Pro12: Fearsome packs and creative backs in new season
Last updated on .From the section Welsh Rugby
With the ink dry on the historic peace deal and the new season just days away, Ross Harries assesses fearsome front rows; growling cubs; promises of flair and canny operators ahead of the Welsh regions' campaign in the Guinness Pro12.
The Welsh Pro12 flag-bearers, the Ospreys (along with Leinster) have won this title more than any other side in the league. But they missed out on the play-offs last season, and have suffered some big-name departures.
For so long, the Ospreys pack was a fearsome machine.
A bristling, bruising, snarling mass of controlled aggression and brute strength.
Scrum V's Martyn Williams recently admitted it was a horrible experience playing against them for Cardiff Blues, yet all of a sudden they look like much less of a fearsome proposition.
Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard have gone. Ian Evans - their second row enforcer - has gone and Ryan Jones, Wales' most experienced captain, has gone.
Four Lions have left the pride and in their place? Some young cubs, who Steve Tandy is hoping can find their growl.
The two Nickys - Smith and Thomas - are both highly rated at the Liberty Stadium and may find themselves thrust into the limelight.
Lloyd Peers has already been entrusted with the captaincy during one of the Ospreys' pre-season outings, and he will need to step into the boiler-house breach. In the back row, Dan Baker will be looking to kick on where he left off, especially after he proved to be such a revelation last season.
So a lot of faith has been invested in the new generation, but if there is one man who can galvanise a team, who can drag them along through sheer force of will, it's Alun Wyn Jones. And most importantly, he is still there.
The Scarlets won their one and only Pro12 title back in 2003, but made the play-offs in the 2012-13 season, and appear to be on an upward curve.
The Scarlets have a new man at the helm - Wayne Pivac - and although he made a journey of 12,000 miles to get here, he knows exactly what he's entered into.
The name "Llanelli" was burned onto his brain when, as a 10-year old, he woke in the middle of the night to listen to his beloved All Blacks being beaten by a club side with a funny name on the other side of the world. It came as no surprise to him to discover that the Stradey Park scoreboard, with 9-3 emblazoned across it, has pride of place in the club shop.
The Scarlets' pack has developed a hard edge in recent seasons, and with world champion boxer Joe Calzaghe's old sparring partner Byron Hayward installed as defence coach, that hard edge could turn into granite.
The fans have long craved a ball-carrying Number 8 in the mould of Quinnell or Ben Morgan. With Rory Pitman announcing himself with a Man of the Match performance in pre-season, and Chris Hala'ufia heading west, they may have found two at the same time.
But Pivac has pledged not to abandon the Scarlets' tradition of flair and enterprise. With a backline containing Scott Williams, Regan King and Jordan Williams, the Parc y Scarlets faithful may not miss Jonathan Davies as much as they feared.
The Blues rallied last season, to put some gloss on a dismal campaign that saw them lose twice to basement boys, Zebre, and part company with director of rugby Phil Davies. But a strong recruitment drive, and a new head coach have led to a surge in optimism at the Arms Park.
Back in 2009, during the first Lions test in South Africa, the tourists' scrum was in all kinds of trouble and they were staring down the barrel of an ugly defeat.
In an attempt to stem the tide, a pair of emergency substitutions were made - Adam Jones and Matthew Rees were brought on to join Gethin Jenkins in the front row.
It changed the entire complexion of the match. That trio became arguably the most fearsome front row in world rugby, and five years later they have been reunited at the Blues. Whether they can resurrect their power of old remains to be seen, but a muscle-bound Rees laid down the gauntlet at the Pro12 launch - warning that the Blues should no longer be considered a soft touch.
Head coach Mark Hammett has been on a charm offensive since his arrival a few weeks ago. The Kiwi has an easy manner and a ready smile, but beneath the surface lurks a darker resolve. I asked him whether the Blues had seen his nasty side yet.
"Not yet" he replied. "But they will, if performances aren't up to scratch". With him and Dale McIntosh in charge, the Blues squad may be terrified into being successful.
And what better way to exorcise their demons than to beat the team that scored an unlikely double over them last season - Zebre are up first for the resurgent Blues.
The Dragons have arguably been busier than the Blues in the spending stakes, with a slew of summer arrivals giving a different complexion to the squad. The Jones Boys, Lyn and Kingsley, will be determined to drive up standards after a ninth-placed finish last season.
In the pair of Jones coaches, the Gwent outfit have two of the canniest operators in the Pro12, and their recruitment drive has been impressive.
The Dragons pack has had something of a callow feel in the past, but not anymore. Brok Harris and Boris Stankovich have arrived to shore up the front row. Ian Gough has returned, and Andy Powell will be determined to put his chequered past behind him as he fights for a place in the back row.
And if evidence were needed of the Dragons new-found up-front grunt, then a pre-season win over English Premiership champions Northampton should surely suffice.
With Lee Byrne and Aled Brew back to bolster the backline, and Tyler Morgan and Jack Dixon ready to announce themselves, the Dragons could be about to rouse from their slumber.
Scrum V live returns on Friday as Ospreys host Treviso in the Guinness Pro12 with the action available on BBC Two Wales, red button and online from 19:30 BST.
The live rugby continues on S4C on Sunday when Clwb Rygbi brings you Cardiff Blues' first competitive game of the season against Zebre, with coverage beginning at 15:45 BST.
Highlights of the weekend's action will be on Scrum V on Sunday, BBC Two Wales from 18:45 BST.