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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Swansea back on title trail
It's an exciting time for domestic rugby in Wales, with the new Celtic League being launched and BBC Wales, in partnership with S4C, winning back the broadcast rights for the Welsh-Scottish League.
To celebrate the new season we have two copies of the Buy As You View Rugby Annual for Wales to give away, containing all last year's highlights - including the Lions tour - plus previews for the coming season.
Wales and Lions half-back pair Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley have joined up to help launch the new edition, and will be attending signing sessions at the Millennium Stadium on Thursday 16 August, and at Tesco in Swansea on Friday 24 August.
To win one of the new annuals just answer the following question: How many Lions Test caps has the Quinnell family won?
Email your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 24 August.
Bridgend (last season 5th):
Coach Dennis John led Bridgend to the final Heineken Cup qualifying spot on offer in the Welsh-Scottish League last year, fifth place.
This success helped persuade managing director Leighton Samuel to brandish his cheque book in the off-season.
The two most high profile signings were Wales centres/wings Dafydd James and Gareth Thomas from Llanelli and Cardiff respectively.
While these two will undoubtably add an extra cutting edge to an already potent Brewery Field backline, it is in the forwards that the canniest recruiting has taken place.
John has also added depth to the front row with the addition of former Wales prop Christian Loader from Pontypridd, plus Canada prop John Thiel and hooker Joe Clarke, who has become a permanent fixture after playing last season on permit.
There is also cover for fly-half Craig Warlow, with Cerith Rees signing up at the Brewery Field and he will be needed early on as Warlow recovers from shoulder surgery.
Bridgend will do exceptionally well to advance from a Heineken Cup pool that includes Munster, Castres and Harlequins, but should be challenging in the Celtic and Welsh-Scottish Leagues.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 4th.
Caerphilly (last season 10th):
Caerphilly avoided relegation from the Welsh-Scottish League comfortably last season in 10th place, as Cross Keys plummeted back to Division One.
But with no club being promoted to the top flight to replace Keys, Caerphilly are right back in the firing line as whipping-boys elect.
However, while there have been no big-name arrivals at Virginia Park over the summer, coach Gareth Nicholas has largely managed to keep his squad together, although No 8 Alfie Mocelutu has joined Neath.
Caerphilly proved themselves to be at least competitive last season and the addition of two Fijians should help them remain that way.
Well-traveled lock/backrow Emori Katalau, recruited from Llanelli after a previous spell with Dunvant, will add experience and power to the Caerphilly scrum.
But it is the other recruit, Seremaia Bai, who could prove to be a game-breaker. Bai joined Cross Keys towards the end of last season and made an immediate impact at both fly-half and centre.
The 22-year-old shows a good tactical awareness with his kicking for a young player and could provide the extra spark Caerphilly require to break well-organised defences.
Caerphilly should enjoy themselves in the European Shield, with Italians Overmach-Parma and French side Stade Rochelais beatable, while Gloucester will provide two welcome cross-border 'derbies'.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 11th.
Cardiff (last season 2nd):
New Cardiff coach Rudy Joubert has heaped pressure on himself by announcing that his aim is to win the Heineken Cup.
But last season they missed out on domestic silverware as well, although they were runners-up in the Welsh-Scottish League.
Even with the loss of Gareth Thomas to Bridgend, Cardiff still have a talented backline and the addition of England A centre Matt Allen will fill the gap left by the departed Wales centre/wing.
Allen's midfield partnership with youngster Jamie Robinson is an exciting prospect and could shape Cardiff's whole season.
However, wing Craig Morgan, their leading try-scorer last season, broke his ankle at the pre-season training camp in France, while another of the club's international wings, Nick Walne, needs knee surgery and could be out for six months.
Joubert has moved swiftly to plug the holes and has recruited giant Kiwi wing Craig Hudson, 23, from French side La Rochelle. Hudson stands 6ft 6in and weighs in at 16st 9lb.
But the emergence of a crop of youngsters, including rising backrow Robin Sowden-Taylor, bodes well.
However, Cardiff's four Lions tourists - Rob Howley, Neil Jenkins, Martyn Williams and Dai Young - may all miss the start of the season as they recover from a punishing schedule.
Their absence may leave Cardiff with too much ground to gain on their rivals in the Welsh-Scottish League but the Blue and Blacks should be at full strength for the Heineken Cup.
Former winners Northampton - Allen's previous club - will prove tough but Joubert should expect his side to qualify from a pool also containing Glasgow and Montferrand.
But South African Joubert could well have an ace up his sleeve in the form of rugby league star Iestyn Harris.
Harris officially became a Cardiff player at the beginning of August and will prove a formidable addition once he becomes more familiar with the 15-man game.
Expect the former Great Britain rugby league star to start making his presence felt in the new year.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 3rd.
Ebbw Vale (last season 11th):
Ebbw Vale surprised many by their fall from grace last season but the signs are that Mike Ruddock's side will struggle again.
