Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Williams, Ryan Jones, Paul O’Connell, Chris Paterson: What do they all have in common?
1. They are all international rugby players.
2. They all play for Celtic Nations.
3. They all should be on the plane to South Africa for the Lions tour.
4. They all will be aiming to lift the Heineken Cup.
These are all good common traits, but the one that often gets lost in the post is that they all play their club rugby, their bread and butter so to speak, in the Magners League.
The Magners League does suffer slightly from the huge popularity of the Guinness Premiership and will begin the year in its shadow as the competition kicks off on Friday Sept. 5.
A Friday night. And why is that? Largely because of the huge viewing figures that the Guinness Premiership draws in and the hype that surrounds the season curtain raiser at Twickenham.
However, bearing in mind that all Irish, Scottish, and Welsh eyes are going to be on the proceedings that play out on Friday evenings, what does this much overlooked competition have to offer?
Much like the Guinness Premiership, the revolving doors at the clubs throughout the Magners League have seen players change hands in preparation for the new season.
The influx of Southern Hemisphere players such as CJ Van der Linde at reigning champions Leinster, BJ Botha at Ulster, and Kees Meeuws at the Llanelli Scarlets have complemented the continuing development of home-grown Celtic talent.
However, in addition to this influx of foreigners, the Magners League has also drawn its prodigal sons back to their homelands.
These include players such as Chris Paterson, whose versatility proved to be his undoing at Gloucester; Jim Hamilton, who has moved to Edinburgh Gunners from Leicester Tigers in order to boost his Scotland chances; and Ian Humphreys, who moves to his home province of Ulster from Leicester to take up the mantle that his brother David shouldered for many years at Ravenhill.
All eyes this season will be on the resurgent champions Leinster, who begin their defence against a dogged Cardiff at the famous Arms Park. Michael Cheika has bitten the bullet and freed the mercurial Brian O’Driscoll from the strains of captaining Leinster in an attempt to unleash his lethal midfield dynamo—all eyes will be on BOD.
If he recaptures that golden form, then the future looks rosy for Ireland.
Of the other Irish teams, Munster are the team to watch. The reigning Heineken Cup champions have seen limited player movement over the summer, although the key change at Thomond Park has been the departure of Declan Kidney to take over the reigns for the Irish national team.
Munster will be battling it out at the business end of the season, though traditionally they tend to become preoccupied with the closing stages of something called the Heineken Cup…?
Ulster, on the other hand, have had little to worry about in that area since their victory in 1998. The last few years have been hard to take for Ulster fans, as the “fortress Ravenhill” reputation has slipped.
However, with emerging Irish prospects such as Darren Cave and David Pollock stepping up, coupled with already established players such as Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace, the future looks bright for Matt Williams’ side.
The loss of back-row tyros Neil McMillan, Neil Best, and Roger Wilson, coupled with the loss of players like Justin Harrison, David Humphreys, Simon Best, and Kevin Maggs has prompted a lot of recruitment during the summer at Ravenhill. If this new team clicks, Ulster could be the surprise package of the Magners League this season.
The final Irish contingent—Connacht—have long been seen as just the development side of Irish rugby. However, with a number of impressive victories last season, Connacht will be looking to finally hoist themselves off of the foot of the table, and challenge for that elusive third Irish Heineken Cup spot.
The Scottish provinces traditionally seem to suffer from a lack of strength in depth in the Magners League as so many players embark on international duty throughout the season. This situation has not changed.
Edinburgh are going through a revival under Andy Robinson, and it probably has the strongest squad out of the two Scottish provinces.
The bulk of Jim Hamilton will be added to an already impressive pack boasting names such as Ally Hogg and Ross Ford. Edinburgh will be hoping to improve on last season’s league run, targeting an improvement at home in order to boost their chances.
Glasgow, on the other hand, will be looking to maintain the momentum that they gathered last season. Their play is dictated by the form of Dan Parks, but as all Scottish fans know all too well, he can be a touch inconsistent.
Where they do prosper, though, is in the back row where the impressive John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie, and Kelly Brown will be putting in a tireless performance week in and week out.
The Welsh sides offer the best chance of competition to the Irish giants of Leinster and Munster. The Ospreys are the strongest of the provinces. Still, despite a huge investment on players and an all-star cast including Shane Williams, Mike Phillips, Marty Holah, Ryan Jones, and Gavin Henson, the Ospreys have failed to make an impact on the Magners League—suffering terribly from international call-ups.
If they can solve the call-up blues, there is every chance that the Ospreys will be able to repeat their EDF Energy Cup winning form in the league.
Cardiff, on the other hand, have continued with their ongoing process of putting the onus on developing young players, and supplementing that with established Welsh players.
Dai Young’s policy of having two world class players in each position has led to the acquisition of Ceri Sweeney to compete with Nicky Robinson for the fly-half berth. This season the Blues will be pushing even harder at the end of the season for that elusive silverware.
Llanelli Scarlets have a good mid-table record in the Magners League. Their task this year will be to try to upset the more established upper echelons of the league. This task has just been made harder by the sidelining of their best player Regan King through injury.
However, you can’t knock their intent. Close season signings including Kees Meeuws and Wallaby David Lyons show an attempt to beef up a pack that typically struggles to dominate games, and the beginning of the construction of the new Parc y Scarlets shows that they are at least heading in the right direction. They may just raise some eyebrows this year.
One team that will also be pushing to improve on last season’s performances are the Newport-Gwent Dragons. Perhaps the weakest of the Welsh regions, the Dragons have to up their game or risk competing in the dogfight at the bottom of the league yet again.
The Magners League may not have the glitz and the glamour that the Guinness Premiership has, but with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh pride on the line and Celtic bragging rights up for grabs, you know that the season is going to be a good one.
And my prediction for the title? Depending on what’s happening in the Heineken Cup…Muster.