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Changes at top usher in a new era in Ireland

By Niall Crozier

Leinster won last season's RaboDirect PRO12 by virtue of beating Ulster in the play-off final in Dublin.

Munster reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, the only PRO12 representatives to do so last season.

Connacht had another highly encouraging year, with coach Eric Elwood steering them to eighth place in his final term in charge.

With a new PRO12 campaign kicking off on September 6, Ulster's fellow Irish provinces are upbeat about their prospects.

Both Leinster and Connacht have new coaches in Australian Matt O'Connor and New Zealander Pat Lam respectively.

A third antipodean, Rob Penney, is in charge of Munster.

Like Penney, for Ulster's Mark Anscombe this will be a second season at the helm.

O'Connor's predecessor, Joe Schmidt, left three trophies in the cabinet before departing to take up the reins as Ireland's head coach. If that yardstick is causing O'Connor anxiety, he hides it well. He seems happy with his inheritance.

"It was good to get in, meet the backroom staff and just work out what makes the place tick," he said.

"The infrastructure is there, the playing quality from right through the Academy is pretty impressive which wasn't any surprise. It's a pretty well-oiled machine," he said.

Asked if his predecessor's achievements intimidate or motivate him, O'Connor replied: "There's nothing to be afraid of. I think expectation is a good thing – it drives you to be better, it drives the players to be better and everyone can gain on the back of the successes Leinster have had."

Captain Leo Cullen was optimistic about what lies ahead.

"Matt brings new ideas," Cullen commented.

"For us, as a group, it's exciting to be challenged in a different way – new set of eyes, new voice and a new challenge which I think is great.

"In many ways, going into last year when we had new training facilities, there was a lot of disruption at the start of the season so that was probably a bigger transition.

"This year we'll just be trying to move it along. Week by week is our focus," Cullen said.

With a year at the Munster helm behind him, Penney's reply when asked what he is aiming for was: "Hopefully you'll see a real growth across the board in terms of our application and game understanding."

Insisting he is "really pleased" with the Reds' attempt to play more expansive rugby, he said: "We've got a group now that is capable of physically imposing themselves and also able to utilise space, underpinning what, for me, has always been the prerequisite – finding space and utilising that, wherever it may be."

Connacht's Lam, who has taken the unusual step of naming three players – Gavin Duffy, John Muldoon and Michael Swift – to share the captaincy, explained: "The biggest thing for me in where we want to go revolves around both the culture that we've brought in and growing around the leadership we've brought in.

"We interviewed guys for the roles just to find out which of them really want to do it.

"For me, leadership of the team is quite crucial.

"We, as a group, tried to describe what the typical Connacht rugby player looks like and those qualities came through in Gavin, John and Swifty."

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