Play-offs add spark to Magners League battle
September 1, 2009
Can Paul O'Connell inspire Munster to back-to-back Magners League titles? © Getty Images
Jerry Collins Jean de Villiers Leigh Halfpenny Gavin Henson Nathan Hines Paul O'Connell Ronan O'Gara Eoin Reddan Jamie Roberts Paul Warwick
With Ireland's Six Nations Grand Slam glory still fresh in the memory and a host of Celtic players still basking in the limelight of the British & Irish Lions, there can be little doubt that rugby in the region is in rude health.
The Magners League is hoping to build on those achievements with a new play-off system set to finally capture the imagination of fans as the cream of Irish, Scottish and Welsh rugby ready themselves for battle.
As admirable as it was to declare the winner to be the team that tops the table in May, the play-off system employed in the Guinness Premiership, Top 14 and Super 14 provided too big a spectacle and pay-day to be ignored any longer.
Last season's champions Munster will fancy their chances should they make the knock-out stages, having consistently excelled in the Heineken Cup in recent years. Fresh from captaining the Lions, Paul O'Connell will hope to add another title to the trophy cabinet before the introduction of two Italian sides, Aironi and Praetorians, brings further challenges in 2010.
Springbok centre Jean de Villiers will bolster their ranks at the end of the Tri-Nations, while the retention of superb fly-half/fullback Paul Warwick may be their best investment as they are set to lose Ronan O'Gara to international commitments for much of the season.
Leinster, fresh from Heineken Cup glory, have lost talismanic flanker Rocky Elsom to the Brumbies but will be confident of their squad's ability to secure a play-off berth. Jonny Sexton, the young fly-half, proved his worth in their Heineken Cup final win over Leicester while scrum-half Eoin Reddan and Scotland and Lions lock Nathan Hines are fine additions to the squad.
Ulster have seen a change of management over the summer, with Brian McLaughlin replacing Matt Williams, and will struggle to impose themselves without inspirational skipper Rory Best who is out for the season with a neck injury. Likewise, Connacht are again staring down the barrel of a last-place finish.
Last season it was the Dragons who competed with Connacht for the last Heineken Cup place and despite adding Wales centre Matthew Watkins and flanker Gavin Thomas to their squad the Newport-based side will likely struggle again this season. Turmoil at the Scarlets also looks set to continue, with further departures this summer, but new signings Sean Lamont and Wales prop Rhys Thomas have the capacity to improve the ailing region's hopes.
The Welsh effort will be spearheaded by Anglo-Welsh Cup champions Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys, who have twice lifted the Magners crown.
The Blues have been active over the summer, bringing in Waratahs utility Sam Norton-Knight to cover the departure of Nick Robinson to Gloucester and former All Black Casey Laulala to replace Robinson's brother Jamie, now at Toulon. Dai Young has also gambled on Wales veterans Dafydd James and Darren Morris, along with experienced Scarlets centre Gavin Thomas.
All eyes at the Blues will be on their Wales contingent following the Lions tour, with prop Gethin Jenkins and openside Martyn Williams out after shoulder surgery. Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Andy Powell will have to back-up their breakout seasons.
Pre-season for the Ospreys has been disrupted by the ongoing saga of Gavin Henson's injury, the Wales centre given indefinite leave by the club. The 'Galacticos' of Welsh rugby, the Ospreys still have great strength in depth and will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
Lee Byrne, Shane Williams, James Hook, Mike Phillips, Tommy Bowe and Alun-Wyn Jones are all back from Lions duty but prop Adam Jones is out for the first half of the season due to his dislocated shoulder. Former Wales and Australia skills coach Scott Johnson has take the reins at the Liberty Stadium, and has All Black flanker Jerry Collins raring to go after a summer switch from Toulon.
Edinburgh were runners-up last season, but go in to the new campaign without the steadying hand of Andy Robinson, who has taken the reins of the Scotland national team.
New head coach Rob Moffatt has inherited a well-drilled side who have proven pedigree at Magners League level and will not want to waste their late momentum from the last campaign.
Glasgow's young side, coached again by Sean Lineen, showed flashes of attacking brilliance last season and will be a dangerous prospect this year. The international community was well-versed in the threat posed by the Evans brothers, Max and Thom, by the end of the Six Nations and the flying duo will be backed up by Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter for this campaign.
Cusiter will work behind an underrated pack, including the excellent John Barclay, who will hope to inspire an outside shot at a play-off place.