The Province's Transfer Needs
Rugby's silly season with transfers seems to be in full flow after the confirmation of Hanrahan and Gopperth's departures from Munster and Leinster respectively. Rob Horne's rumoured transfer to Munster emphasises that the provinces will be on a recruitment drive, and with the end of the World Cup cycle coinciding with the start of next season, more players than usual will be on the market.
Here are what each province's transfer needs to improve:
Munster are almost unmatched in the quality of their backrow depth, and could afford to let a player or two leave without replacing them. Likewise, their is plenty of talent in their back three places, with youngster Stephen Fitzgerald one to watch for the future. Tomas O'Leary's signing also gives them some cover at the scrumhalf position, while Munster have managed to cope admirably well with injuries to Damien Varley and Mike Sherry with Duncan Casey and Kevin O'Byrne stepping up.
Munster will earn at least one NIQ spot with CJ Stander's naturalisation at the start of next season, while Tyler Bleyendaal is the only confirmed NIQ that will be signed for next year with Botha, van den Heever, Andrew Smith and Pat Howard all facing contract talks/ going back after the completion of their loans.
The biggest priority and one that needs one and probably two players. The rumoured Rob Horne signing is a small step in the right direction, but he is definitely a better winger than centre. With Andrew Smith's contract up at the end of the season, an outside centre at least would be necessary, which could come in the form of a biggish signing, or extending Pat Howard's contract and perhaps another young/experienced operator. One of Ulster's many inside centres could enhance their international careers by moving south, but I can't see Munster letting any of them go.
Some out of contract Southern Hemisphere players include Juan de Jongh, Damien de Allende, Francis Saili or Conrad Smith.
2. Tighthead Prop
BJ Botha's extraordinary powers are understandably waning at 35 years old, and with his contract running out and the IRFU's policy of NIQ players could mean that the South African might be leaving these shores after 7 seasons with Ulster and Munster.
Stephen Archer has undoubted potential with his beastly power, but his scrum technique leaves an awful lot to be desired. Alan Cotter and Martin Kelly haven't been given many opportunities to showcase their potential.
Munster's options are limited, they could try to poach one of Leinster's promising tightheads in Martin Moore or Tadhg Furlong, with both out of contract; or they could look to the Southern hemisphere with the likes of Ben Tameifuna, Steven Kitchoff or James Slipper.
3. Key Contract Extensions
The likes of Andrew Conway, Gerhard van den Heever, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley, Peter O'Mahony and others are all out of contract at the end of the seasons. There's nearly no point in talking about how Munster can improve unless that re-sign some of their top talent. The sounds are good in regards to O'Mahony, while Keatley and O'Donoghue's re-signings are positive. Any more departures like Hanrahans will be a huge blow.
It's not an immediate requirement, but with Donncha O'Callaghan approaching 36 and Paul O'Connell also at a senior age, a succession plan must be put in place. If Donnacha Ryan can return in full health, himself and Dave Foley will make a strong pairing, but the younger players need to step up, and someone needs to start raising their head above the rest.
The signing of Johnny Sexton is a massive boost to the province. Sexton is the quality that they have been screaming out for, and will be able to provide some direction and accuracy to the backline that has been missing this season. Matt O'Connor's reluctance to put his faith in the talented Leinster academy outside of the backrow could mean that Leinster are looking for more players in positions than they should.
Leinster will have at least 1 NIQ spot opening up with Gopperth's departure. The IRFU will be reducing the NIQ rules to a maximum of 4, which will include for next season Ben Te'o and Kane Douglas.
Leinster's wing stocks include an injury prone Luke Fitzgerald while Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden have both had relatively serious injuries in the last 12 months. Full back Zane Kirchner has been used out wide more often than not, and with his contract up at the end of the year, he might be inclined to leave given his lack of playing time for someone of his experience.
Unfortunately, Sam Coughlan Murray hasn't been given enough opportunity with Leinster, and it's hard to see him getting more time if he stays. Darragh Fanning is a good finisher of tries, while Billy Dardis and Cian Kelleher are pulling up trees for the A team, it's hard to see anything from O'Connor previously that would suggest he'd give them a chance.
