The state of Wales' four pro teams heading into the new season as Ospreys best-placed to emerge the strongest
The new rugby season is a mere month away yet matters in Wales are, unfortunately, mired in a familiar lack of clarity.
There is still no news of an agreement over budgets for the coming season — as in the one which starts in four weeks — as the four professional men's sides remain unsure over what their payments will be from the Welsh Rugby Union in return for providing access to Test stars, while the Welsh game continues to lose the intellectual property of quality businesspeople it can ill afford to see walk away. It's a sorry situation.
With all that in mind, as well as the fact none of the four sides finished inside the top half of the United Rugby Championship table last year, it would be easy to be feeling pretty forlorn ahead of the new campaign.
However, what about the causes for optimism? We've weighed up the prospects of each Welsh side heading into the new season:
If we're looking for the biggest unknown, perhaps Cardiff could fall into that category. Not that there has been major change at the Arms Park over the summer, but more for the fact they produced such a bizarre 2021/22 campaign.
In Dai Young's first season back in charge, they started well before stumbling towards the finish line after a heavily disrupted and completely irregular year. That alone means drawing any conclusions from the last campaign should be done with more than a pinch of salt.
Obviously, being caught up in South Africa at the time of a outbreak of another Covid variant didn't help, leaving several first-teamers in quarantine. But the way everyone mucked in for European fixtures with Toulouse and Harlequins actually served to forge a feel-good mentality in the Welsh capital for a while.
However, as the season wore on post-quarantine, things stuttered to a disappointing and erratic end. There were impressive victories over Leinster and Glasgow, where the likes of Jarrod Evans and Owen Lane showed enough reasons as to why Wayne Pivac should keep them on his radar, but those little highs were overshadowed by a host of heavy defeats.
The nadir was the 69-21 loss away to Benetton — Cardiff’s heaviest loss in any competition since January 2003. The question remains, is the team which fell to nine defeats in their final 12 matches really representative of this Cardiff side?
It's a crucial one as well. Young has already spoken publicly about how rebuilding the squad will not be possible until 2023 given the players were given an extra year on their contracts due to the pay cuts they took during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, it is evident he would like to shape the squad based on his own vision. The additions of son Thomas, Wales internationals Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau and Tongan lock Lopeti Timani, in particular the latter, are decent bits of business.
One of the accusations laid at Cardiff's door late in the season, and one of the factors which makes them a tricky proposition to predict, was the lack of leadership in the camp and the suggestion that everyone was a little too comfortable. Given the lack of non-Wales qualified players in the squad and the overly Cardiff-centric coaching staff, it is understandable how fans could come to that conclusion.
The above signings could help remedy that, while Timani should fill the long-term gap for a quality and sizable presence in the boiler room. Hopefully that will ensure they remain a little more consistent up front.
If Evans, who perhaps beats defenders with the speed of pass better than any other fly-half, is also given a platform to unleash a backline of young talents like Theo Cabango, then Cardiff could have their moments, particularly if they lean into youth following the Rags' successful season. That might be their best way to get consistency in selection regardless of where internationals are while also combatting the assumption of some people being too comfortable.
One would hope they won't suffer as erratic a season as last time and might even push towards the top half of the table, but the inability to put together a true rebuild suggests they will still be off the play-off pace.
Without tempting fate, surely the Dragons can only improve on last year. Of course, they could manage less than two wins so let's be wary of being categorical that, to quote D:Ream, things can only get better, but surely they won't follow up their worst season ever with an inferior one?
Well, they have made some changes to ensure that isn't the case, both in terms of branding and rugby. Former Scarlets backs coach Dai Flanagan has come in as head coach, however Dean Ryan is still the man calling the shots. How much difference that coaching change makes to the overall dynamic of the Dragons, beyond Flanagan taking over the attack from Gordon Ross, remains to be seen.
But there has also been a hefty recruitment drive. Rob Evans, Rhodri Jones, Bradley Roberts, George Nott, Sean Lonsdale, JJ Hanrahan, Angus O'Brien, Max Clark and Sio Tompkinson have all arrived in Newport. Frankly, not winning more than two games with those additions will not be acceptable.
There is a decent mix of depth across the whole side in those additions, with the signatures of Hanrahan and O'Brien set to take Sam Davies out of the habit of starting every single week, while allowing the talented Will Reed to develop without too much pressure. The former can only be a good thing, with Davies having been asked to go to the well a little too often since arriving in Newport.
As for the other additions, Tompkinson is the one who captures the eye the most. The versatile back has turned out for the Highlanders in Super Rugby and could add some star quality to the backline.
Lonsdale is another intriguing signing, with the Welsh second-row having learnt his trade at Exeter Chiefs. Given how Will Rowlands, another Welsh lock who got his break in England, has kicked on since moving to Rodney Parade, a similar fate for Lonsdale would certainly be welcomed.
