Magners League 2009-10
Skysports.com looks ahead to the kick-off of the new Magners League season.
By Tony Curtis
Last Updated: 02/09/09 12:58pm
While the Guinness Premiership has found itself facing all sorts of questions about integrity following the turmoil at Bath and the Bloodgate scandal, the Magners League has quietly gone about its business in the summer.
That has not stopped the clubs luring across some of the game's leading players - with Jean de Villiers, Casey Laulala, Jerry Collins and Sam Norton-Knight among those world-class stars set to appear in this season's competition.
And this year's Magners League will boast 37 players who have represented the British and Irish Lions, with the returns of Chris Cusiter, Nathan Hines and Gareth Cooper.
For the first time, the Magners League will operate a play-off system - with the top-four sides set to battle it out for the title.
Defending champions Munster and Heineken Cup winners Leinster will be among the favourites again, while Edinburgh will be pushing to build on their second-placed finish last year.
Ospreys have a wealth of talent at their disposal, while Cardiff proved in the Heineken Cup that they are a match for the best in Europe.
And skysports.com gives a rundown of each of the club's chances of success in 2009-10.
Dai Young will look back on last season wondering what could have been. Having conquered all before them in Europe, the Blues were eventually knocked out in a penalty shoot-out against Leicester.
And despite recording famous wins away at Biarritz and Gloucester - and winning the EDF Energy Cup - Cardiff's form in the league was too erratic.
They managed just three wins away from home, while defeats in their final two games cost them a place in the top-five.
And Young will have to work on his side's consistency if they are to challenge for the play-offs this time around.
He has recruited well with Gareth Cooper, Dafydd James, Gavin Evans and Darren Morris set to add some much needed experience, while Australia fly-half Sam Norton-Knight and All Black Casey Lualala could be the deals of the summer.
Cardiff have lost Jamie Robinson (Toulon) and Nicky Robinson (Gloucester), but with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Tom Shanklin and Leigh Halfpenny they have one of the best backlines in the league.
It is five seasons since Connacht last finished outside the bottom two of the table - and it is difficult to see them breaking that run this season.
Coach Michael Bradley has had to trim back his squad and although he has brought in eight new players, the squad lacks the quality to compete.
Former New Zealand Under-21 fly-half Miah Nikora heads out the new arrivals, with wingers Thomas Timani and Tiernan O'Halloran, centres Brian Touhy and Eoin Griffin, prop Jamie Hagan, No.8 Mike McComish and second row Bernie Upton also arriving at the club.
Centre Keith Matthews and hooker Sean Cronin are quality operators, while Gavin Duffy, captain John Muldoon and Ian Keatley also earned international calls in the summer.
However when some of their rivals can name full starting XVs made up of internationals, Connacht are always going to be up against it.
Ultimately Bradley will be looking for his squad to develop and improve on their record of just four wins from 18 league games.
The pressure will be on new coach Rob Moffat to repeat the exploits of former boss Andy Robinson.
Having taken over in 2007, Robinson helped guide Edinburgh to joint-third in the table before taking them to a record second-placed finish last season.
That led to Robinson being snapped up to become Scotland's head coach, leaving Moffat to take over the reins.
Moffat has added Lions legend Tom Smith and former Australia A coach Nick Scrivener to his backroom staff to assist him, while he has only made minor tweaks to his playing squad.
Steve Jones and Dutchman Tim Visser have joined from Newcastle, while David Young has arrived from Gloucester.
Hugo Southwell has left to join Stade Francais, however the core of the Edinburgh squad remains the same - with the likes of Mike Blair, Ben Cairns, Chris Paterson, Jim Hamilton, Ross Ford and Ally Hogg providing the spine of the side.
While Edinburgh have gained the tag as Scotland's premier club, Glasgow have spent the past two years living in the shadows.
However, coach Sean Lineen has brought in three players who could well prove the difference.
Chris Cusiter has returned to Scotland from his spell in France with Perpignan, former Edinburgh centre Rob Dewey has joined from Ulster and Canadian World Cup star DTH van der Merwe has arrived on a two-year deal.
Andrew Henderson has departed to Montauban - although he has been stuck in limbo as his playing licence has been suspended due to worries over the club's finances - but the highly-rated Max and Thom Evans have committed their futures to the Warriors.