Some asset-stripping by Bridgend has seen backrow Nathan Budgett and lock Deiniol Jones leave for the Brewery Field, although the Steelmen have managed to recruit exciting backrow talents Will Thomas and Rhys Williams from Cross Keys.
Tongan backrow Katilimoni Tuipolotu has joined from Neath but he will do well to plug the hole left by Budgett's loss, but at least Vale still have a formidable front row and have added prop Martin Jones from Llanelli.
Vale have also signed another Wales Under-21 cap, with lock Peter Sidoli joining from Merthyr.
Ruddock will also be without last season's half-back pairing, with fly-half Jason Strange moving to Newport via Pontypool, and scrum-half Richard Smith being snapped up by ambitious English First Division side Worcester.
Scott Mitchell has moved the other way from Rodney Parade and should start at fly-half for Vale, while the No 9 shirt will be contested by Kevin Ellis and Gareth Betts.
Meanwhile, veteran captain and No 8 Mark Jones has left to take up the coaching reins at Pontypool.
Nevertheless, with the likes of wing/centre Rhys Shorney still on the books at Eugene Cross Park, the Steelmen will have a fighting chance.
Young wing Neil McKim, denied an opportunity to impress at Newport, will add some genuine pace to the backline, while fly-half Scott Mitchell also joins from Rodney Parade.
In the European Shield, Ebbw Vale should have little difficulty in overcoming the Italians of Rovigo, but could struggle against French duo Agen and Montauban.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 10th.
Edinburgh Rugby (last season 8th):
The marketing men have decided to drop the monikers 'Reivers' and 'Caledonians' in favour of a simple 'Rugby' for the two Scottish super-districts.
But it is on the field that the two teams need a change, finding it difficult to conjure an away win in the Welsh-Scottish League last season although proving difficult to beat at home.
Edinburgh have lost the services of prop Barry Stewart, who has retired from the game with a neck injury, but have moved to replace him with former Natal Sharks prop Gavin Whittingham.
The other additions to the squad all share the common theme of youth and potential.
Boroughmuir fly-half Calvin Howarth, 24, Melrose centre Alistair Dickson, 23, Heriot's FP backrow Andrew Dall, 23, and Boroughmuir lock Alastair Davidson, 20, have all signed professional forms.
Lions tourist Simon Taylor has recovered from the knee ligament damage he sustained in Australia and the No 8 will play a crucial role in the club's fortunes.
Edinburgh will need all hands to the pumps if they are not to get swamped in the Heineken Cup, having been drawn in the same pool as Bath, Swansea and Biarritz.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 9th.
Glasgow Rugby (last season 7th):
Although appearing weaker on paper than Edinburgh last season, Glasgow pipped their compatriots by one place in the Welsh-Scottish League.
Glasgow will feel the loss of veteran fly-half Craig Chalmers, who has moved to Worcester, but should benefit from Tommy Hayes' growing confidence at No 10.
The side will also benefit from the introduction of 23-year-old fullback Graeme Kiddie, who joined Glasgow last season but never made it onto the field because of injury.
Coach Richie Dixon has moved to strengthen his pack with the addition of Wallaby prop Cameron Blades from the New South Wales Waratahs.
Scottish qualified second row Nathan Ross has also been recruited from Australia.
The pair will join a committed pack that should be competitive, and has at openside flanker one of the rising stars of the Scottish game in the all-action Donald McFadyn.
Wing Shaun Longstaff has been released to join French side Castres, where he joins fellow Scot Gregor Townsend.
Like Edinburgh, Glasgow will have to play out of their skins if they are to escape the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, as Cardiff, Northampton and Monferrand stand in their way.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 7th.
Llanelli (last season 3rd):
The Scarlets did well to bounce back from a lacklustre start to last season to finish third in the Welsh-Scottish League.
However, coach Gareth Jenkins will be fortunate to repeat that performance this time around having lost the cutting edge of Lions wing Dafydd James to Bridgend.
The capture of wing Delme Williams from Neath is welcome but Llanelli look undermanned in midfield despite the presence of Leigh Davies and Salesi Finau.
However, the Scarlets can still muster the likes of the lightning quick Mark Jones on the wing.
Like Cardiff, the Scarlets could suffer a Lions hangover at the start of the season, with Scott Quinnell recovering from a shoulder operation and Robin McBryde looking jaded.
But the return to full fitness of Ireland backrow Simon Easterby, who missed most of last season through injury, will offset the early absence of Quinnell.
There will be greater competition for places at lock as well, with US Eagle Luke Gross and Bristol's Scott Morgan joining, while fly-half Gareth Bowen has also signed from Bristol.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 5th.
Neath (last season 6th):
Neath just missed out on a Heineken Cup place last season as Bridgend pipped them to the last spot on offer by finishing fifth in the Welsh-Scottish League.
But the Welsh All Blacks have made some canny signings over the summer and will want to build on late season form that saw them knock out favourites Swansea on the way to the Principality Cup final.
Despite playing the better rugby at the Millennium Stadium final, Neath were denied by Newport thanks to the kicking of No 10 Shane Howarth.
