Munster were last crowned PRO12 champions in 2011 and since then have seen their fierce rivals Leinster leading the way as far as the Irish teams are concerned.
Leinster will be looking for their third title in a row when the season kicks off on September 5 but Stuart Barnes believes Munster are heading back to their glory days.
“You have to look at Munster,” said Barnes, when asked for his favourites for the crown on Sky Sports News.
“Go back to last year where Munster were very disappointed to miss out in the semi-final but the way they took Toulon to the wire in a Heineken Cup semi-final tells you of their strength in depth.
“People for years have been saying that Munster are in the process of rebuilding, however their rebuilding situation does not look bad at the moment and I expect them to be very close.”
As far as a dark horse goes, Barnes thinks Cardiff Blues are looking very solid in pre-season.
“If I was looking for an outside bet then I might go for Cardiff Blues. I think their youngsters played some nice rugby last year and they have made some good signings. I think the principality's main city will put up a pretty good challenge."
Scott Quinnell agrees: “I think when you look at Cardiff Blues they now have the British and Irish Lions whole front row with Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones. They have exciting players like Gareth Anscombe coming in from New Zealand and young players like Rhys Patchell coming in as well so it is going to be an exciting time for the Blues.”
The change in the qualification for Europe’s elite club competition means that every game in the Guinness PRO12 will be highly competitive; something that Barnes believes has raised the stakes even higher.
“It is a great moment for the Guinness PRO12 league for the simple reason that for six years the top end of this league has probably been of a higher quality than the Premiership. But when you get to the bottom end, there is no relegation and without a club-based system there is nothing you can do about that.
“Without having to qualify for Europe it tended to fall away so you had a lot of games that were dead. Now every time Treviso plays, they are thinking where are we in the battle with Zebre for the one Italian spot?
“I remember a game last year where the Scarlets were playing Edinburgh two games from the end of the season – they were seventh and eighth respectively and throughout the history of this competition no one other than Scarlets and Edinburgh fans would have given a damn about it. Suddenly there is a European place at stake and it has galvanized and changed the tournament.”
Sky Sports will show 30 live matches from the Guinness PRO12, plus the semi-finals and final from the tournament, click here for our live games.