Ten days prior to the start of the 10th season of Magners League action the veil has been lifted on the new-look 2009-10 competition.
TOP MEN: At yesterday’s Magners League lunch were Mark James (llanelli Scarlets), Rory Best (Ulster), Paul Tito (Cardiff Blues), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Paul O'Connell (Munster), Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Girvan Dempsey (Leinster,) Tom Willis (Newport Dragons), Max Evans (Glasgow) and John Muldoon (Connacht)
Fittingly, Thomond Park, the magnificently refurbished Limerick home of the holders, Munster, was the setting for the launch of the forthcoming campaign and the air of expectancy which surrounded it was palpable.
Small wonder, with the cream of Irish, Welsh and Scottish clubs once again under starter's orders.
David Jordan, Director of Celtic Rugby, put things in perspective by saying: “When you look through the Magners League shop window you will see some of the game's greatest assets.”
One did not have to look too far to spot them, for the players in attendance included a liberal sprinkling of Lions who toured South Africa during the summer, their presence underlining the status and significance the Magners League now has on the world stage.
Remarkably, 27 of the original 37-man party of British and Irish Lions on that tour ply their trade in the Magners League. That's pedigree.
The Director of Celtic Rugby continued: “Rugby in the Celtic nations has never been on such a high nor enjoyed such success.
“What makes the 2009-10 season all the more appealing is that we will be ending it on an even bigger high by introducing a play-off system to find our champions.”
Under that new format the clubs finishing first and second in the 18-match league will, in the semi-finals, be at home to those to have finished third and fourth respectively. That means those finishing fourth in the league series still could end up as overall tournament winners, thereby keeping the pot bubbling a little longer.
Highlighting the phenomenal success of the Magners League, Celtic Rugby Chairman, John Hussey, said: “Our competition is now the playground of the stars of the game in the northern hemisphere and some of the biggest names in the rugby-playing world.
“The Unions have worked hard on developing the tournament, the clubs have spent millions on nurturing new talent and building better facilities and the proposition that now is offered by the Magners League is light years away from where we were when we all started in 2001.
“Crowds are growing, our TV platform is building and interest ion our product is racing ahead.”
Ulster Rugby's representatives at yesterday afternoon's launch were Chief Executive Michael Reid, assistant coach Jeremy Davidson and injured captain Rory Best, who revealed that he will undergo surgery to his injured neck tomorrow in the Ulster Independent Clinic at the hands of Brian Eames.
The Irish hooker explained that it will be three months before the bone has healed “and somewhere between three and six more to get me back — and that's if everything goes to plan.”
Although he will not be involved in this season's Magners League he will have a role to play, his importance to the Ulster cause reflected in the fact that he has been retained as club captain nevertheless at the insistence of head coach Brian McLaughlin.
“Brian and Jeremy have told me it's important that I'm around; I'm not quite sure what my role is to be, but once the bone has healed I will be back in the gym among the boys again,” said Best.
Ulster begin their 2009-10 Magners League campaign with a trip to Wales to face Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade on Sunday, September 5.