Following the first round of the Magners League at the weekend, it gives me great pleasure to welcome back our Magners League reporter, all the way from Wales, Denis Brennan.
Welcome back to the new season and let’s hope (well at least I hope, I can’t speak for the readers) that I can keep up the pace in 2009-10. After all the drama, nail-biting, highs and lows of the Lions’ tour the new season kicked off with Rugby perhaps under a cloud and expecting some extra scrutiny.
My personal view on Bloodgate and associated “scandals” is that the media have over-hyped things, as usual. The performance of Harlequins (and I stress the name of the club) in that infamous Heineken Cup game was, of course, disgraceful and I don’t have a very high opinion of the ERC panel or panels that have judged and pronounced sentence over the incident. Rather like a blood-capsule must do, it leaves a nasty taste – but no-one was maimed or even injured, it’s not the end of the world as we know it, so let’s move on. I was rather more vexed by the mixed messages coming from various sentences over eye-gouging and similar potentially career-threatening illegal on-the-field behaviour over the summer.
Anyhow, let’s move on to the Magners League and the last season before the Italians arrive. Most teams rested their Lions, the sole exceptions (I think) being Mike Phillips and James Hook who played in Connacht for the Ospreys and Leigh Halfpenny who turned out for Cardiff Blues at home to Edinburgh. The results, wins for the Scarlets, Glasgow, Edinburgh the Ospreys and the Dragons were not what most would have predicted.
The biggest surprise was probably Cardiff Blues going down at home to Edinburgh and looking somewhat lost for most of the game, not least due to the lack of direction at 10 where the ex-Waratah (actually mostly a full back), Sam Norton-Knight had a “Knightmare”! This performance was thrown into even sharper relief by his predecessor Nicky Robinson’s man-of-the-match performance for his new club Gloucester just over the Severn. Is it too early to say that the Blues may be regretting that bit of business?
The Scarlets’ win against European champions, Leinster brought much needed relief and encouragement to Parc y Scarlets. The Irish province without their Lions stars still fielded a strong XV and dominated the game for long periods as the Scarlets own ten persisted in kicking away possession, returning it to the dangerous Leinster backline. There was a definite lack of direction about the Scarlets midfield and they owe their win to a very impressive defensive performance and an all-round top-class display from new recruit Sean Lamont together with another stormer from Aussie David Lyons.
The heavy defeat of defending champions Munster at Glasgow reinforced the feeling that the Scottish clubs are growing in strength year by year and may also reflect the relative lack of depth of the Munster squad shorn of their Lions. We shall see – I expect them to bounce back. This was probably the second major surprise of the round.
The Ospreys, against the backdrop of another Gavin Henson story (he’s now on indeterminate leave from the region) were not over-impressive out in the west of Ireland where they overcame a dogged Connacht perfomance. Much is expected of the Ospreys this season, yet again, and particularly with the arrival of the charismatic Scott Johnson as coach. Watch this space.
Finally, the Dragons beat Ulster convincingly and you may feel already that these two may prop up the table.
This season also sees the introduction of play-offs, so every win is precious to maintain position in the table. Barring injuries, I would already guess at Munster and Leinster being in the play-offs but it’s difficult to decide who will accompany them. It should be the Ospreys and the Blues, based upon their “star” count and the money they have spent but I think Edinburgh will be there or thereabouts and, just possibly, the Scarlets who appear to be destined to play rugby like Ossie Ardiles’ famous Tottenham football philosophy – backing themselves to out-attack the opposition – but can they win ball to set up the platform? Early days for an end-of-season prediction but maybe it will get you all to contribute your views!