Munster’s signing of James Downey last week signalled the beginning of the province’s plans for next season. This is the time of year when professional clubs are planning and finalising their squads for next season, deciding who will be let go and who they will try to bring in. This obviously leads to plenty of rumours about new signings. The Touchline has rounded up some of the more interesting ones….
Tommy Bowe to Munster/Ulster
The big one that most people will have heard is that Tommy Bowe may be returning to Ireland next year. Obviously, each of the four provinces would welcome Bowe with open arms but the depth of competition Leinster already have out wide seems to have ruled them out of the picture. The truth is that Bowe is contracted to the Ospreys until the end of 2013. However, the Welsh regions will operate under new salary restrictions from next season on, and with Tommy Bowe earning 350k a year according to The Sunday Times, they may be convinced to let the Irish wing return home a year early.
If Bowe did make the move back, it seems Munster would be competing with Ulster for his signature. The Monaghan man would definitely be interested in playing for his home province, especially with their exciting backline options of Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Ian Whitten, Jared Payne, Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar and Craig Gilroy. Equally though, the thought of being part of a Munster back division including Conor Murray, Ronan O’Gara, James Downey, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Felix Jones and Doug Howlett would be tempting.
Whatever happens, it would be great to see Bowe playing his club rugby in Ireland again. According to the BBC, Ulster are likely to win the battle for his signature.
Jerome Kaino to Ulster
All Black World Cup winner Kaino is one of the premier back-rowers in world rugby and any move for him would be huge news. The 28-year-old’s contract at the Auckland Blues finished at the end of this calendar year and Kaino has admitted considering a move to foreign shores. Every club in Europe with the necessary finances would compete for the New Zealander’s signature.
The rumour linking Kaino to Ulster clearly has something to do with the fact that current Ulster tighthead John Afoa is Kaino’s close friend. Afoa actually missed one of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games earlier this season when he flew to Samoa to be best man at Kaino’s wedding. Ulster already have plenty of back-row options including Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Willie Faloon. Still, bringing a world-class player like Kaino on board would be a no-brainer. Pedrie Wannenburg’s contract finishes at the end of this season, and with Roger Wilson already on board, it remains to be seen if Ulster can add even more depth to their back-row.
Lifeimi Mafi to Perpignan
The signing of James Downey, and the possibility of Casey Laulala joining too (see below), it would appear that Mafi’s days at Munster are coming to a close. The Tonga-born centre has been a great servant to the province and put in some top-class, dynamic displays. He was undoubtedly at his best when paired in midfield with Rua Tipoki in the 07/08 Heineken Cup-winning season . Since the latter’s exit from Munster though, Mafi has been inconsistent.
The 29-year-old would be well suited to the Top 14. His quick feet and powerful play could be a great success in the more open French league. Perpignan may lose their France international center Maxime Mermoz to one of the bigger clubs this summer, and Mafi would be an ideal replacement.
Dan Parks to Connacht
Cardiff Blues outhalf Parks had a bit of a ‘mare at the weekend as Charlie Hodgson blocked down the Scottish outhalf’s kick to score for England at Murrayfield. Parks is out of contract at the end of this season, and with Newport Gwent Dragons fly-half Jason Tovey set to join the Blues, it appears that Parks will leave the club.
Despite Parks limitations, he is capable of kicking the corners, kicking his goals and occasionally controlling games, at least at club level. The 33-year-old has never relied on physical attributes, so his age is not a huge issue. Connacht have lacked a consistent goal-kicker, as well as an experienced head at outhalf so that’s where the rumours linking Parks to the western province stem from. Any move for Parks would be hugely disappointing for Connacht’s current pivot, Irish man Niall O’Connor.
Rhys Ruddock to Munster
Still just 21, back-row Ruddock feels he is ready to play first-choice provincial rugby. With Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin to compete against, Ruddock doesn’t play every game for Leinster. His recent performance for the Irish Wolfhounds showed just how good Ruddock can be. Ruddock has one cap for Ireland, but with the above four ahead of him in the Leinster pecking order, it will be hard for him to add to that single cap.
Ruddock’s contract runs until the end of this season so a potential move will certainly be in his thoughts. Munster’s back-row options include players who are coming towards the last few seasons of their careers in David Wallace, James Coughlan and Denis Leamy. A move to Munster would make sense for Ruddock’s career, and Joe Schmidt has every reason to be worried about losing one of Leinster’s best prospects. EDIT 10/02/12 – However, the latest line from Munster is that Ruddock has decided to stay with Leinster.
Casey Laulala to Munster
The Cardiff Blues’ centre is out of contract at the end of season, and there has been much talk that Laulala is one of Munster’s primary targets. The ex-All Black would add creativity to the outside centre position for Munster. Any move for Laulala would be disappointing for young Munster backs Danny Barnes, Scott Deasy and Troy Smith as it would likely push them down the pecking order.
Laulala is 29, so he still has plenty of rugby left in him. He would nicely complement James Downey’s more direct style in midfield. Still, would Laulala’s signing really improve Munster that much? The New Zealander has his moments of class but can often let games pass him by. Surely it would benefit Munster more to keep faith with their youngsters and push them into the first team. Apparently Laulala has several offers on the table, including a move to the lucrative Japanese leagues. EDIT – Munster have sealed the signature of Laulala for next season, read more here.
Peter Stringer to Connacht
Stringer’s contract expires this summer, and judging by his loan move to Saracens, it seems that Munster have no need for his services any longer. However, Stringer’s form in England shows that he has plenty of rugby left in the tank. The 34-year-old has admitted that he will probably have to look for a move away from Munster in order to secure regular rugby.
Connacht are one side who could benefit from Stringer’s immense experience. This season, Eric Elwood has rotated between Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donohoe at scrumhalf, with neither player making the position his own. Stringer would have been a valuable addition to the Connacht’s Heineken Cup campaign, and Elwood may look to secure the Cork man for next season.
Brad Thorne to Leinster
With Leo Cullen set for up to 8 weeks on the sidelines after achilles surgery and Steven Sykes having left the province after a disastrous spell, Leinster are short on second-row options right now. As a result, Joe Schmidt has made an approach for World Cup winner Brad Thorne, currently contracted to Japanese side Fukuoka Sanix Blues. Despite turning 37 last week, the abrasive second-row would be a superb signing for Leinster.
Thorne is contracted to Sanix for next season, but the club played their final game of the domestic season last Saturday, winning 37-26 away to the Docomo Red Hurricanes. That meant the club finished 11th in the 14-team league despite Thorne’s best efforts. The point is that the New Zealander is match-fit, and presumably he would be keen on a short-term spell with the Heineken Cup champions. The problem will most likely be his Japanese club, who would almost certainly want him to rest after a World Cup season. Whatever happens, we should have confirmation on this one over the next few days.
What do you make of these rumours? Which of these moves do you think would improve the provinces and the players in question? Would you like to see these transfers actually happen? Comment below with your views. Feel free to add any rumours you may have heard!
Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak, Martin Dobey.