience and will help bring on the younger guys.
I’ve been hugely encouraged from what I’ve heard about Gav in pre-season. I’ve been told his fitness is impressive, that he’s working hard in training and being a great asset around the place. I really hope he can go through the season with a clean bill of health because he’s struggled with injury recently. Kirchner offers something similar as a full international and they’re going to be the sort of players Jackman can lean on.
One other thing on those two, I think their role off the field is going to be as important as their one on it. For too long at the Dragons guys like Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos have had to shoulder all the responsibility and that’s unfair on them because they’re young players making their way in the game. Hopefully they can have that burden eased and improve as a result.
Elsewhere, I’m not surprised to have seen Munster and Leinster strengthen. In Dublin, I think Scott Fardy and James Lowe are obviously very strong signings. Lowe had a shocker for the Maori All Blacks against the Lions in New Zealand, but both players are huge talents. Most Southern Hemisphere players take a while to adapt when they move north, but that never seems to happen at Leinster which is a credit to their environment.
Munster’s JJ Hanrahan, Jean Deysel at Ulster and Connacht’s Jarrad Butler are also all exciting additions to the league. It just goes to show the PRO14 is going the right way. That said, I don’t think either Treviso or Zebre have strengthened anywhere near enough to trouble the other teams and time will tell as to how good the addition of South African sides Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings proves to be.
Let’s finish on a positive note. In Scotland, we’ve seen Glasgow make huge strides in recent years and I hope that continues despite Gregor Townsend moving on. North of the border though, I think the best signing has been a coach not a player. Dave Rennie will do well at Glasgow, but I’m excited to see how Richard Cockerill does at Edinburgh. Cockerill is a Marmite character, isn’t he? You either love him or hate him and he’s an opinionated guy who keeps things simple.
He’ll bring a forward-dominated game to the Scottish capital, but I rate Cockerill. He did a great job at Leicester and I think he was unlucky to get the boot at Welford Road. Edinburgh have underachieved for too long now and one thing Cockerill won’t stand for is poor standards. Raise those and who knows what might happen? Edinburgh are my outside bet for a play-off place.