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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Extra games a big benefit
BBC NI's Jim Neilly says that fans are in for a real surfeit of top-class rugby this season with the advent of the Celtic League.

The inaugural Celtic League will add another representative layer to help the standing of players.

The extra games will give those players in Ireland, Scotland and Wales further opportunities to bridge the gap between club and international level.

The new tournament will be of particularly benefit to the four Irish provinces and the two Scottish districts.

The Celtic League will be a further help both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

They have been competing for the past two years against the top Welsh clubs in the Welsh-Scottish League.

In all that will mean that Ireland's elite will be involved in around 30 major competitive games this season
Jim Neilly

With at least seven Celtic League games, six European fixtures and five inter-provincial championship matches, Ireland's top players will be well catered for.

That is not taking into count no fewer than 11 international Tests this season along.

In all that will mean that Ireland's elite will be involved in around 30 major competitive games this season.

That goes along way toward justifying four full-time provincial squads, all funded by the IRFU.

It further emphasises the wisdom of the IRFU's policy of having as many as possible of the country's best players based in Ireland.

The success of Ulster and Munster prove a point.

Ulster were European Cup champions three seasons ago and Munster were beaten finalists two years and unlucky to lose at last season's semi-final stage.

To a lesser extent Leinster have shown a lot of promise, and in all it proves that the Irish provinces can more than hold their own against the best Europe has to offer.

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Few sides will relish the prospect of facing Ulster at Ravenhill Park in Belfast or Munster at Thomond Park in Limerick.

Ulster, under new coach Alan Solomons from South Africa, have been drawn along with Leinster in an eight-team pool.

The main opposition here should come from Swansea and Llanelli of Wales, and Glasgow.

Ulster are in the fortunate position of having the Welsh duo in Belfast, while Leinster must travel to Stradey Park and St Helen's.

Both provinces have strengthened their squads with Ulster boosted by the return of double British and Irish Lion Jeremy Davidson from Castres.

The arrival of former Springbok flanker Robbie Brink from Super 12 side Stormers could prove an excellent acquisition.

Munster and Connacht are in a seven-team pool that includes Cardiff, Newport, and Edinburgh.

It is going to be a serious test of stamina for player and spectator alike
Jim Neilly
Munster who have recruited experienced Australian back-row forward Jim Williams, are looking a safe beg for a quarter-final place.

With both Cardiff and Newport having to travel to Limerick, Munster would be looking for points on their home turf.

There will be either six or seven pool games over a five-week period from mid-August to mid-September, with the top four in each pool progressing to the quarter-finals.

The last eight play-offs and both the semi-finals and final will be played in December.

With four European games plus six internationals on successive weekends, Irish rugby fans cannot complain about the quality and quantity of what is on offer.

It is going to be a serious test of stamina for player and spectator alike.

See also:

24 May 01 |  Northern Ireland
Backs can ensure Dungannon win
05 Oct 00 |  Heineken Cup
Ireland eyes European prize
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