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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Irish Interprovincial rugby championship
Jim Neilly previews this year's Irish Interprovincial rugby tournament.
Qualification for next season's European Cup is the incentive for all four Irish provinces, following the successes of Ulster and Munster in the past two seasons.
The top two sides in the Guinness Interprovincial Championship are guaranteed European Cup places, although Ulster and Munster, by reaching the 1999 and 2000 finals, allowed Leinster, who finished third in successive championships, to play in the European Cup.
This left Connacht, traditionally the weakest of the provinces, to compete in the European Shield.
Interprovincial fixtures in Ireland date back to 1875 when Ulster played Leinster, but the Championship proper didn't begin until 1946.
For the past three seasons the games have been played on a home and away basis, and with European places at stake, traditional rivalries have taken on an extra dimension.
Ulster, European Cup winners in 1999, begin their campaign at home on Friday September 1 to Munster who are favourites to record a third successive title.
Following their magnificent achievement in defeating Toulouse, Stade Francais and in the final, Colomiers, Ulster failed to win a game in their European Cup group last year.
Coach Harry Williams, who has announced that this will be his last season in charge, has made some significant signings all of whom have impressed in an unbeaten run of pre-season friendlies against Leicester, Coventry, Edinburgh Rievers and Rugby Lions.
Two former Saracens, Australian international wing Ryan Constable and fellow-countryman Brad Free, capped at scrum-half by Ireland at A level, have been joined by a couple of South Africans.
These are Grant Henderson, who will fill the full-back role vacated by Simon Mason, now with Stade Francais, and Russell Henderson, a tough back row forward who will slot in for former Irish captain Dion O'Cuinneagain who will be out of rugby for six months with a broken arm.
Prop Clem Boyd returns to his native Belfast after a season with Bath, and Shane Stewart, a New Zealander with an Irish grandfather has joined the Ulster squad on a full-time contract, following an impressive season in the centre for Ballymena.
Determined to improve
With seasoned Irish internationals Paddy Johns and Jonathan Bell fully recovered from wrist operations and Irish wings James Topping and newly capped Tyrone Howe in top form, Ulster will be determined to improve on last season.
Munster came tantalisingly close to emulating Ulster's European Cup success, losing narrowly last May to Northampton and they feel that there is unfinished business to be undertaken.
Declan Kidney is missing just two of his first-choice side of last season, with hooker and Irish skipper Keith Wood honouring his promise to return to Harlequins and the enigmatic flanker Eddie Halvey opting to try his luck with London Irish.
Fortunately, Wood's deputy for Munster and Ireland, Frank Sheahan and Alan Quinlan will prove able deputies and with Irish regulars Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey, John Hayes and Anthony Foley, plus the influential Australian lock, John Langford, all available, the Munster pack looks good enough to provide the platform for a successful title defence.
Leinster coach Mike Ruddock has returned to Wales, but Australian Matt Williams is expected to make full use of a back division that includes internationals Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie and Girvan Dempsey who will benefit from the arrival of scrum-half Brian O'Meara from Munster.
And with international locks Malcolm O'Kelly and Robert Casey certain to win line-out possession, Leinster, who recorded home and away wins over English champions Leicester in last year's European Cup, cannot be discounted.
Connacht too, have lost their coach, with New Zealander Glenn Ross moving to Sale and taking a few players with him, but his replacement, Steph Nel, a South African has brought in a handful of new recruits including ex-Stade Francais prop Dan McFarland, a former Leeds back-rower Michael Swift, and a useful hooker from South Africa, Marius Uijs.
This year's Championship will take place over five successive weeks, with a break for the first four weekends of European Cup and Conference, and the final games on the first weekend in December.
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