Beyond the new signings, consistent performers such as Jack Dixon, Ben Fry, Harri Keddie and Ollie Griffiths will be key, with the latter providing remarkable depth in the back-row alongside Wales internationals Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright and Taine Basham. Ryan seemed a little perturbed at times that the likes of Dixon and Keddie weren't getting more recognition, but they proved to be rare bright spots in a dark season.
Keeping Griffiths fit will be key, with the Dragons immeasurably better when he is around, as will making Rodney Parade a fortress again.
The Dragons haven't won a home game since the Rainbow Cup was a thing, with both their URC victories last year coming on the road. Being tough to beat at home should be a non-negotiable for the Dragons.
With the coaching change and new signings, it's hard not to forecast some sort of improvement. That probably still represents a bottom-half finish, however, but just some signs of progress are certainly needed.
The current Welsh shield holders, there is a lot to like about the Ospreys under Toby Booth.
He has fostered a mentality in the group which clearly goes beyond what happens on the rugby pitch and it seems to be working in Swansea. His experience as a forwards coach means you always feel the Ospreys will do the nuts and bolts relatively well, while there won't be a soft underbelly.
They are, for the most part, relatively solid and boast a pack who can get parity at least in most matches. The likes of Dewi Lake, Morgan Morris and Jac Morgan are all dynamic forwards who bring a lot to the party.
In fact, their whole starting pack, throwing in the likes of Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric, is mightily strong. Of course, how often do they get those players on the park is not as much as many would like, given most are Wales internationals.
There lies perhaps the biggest problem, or opportunity, for the Ospreys this season. Sure, the attack needs work and a replacement for departing attack coach Brock James will likely be announced in the coming weeks.
But, given they finished with three consecutive bonus points at the end of last season, you could argue there are signs it's an issue already on its way to being solved but that is probably a tad premature, given how blunt some of their performances were.
In all honesty, the issues with their attack — and perhaps every other facet which falters at times — is the disparity felt when international stars are around or not. The real acid test this season will be how their non-internationals fare in the times of the season when squad depth is under the microscope.
Getting the attack to function with Gareth Anscombe, George North and Alex Cuthbert in tow isn't too much of a stretch, but the likes of Luke Morgan, Mat Protheroe and Max Nagy will all be crucial to providing some sort of impetus on a weekly basis. The same goes for the pack: if the Ospreys can get a tune out of Sam Moore and provide an environment for the likes of Rhys Henry, Harri Deaves and Rhys Davies to grow, that would go a long way too.
Ultimately, that will be how the Ospreys operate moving forward. Developing within, rather than recruiting heavily. Only fly-half Jack Walsh arrives from Exeter this summer, putting the emphasis on the youngsters already there to step up.
The environment which Booth is developing should certainly help that. Right now, they are best-placed to be the strongest Welsh side next season. Given how they performed against some of the league's top sides last year, getting into the play-offs has to the ambition this time around.
For large parts of last season, it seemed the Scarlets would continue to be the best Welsh side in the URC. They were in pole position heading into the closing stages of the season, only to suffer a bit of a collapse.
The main reason wasn't too hard to identify. While the Scarlets attack proved fairly potent, their defence was embarrassingly porous.
However, to head coach Dwayne Peel's credit, he has sought to immediately remedy that. Former Leinster contact skills coach Hugh Hogan has left his post as defence coach, with Wales' breakdown coach Gareth Williams replacing him.
Hogan's time in Ireland was largely spent working with players on a one-to-one basis, so it's understandable that the task of setting up a defensive system wasn't a match for his skills. Williams, on the other hand, has worked in enough different roles to bring a more rounded skillset to the job.
If Williams can make an impact and fix a few of the holes in the Scarlets defence, then there is every reason to believe the Scarlets can push towards the play-offs. Peel has moved to shift the focus away from Welsh internationals in the squad.
Since their 2017 PRO12 success, built on the work of a large group of uncapped players, the Scarlets' squad has bloated a little to cover the international call-ups which followed. That's not always ideal in terms of working from one week to the next.
However, the likes of Ryan Conbeer, Corey Baldwin, Sam Costelow and Tom Rogers offer Peel the sort of talent to play a fast brand of attacking rugby every week, while the emergence of solid props like Harri O'Connor and Steffan Thomas should help provide the platform. Scrum-half Archie Hughes could soon benefit as Gareth Davies and Kieran Hardy battle it out in the Wales squad.
And, perhaps the Scarlets achieving better than any other Welsh side at the moment can be married with their solid overseas players.
Sam Lousi, Sione Kalamafoni, Tomás Lezana have all impressed, while new signing Vaea Fifita is a former All Black who could be perfect for providing a physical ball-handling forward presence in the wider channels.
Fixing the defence won't come easy, but the Scarlets should be in contention for a play-off spot heading into the latter part of the season, even if getting consistent results could be tricky.