With the signing of fly-half Lee Jarvis from Pontypridd, Neath now have the top-quality tactician and frontline kicker at half-back they have been lacking at the Gnoll.
The return of former Lions and Wales centre Allan Bateman will add an extra dimension behind the scrum, while another former Lions and Wales cap, hooker Barry Williams, has joined from Bristol.
The Welsh All Blacks have also recruited South African lock John Slade, No 8 Alfie Mocelutu from Caerphilly, fly-half Shaun Connor from Ebbw Vale and scrum-half Andy Moore from Treviso
Centre Tristan Davies has accepted an offer to join newly-promoted Zurich Premiership side Leeds, while scrum-half Mark Davies has also decided to leave the Gnoll.
Like Caerphilly, Neath have an enticing European Shield season ahead of them with Bristol, French side Bourgoin and Arix Viadana of Italy in their pool.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 6th.
Newport (last season 4th):
Newport had their most productive season in recent times last term, winning the Principality Cup and finishing fourth in the Welsh-Scottish League and qualifying for the Heineken Cup once more.
New coach Ian McIntosh is one of the best in the business, having enjoyed success with Natal and the Springboks, and is a significant capture for owner Tony Brown.
The Zimbabwean's arrival should help to alleviate the loss of Gary Teichmann from the playing staff, after the former Springbok skipper opted to return to Natal.
But as one South African departs, another will arrive in the shape of current Springbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen.
Newport are also intent on keeping what they already have, with Emyr Lewis, Gareth Taylor, Alix Popham, Joe Powell, Matthew Watkins and club captain Simon Raiwalui all signing new contracts.
If there is any question marks over Newport's chances it is at lock, where there is scant cover for skipper Simon Raiwalui and Wales' Ian Gough.
In the past McIntosh has prefered towering second rows who secure plenty of line-out ball and it would be no surprise if the coach strengthens this area soon.
Newport failed to advance from the pool stages of the Heineken Cup last season after being drawn with Bath, Munster and Castres.
The draw this time is slightly more favourable but Newcastle, Leinster and former winners Toulouse will be no pushovers.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 2nd.
Pontypridd (last season 9th):
Lacking a wealthy backer, unlike many of their Welsh-Scottish League rivals, Pontypridd felt the strain last season as injuries exposed the lack of depth in the squad and they finished ninth.
However, their excellent youth development scheme promises to keep Pontypridd in talented raw material and players such as Michael Owen and Robert Sidoli will ensure the club remains up with the pace.
Coach Richie Collins couldn't prevent Neath enticing fly-half Lee Jarvis away from Sardis Road, but his replacement, Ceri Sweeney, seized his chance with gusto at the end of last season.
The capture of Alex Lawson from Llanelli provides options at No 10 and experience. Australian-born Lawson has also seen service with Newport and Swansea, while he spent a short time last season with English club Harlequins.
Pontypridd have beefed up their squad with the capture of prop Duncan Bell from Sale, lock Nick Kelly from Cross Keys, scrum-half Gareth Baber from Bristol and centre Sean James from Carmarthen Quins.
Another front-row addition is the experienced Mefin Davies from Neath, who will compete for the No 2 shirt with Tongan international Feao Vunipola and youngster Matthew Rees.
Pontypridd must face Bexiers, Overmach Parma and Leeds Tykes in the European Shield.
The draw brings Collins into confrontation with his old Wales backrow pal Phil Davies, who coached Leeds to Zurich Premiership promotion last season.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 8th.
Swansea (last season 1st):
Swansea begin the new season as defending Welsh-Scottish League champions and it is difficult to see anyone taking that trophy away from St Helens.
The All Whites will also be one of the favourites for the Celtic League title, although they must first qualify from the harder of the two pools.
With the failed attempt to bring rugby league star Keiron Cunningham to Swansea, there have been no big signings to bolster John Plumtree's squad.
The All Whites have also lost the services of defensive coach Clive Griffiths to the Welsh Rugby Union, while Wales and Lions centre Mark Taylor is likely to miss three months of the season with knee cartilage trouble.
Wales Under-21 centre Matthew Brayley has impressed pre-season, while young prop Gareth Mason has deputised ably for injured Lion Darren Morris.
Fly-half Arwel Thomas is still recovering slowly from his injury problems, but Gavin Henson demonstrated last season the depth of the talent that Swansea have available.
Lions flanker Colin Charvis will be missed at the beginning of the season as he takes a well-earned rest, but the return of backrow Hywel Jenkins from a lengthy injury will offset that.
Hooker Chris Wells is also available for selection after another long absence through injury.
First-choice locks Andy Moore and Tyrone Maullin are both on the treatment table for the start of the season but should return to action soon.
The Heineken Cup confrontations between Swansea and Bath will be tight, but both clubs would expect to advance from a pool also containing Biarritz and Edinburgh.
Welsh-Scottish League prediction: 1st.
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Links to more Welsh-Scottish Rugby stories are at the foot of the page.
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