Charity Begins at Home

The most glamorous, long-awaited and exciting rugby tournament in the world is just eight days away.  For the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, David Strettle and Tomas Domingo, however, the next two months will be spent playing in their domestic leagues.  Yes, the Magners League Rabodirect Pro12 kicks off this weekend.  The Premiership also gets up and running, and the gruelling Top 14 has already started.  Here’s a quick preview of what we can expect over the domestic season, and in particular the first few weeks when the big boys are away.
Top 14
The Top 14 is generally best watched at the beginning of the season, when the tracks are relatively firm, and the end, when the high-profile and passionate finale is unmatched by any other club tournament – witness last year’s semi-finals in Marseille.  In the winter months it tends to turn into something of a drop goal competition, as packs are content to scrummmage for 80 minutes, and the likes of Wilkinson, Winiewski and Skrela sit dee in the pocket…

Possible winners: Toulouse and Clermont will always be in or around the playoff spots, and Perpignan and Biarritz will be looking for an improvement on last year’s mediocrity.  But this will surely be the year Toulon‘s riches finally tell.  They were pretty dire to watch last term, but a new coach (still unknown) will arrive to allow Phillips Saint-Andre to take the reins of the national team.  They’ve recruited exceptionally and have no Heineken Cup to distract them.  Already up and running, they beat Biarritz 20-5 in their first game.  Pilous, pilous!

Player to watch: Matthieu Basteraud finds himself at – where else? – Toulon in a bid to reignite his international career.  If he stays fit and focused there should be no stopping him.

Premiership

Ooooooooooooooooohhh!  You can almost hear Barnesy warming up his larynx for the shuddering hits and slow-paced slugfest that is the Premirship.  With the Sky-hype behind it, even the most mundane 6-3 win for Exeter over Sale is a classic.  Ok, so the Premiership isn’t really that awful – surely watching the Dragons v Connacht on a wet Friday night isn’t any better? – and we can’t help but love Barnesy and his customary roar as Oooooooooohhh! Jordan Turner-Hall! puts in yet another collosal hit on Jeremy Staunton.

Possible winners: It’s hard to see beyond Leicester, Northampton and Saracens.  Leicester look in the best nick – with Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi they have a genuinely exciting midfield.  They should be hungry after losing their title last year, and will be out for vengeance.

Player to watch: Matthew Tait is still only 25, but feels like he’s been around forever.  Finally, he has arrived at a club where he can fulfil his potential.  Possessed of a natural talent that few English rugby players can match, we would dearly love to see him deliver.

Rabodirect Pro12

Now rebranded, and hopefully, delivering more of a shake-up than last year, when the teams appeared to file into an Irish-Welsh-Scottish-Italian order.   The best hope of upsetting the order look to be the Scarlets, who have spent two years developing a talented and exciting team, which now looks primed to challenge for silverware.  Treviso will be looking to build on last season’s strong home form, and Aironi will be hugely improved.  But whither Scotland?  With Max Evans headed for Castres, Glasgow could be weaker again this year.

Possible winners: Munster have shed much of their deadwood, but could be set for a transitional season, blooding several young players.  It’s hard to see them being as consistent as last year.  Leinster are the most affected by World Cup call-ups, but if they can avoid last year’s terrible start they will be in the shake-up.  Ulster‘s upsurge will continue – their outstanding young backs will be a year older, and Mueller and Pienaar will be around to guide them post-world cup.  Afoa and Jared Payne are outstanding recruits, and if Ferris can stay fit, they could go one or two steps better than last year.

Player to watch:  Rhys Ruddock will captain Leinster in the first few weeks, a massive endorsement of his talent.  A naturally built specimen, he will be expected to provide the ball-carries for Leinster while Sean and Jamie make hay down under.  Both he and Dom Ryan should be challenging for starting shirts for the big games, and even Ireland, this year.

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