Leicester's Irish wing Niall Morris could be available. He signed an undisclosed length contract two seasons ago, while Leinster were reportedly sniffing at him, or else players like Tim Nanai Williams, Lolagi Visinia, Richard Buckman or Jesse Mogg would be excellent signings from overseas.
2. Contract Extensions
Martin Moore, Tadhg Furlong, Luke Fitzgerald, Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and many others are all out of contract this season. All and others are vital to the progression of Leinster and their attempt to arrest the decline after the retirements of Leo Cullen, Isa Nacewa and Brian O'Driscoll.
Ulster had a dreadful off season last year, with John Afoa and Johann Muller leaving as well as David Humphries. They have done well at home this season, but there is no doubt that they aren't as strong as they were last season. This is to be expected with so much overhaul, but there is no doubt that there are some areas to target.
Their backline is full of exciting Irish talent, especially in the back three. Watch out for promising youngsters Rory Scholes, Jacob Stockdale and Jack Owens.
Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar, Wiehahn Herbst, Louis Ludik and Franco van der Merwe take up Ulster's NIQ quotient and all are contracted up until 2016 at least.
1. Second Row
Ulster's second row stocks are quite bare. They've replaced the nous of Johann Muller with the brunt of Franco van der Merwe. That nous is still missing from the Ulster pack, nous that Leinster had in Leo Cullen, and Munster have with Paul O'Connell.
They are also a player shallow should anyone get injured, and could use an extra body to supplement Henderson, van der Merwe and Tuohy, with academy prospects O'Connor et al.
With van der Merwe already in Ulster, another NIQ signing is extremely unlikely, which further decreases the pool of talent available.
This is one area that has been extremely shallow since Chris Henry's health problems. Stephen Ferris' retirement was also a big blow in the back row, and while there are good talented youngsters available, a NIQ signing would be needed. The likes of Matt Todd are available, but with Ulster already over their quota of NIQ players, it seems unlikely that they will add to their stock of South Hemisphere gems.
Connacht have had the best 2014 of all of the provinces. They've been bolstering their squad nicely with the signings of Muliana, Aki and McCartney supplemented by an influx of academy talent like Darragh Leader and Finlay Bealham. There seems to be real depth in the squad for the first time in a while but some areas could need improving.
Danie Poolman becomes Irish qualified next season, leaving Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney as the sole two NIQ players that have committed to Connacht beyond 2015.
1. No. 8
Connacht's pack are built on hard work and constant grafting. There are times when the forwards are working extremely hard for very minimal gain. Someone that can get them over the gainline on a constant basis and give them frontfoot ball could be the next step for an exciting future out west.
Ideally a Jerome Kaino would be fantastic, but that sounds as realistic as Mils Muliana joining Connacht. A potentially more realistic signing could be uncapped 26 year old Nasi Manu from the Highlanders; while Springbok Ryan Kankowski, or All Black Victor Vito would be more expensive options and would be vital for the development of promising youngster Sean O'Brien.
2. Contract Extensions
Players that have been key to the resurgence of Connacht like Nathan White, Mick Kearney and Mils Muliana are all out of contract this season. Keeping them should be a priority for Lam to continue the good work being done.
This is dependant on Mick Kearney signing an extension, while permanently adding Quinn Roux to the mix would be a major boost. Roux's signing should be a priority given his form out west, but should Kearney leave, another second row would be needed.
Aly Muldowney has improved a lot this year, and academy player Ultan Dillane has impressed in his recent outings, with Roux and Kearney, that would make for an impressive second row stock.
This isn't a pressing need, more of a like to have. Jack Carty has been developing nicely in the last 12 months, while Craig Ronaldson looks to be growing into a very useful member in the squad. Miah Nikora is a Connacht favourite, who is perhaps a little past his best, and out of contract next year. With Conor McKeon and Aidan Moynihan the only outhalves in the academy and still at least a season away yet, an experienced outhalf to come in an part his knowledge with Carty would be huge.
Unfortunately, there aren't a huge amount of experienced out-halves at the end of their careers out there that aren't already snapped up.