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Stunning Ulster victory over Newport Gwent Dragons 29-8

PRO12 league

By Jonathan Bradley

Away from the commotion surrounding Ruan Pienaar's imminent exit, Ulster have a season to start with new captain Rob Herring eager to get the campaign underway against Dragons this evening (7.35pm kick-off, Kingspan Stadium).

"It's been a long pre-season so I'm looking forward to some proper games now," said the hooker.

"The pre-season games are never quite the real thing so we're looking forward to kicking off this weekend."

For the 26-year-old, tonight will mark the end of what has surely been the most eventful summer of his life.

Overlooked for Ireland's tour to his native South Africa, he was given a rare window for some time away from the game, an opportunity he used to get engaged to long-term girlfriend Nicola.

Upon returning to work, he was informed that he and Andrew Trimble were to be named as the successors to Rory Best in the role of captain.

With only one common weekend free in he and his fiancee's schedule, Herring jokes that planning the celebration should be a relatively straightforward affair but for now his focus is firmly on tonight's visit of Dragons.

"Look at our results against them last year, we beat them by seven points away and two points at home. They are a tough side to play against.

"They have recruited well, they have a good coach and they will play a structured game.

"They have a scrum-half who is a livewire and he'll look to get the forwards and backs into the game.

"If we are not on the money it will be a tough game for us."

Despite the events of the last few days, Herring is banking on the Kingspan atmosphere to be in full force this evening, with the sight of Charles Piutau making his competitive debut sure to generate plenty of buzz.

"We always say how much we enjoy playing at Kingspan and how much it lifts our performances up. Starting at home, it is a must win, and more importantly we have to perform and take momentum into the next few games.

"Some of the new boys had heard about the crowd at home and they experienced a bit last week in pre-season. I think the most important thing the new players bring is a sense of excitement, that extra bit of energy.

"When you look at guys like Charles, he has come in and, even though he is so young, he brings so much experience. You can hear in the way he is talking to the guys in the back-three and leading defensive sessions.

"Somebody like him is massive for us."

Jonathan Bradley examines how the teams are looking for the new PRO12 season

Cardiff Blues

Coach: Danny Wilson

Captain: Gethin Jenkins

Key Man: Sam Warburton

Big arrival: Nick Williams

Big loss: Rhys Patchell

Last season: 7th

Verdict: Improved drastically throughout last season after a poor and frustrating start to the campaign and, with Danny Wilson remaining at the helm to offer some rare consistency, they will look to carry that momentum with them into this new term.

Prediction: 7th


Coach: Pat Lam

Captain: John Muldoon

Key Man: Bundee Aki

Big arrival: Marnitz Boshoff

Big loss: Robbie Henshaw

Last season: 2nd (champions)

Verdict: Last season’s Cinderella story have lost key pieces in Henshaw, AJ MacGinty and Aly Muldowney. Figure to regress somewhat but another Champions Cup spot is a nevertheless realistic target.

Prediction: 6th


Coach: Alan Solomons

Captain: Grant Gilchrist & Stuart McInally

Key Man: WP Nel

Big arrival: Duncan Weir

Big loss: Mike Coman

Last season: 9th

Verdict: Will always be physical and abrasive opposition under Solomons’ watch while Duncan Weir’s addition should give them stability at 10. It’s still hard to see too much improvement in the table, however.

Prediction: 9th


Coach: Gregor Townsend

Captain: Jonny Gray & Henry Pyrgos

Key Man: Finn Russell

Big arrival: Leonardo Sarto

Big loss: Leone Nakarawa

Last season: 3rd (Beaten semi-finalists)

Verdict: Suffered a bit of a league-winning hangover last season. With Townsend entering his last year, there’s no shortage of motivation to send him off in serious style.

Prediction: Semi-finalists


Coach: Leo Cullen

Captain: Isa Nacewa

Key Man: Johnny Sexton

Big arrival: Robbie Henshaw

Big loss: Luke Fitzgerald

Last season: 1st (beaten finalists)

Verdict: Have experienced a fairly large overhaul in players but there is still the familiar quality spine of Irish internationals. There’s every reason to expect that they’ll be among the last teams standing in May once again.

Prediction: Finalists


Coach: Rassie Erasmus

Captain: Peter O’Mahony

Key Man: Conor Murray

Big arrival: Jean Kleyn

Big loss: Johnny Holland

Last season: 6th

Verdict: Interesting times in Limerick as South African Erasmus comes in to head the coaching ticket. He has certainly talked a great game in his early interviews but will rely on suffering less injuries like the one that sidelined Peter O’Mahony last season.

Prediction: 5th

NG Dragons

Coach: Kingsley Jones

Captain: Lewis Evans

Key Man: Hallam Amos

Big arrival: Sam Beard

Big loss: Taulupe Faletau

Last season: 10th

Verdict: Have lost their best player in British and Irish Lions number eight Talupe Faletau and, while his game-time was limited, the world star will be impossible to replace. Some exciting young Welsh talent is already in place but a tough season may well lay ahead.

Prediction: 11th


Coach: Steve Tandy

Captain: Alun Wyn Jones

Key Man: Rhys Webb

Big arrival: Kieron Fonotia

Big loss: Rynier Bernardo

Last season: 8th

Verdict: On paper, they boast one of the best XVs in the league but, consequently, they regularly lose so much quality to Wales during international windows that their chances of making an immediate return to Europe’s top table could well take a hit.

Prediction: 8th


Coach: Wayne Pivac

Captain: Ken Owens

Key Man: Liam Williams

Big arrival: Jonathan Davies

Big loss: Rhodri Williams

Last season: 5th

Verdict: Haven’t made the play-offs since 2013 but figure to make a return. Have done some eye-catching business with Jonathan Davies returning, Rhys Patchell switching from Cardiff and Johnny McNicholl coming from Super Rugby

Prediction: Semi-finalists


Coach: Kieran Crowley

Captain: Alessandro Zanni

Key Man: Edoardo Gori

Big arrival: Tommaso Allan

Big loss: Salesi Manu

Last season: 12th

Verdict: Former All Black Kieran Crowley figures to take a no-nonsense approach and force improvement but Treviso still don’t have the quality to expect more than the occasional scalp at home.

Prediction: 10th


Coach: Les Kiss

Captain: Andrew Trimble and Rob Herring

Key Man: Paddy Jackson

Big arrival: Charles Piutau

Big loss: Nick Williams

Last season: 4th

Verdict: Now appears to be the time for this talented Ulster squad. Two massive signings and a loaded backline, but Ruan Pienaar’s imminent departure creates urgency.

Prediction: Champions


Coach: Gianluca Guidi

Captain: George Biagi

Key Man: Carlo Canna

Big arrival: Josh Furno

Big loss: Leonardo Sarto

Last season: 11th

Verdict: Avoided finishing in the basement last season, earning a Champions Cup place in the process, but have witnessed a huge turnover of players in the summer. Needing time to gel, it looks like a return to bottom rung this year.

Prediction: 12th

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