All to play for in season that ends with a big roar

 

TO SAY that the onset of a new rugby season signals the end of summer would indeed be a laugh, besides which the rugby season is now so long it pretty much dips into all four seasons of the year. And this one is no exception.

In theory, World Cups and Lions tours come two years apart but in practice the two events bookend consecutive seasons. So it is that the Rabo Pro12 kicks off the domestic campaign the weekend after next and 45 weeks later Australia host the Lions in the third Test in Sydney.

As ever, one of rugby’s greatest traditional bastions/corporate machine (dilute to taste) will dominate much of the season’s agenda, with the Lions’ committee set to confirm one of the game’s worst kept secrets a fortnight hence, namely that Warren Gatland will be their next head coach.

It’s probably no harm therefore that the lingering after effects of close-season operations allied to the IRFU’s player welfare programme will delay the return of many front-liners for a few weeks yet. No less than any campaign, the 2012-13 season will be all about pacing oneself.

The well-timed interventions of the Heineken Cup will spice up the season at regular intervals, partly to raise the ante prior to November test window or the Six Nations, though in reality it will provide more drama in its own right, while the Rabo Pro12 and the Ulster Bank League will provide much of ‘the meat and two veg’, with the latter entering a brave new dawn encompassing Friday nights under lights. In all there are already 48 Friday night derbies scheduled across all four divisions, with half of them pencilled in for Division 1A.

In truth, the presence of six Munster teams (neatly divided into four from Limerick and two from Cork) along with four from Dublin is far from ideal, not least that it further limits the scope for the provinces (notably Connacht and Ulster) to give players outside their weekend matchday squads some game time.

But it does allow for full, five-game programmes comprised of derbies to be scheduled in entirety on, say, the Friday night before Ireland host South Africa in the Aviva Stadium on November 10th. By then, the over-riding concern will be the impending jostling for positions in the IRB world rankings, which will determine the top four and second tier of four seeds for the World Cup draw at the beginning of December.

With Ireland placed seventh as things stand, just above Argentina in eighth and Scotland in ninth, this will be reminiscent of Declan Kidney and the Irish management’s immediate need to secure a top eight seeding for the World Cup draw in their initial tranche of autumnal matches four years ago.

Adding to the sense of déjà vu is that Kidney and co must again re-energise a squad and a set-up suffering something of a hangover from the 2007 World Cup and the last days of the Eddie O’Sullivan empire. The rather significant difference is that the record 60-0 beating by the All Blacks in June last time out happened under the watch of Kidney and co.

The Springboks will be in end of year tour mode and coming off an expanded Tri Nations, aka The Rugby Championship, but so too, for the first time ever, will be those familiar foes from Argentina. Indeed, come the last weekend of November they will also have played Wales and France on the road.

It will be interesting to see to what extent they will be more battle-hardened or weary. One imagines they’ll have taken a few knocks and that their primary employers in the Top 14 will want them back in their French fold by then too.

From there it will be back into the pivotal December back-to-back pool games in the Heineken Cup, with Leinster and Clermont again going toe to toe, before the Christmas derbies and the decisive final rounds of the pool stages in Europe act as a precursor to the Six Nations. By then it really will all be about the Lions.

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