Last season, Glasgow struggled for consistency - with a defeat at home to the Dragons in the league followed by a 33-26 win in Toulouse.
Lineen, though, has worked on the defence - and will be hoping that helps to solve that problem.
The blow at losing their Magners League title last season to Munster will have softened somewhat by being crowned kings of Europe.
However the star-studded side will be determined to win back their domestic crown.
Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker and Rocky Elsom all bowed out on a winning note - so coach Michael Cheika has had to wheel and deal to fill the voids.
Shaun Berne, Eoin Reddan and Nathan Hines have as like-for-like replacements, while Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss will bolster the front row.
Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney will provide the flair in the backline, while in the pack Chieka can call on the likes of CJ van der Linde, Stan Wright, Malcolm O'Kelly and Jamie Heaslip.
Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien will be looking to build on their encouraging 2008-9 campaigns.
Munster may have celebrated winning the league title, but they will have still had envious eyes as Leinster, their conquerors in the last four, went on to scoop the Heineken Cup.
Munster have responded by bolstering their backline with the marquee signing of South Africa centre Jean de Villiers - with the powerhouse centre set to arrive after the end of the Tri-Nations.
De Villiers is seen as the perfect replacement for Rua Tipoki, who has returned to New Zealand.
Former Highlanders and Chiefs scrum-half Toby Morland will provide competition to Peter Stringer for the No.9 jersey, while history has been made with the signing of France international Julien Brugnaut.
Prop Brugnaut will become the first French player to represent Munster.
The club will also look to call upon Keith Earls, Paul O'Connell, John Hayes and Doug Howlett to help them push for the double.
Newport Gwent Dragons
It is only five season ago that the Dragons were the leading club in Wales in the Magners League.
However, for the past few seasons they have been battling to avoid bottom spot and, like Irish strugglers Connacht, the 2009-10 season is unlikely to be any different.
Colin Charvis has been drafted in to shore up the second-worst defence in the league last season.
A lack of tries will also be a worry for the Dragons, with them crossing just 27 times.
The Dragons have added some experience with the signings of Robert Sidoli and Matthew J Watkins, while the club do have some talented individuals.
There is some hope for the future, with Jason Tovey and Aaron Coundley looking to be real prospects, while Luke Charteris is pushing to be a regular for the national side.
A fourth-placed finish was ultimately a poor return for the Ospreys last season.
They may have claimed bragging rights over their fellow Welsh regions, but with a side oozing international class, success is a must.
The club have added to their array of stars with the additions of former All Black Jerry Collins and Barry Davies - with the duo bucking the trend and leaving France.
Former Wales coach Scott Johnson takes over the reins as director of rugby after a stint with the USA Eagles.
And he will look to turn the individual class at the Liberty Stadium in to an all-conquering outfit.With Shane Williams, Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips, Tommy Bowe and Ryan Jones there is quality across the pitch, although the loss of Adam Jones through injury will be a blow.
A mid-table finish last season was a fair reward for the Scarlets, although they could have been a lot better.
A run of four back-to-back to losses at the end of the season proved costly to their hopes of challenging for the title.
Coach Nigel Davies has pulled together a strong-looking outfit, with Sean Lamont and Rhys M Thomas joining in the summer.
With Stephen Jones they have one of the game's leading No.10s, while Mark Jones, David Lyons and Simon Easterby are battled-hardened campaigners.
The Scarlets also have some of the best young players in Wales, with Daniel Evans, Rhys Priestland and Josh Turnbull bidding to become first team regulars.
Question marks remain over the Scarlets defence, though, after they conceded 46 tries last season - with only Connacht leaking more.
The season has not even kicked off and Ulster have already suffered a critical blow to their aspirations.
With skipper Rory Best facing at least nine months out, Ulster will be without their talisman for the entire campaign.
Ulster do have the likes of Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Simon Danielli to call upon, however their squad does lack strength-in-depth.
Former Brumbies and Western Force flanker Tamaiti Horua has agreed a two-year deal, while Andy Kyriacou will be handed the task of replacing Best after joining from Saracens.
Rob Dewey, though, has opted to return to Scotland, while Italian lock Carlo del Fava has signed for Viadana.
The club actually had one of the better defences in the league, conceding 33 tries, however they also had one of the worst attacks.
And that lack of tries is likely to hamper them again with pressure on Isaac Boss and Wallace to get the backs firing.