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YOUNG EYES UP A WHOLE NEW LEAGUE; On the eve of the new Magners League season, GARETH GRIFFITHS takes a look at the Blues and the rest of the Welsh challenge.

MAGNERS LEAGUE 2009-10 SEASON PREVIEW 'LAST year is history and we have to prove ourselves all over again.' The unsentimental and uncompromising words from Blues boss Dai Young on the eve of yet another rugby campaign.

The Blues ended their silverware drought last season by lifting the Anglo/Welsh Cup before losing in a heartbreaking Heineken Cup semi-final to Leicester at the Millennium Stadium, which was decided by a drop-kick shoot-out.

Emulating these achievements in those tournaments will have to wait because it is the Magners League that will occupy the minds of the four Welsh regions in the first month of the season.

It is hard to compete on three levels for Welsh sides and one tournament normally goes by the wayside. For the Blues in 2008-09 it was the Celtic competition as they finished sixth. This was a role reversal from the previous two seasons where Young's had almost won the league title and it is something the Blues boss is keen to return to.

"What I would personally like to do is really give a big push for the Magners League this year," said Young.

"We talk about Europe every year and everyone wants to do well here. That goes without saying. But we've been second twice in the Magners League.

"The EDF and the Heineken Cup took its toll with us last year and we struggled to maintain a real top level in the three competitions.

"So personally we would really like to give the league a crack this season."

The main problem is how they cope without some of their star turns, especially in Lions stars Jamie Roberts, Tom Shanklin, Martyn Williams and Gethin Jenkins were instrumental in the region's success last season. But Shanklin, Williams and Jenkins, along with Wales wing Tom James, will not feature until at least October, while Roberts and Powell will not start the season.

With five games in the opening month, the Blues might be playing catch-up and the region will focus on finishing in the top four in their bid to be champions because they would then qualify for the new play-off system which is being introduced this season.

The strength of the Blues squad has already raised question marks with poor pre-season defeats against Leicester and Northampton and Young will be looking for the likes of flanker Sam Warburton to emulate last season's dramatic rise of Roberts, Andy Powell and Leigh Halfpenny.

The recruitment process this summer will also have a major bearing on the region's quest for silverware.

While veteran duo Darren Morris and Dafydd James have been drafted in as cover for injuries, the international southern hemisphere recruits brought in by the Blues boss will be the main focus.

Young has signed shrewdly in the last couple of seasons with the New Zealand quartet Paul Tito, Xavier Rush, Ben Blair and Jason Spice proving an integral part of the region's success.

Spice has left for Bristol, but former All Blacks centre Casey Laulala will maintain the Kiwi presence when he arrives in Wales in October to provide some explosiveness to a midfield which already boasts Roberts and Shanklin.

The other southern hemisphere recruit is in Wales from the start of the season and is a more integral figure on which the Blues season could stand or fall.

Australian Sam Norton-Knight will be asked to fill the boots of the departed outside-half Nicky Robinson, who was an instrumental figure for the Blues last season. Norton-Knight has played most of his rugby in the Super 14 at full-back, but has insisted he prefers the outside-half role which the Blues are going to ask him to fill.

The Aussie will form a partnership with another new recruit, Wales scrum-half Gareth Cooper, and it might take a while for this duo to gel.

And with some star names returning later in the season, you sense the Blues will improve as the campaign develops.

And they will need to be at their best to emerge from one of the toughest European groups alongside Toulouse, Sale and the disgraced Harlequins.

With the EDF Energy Cup downgraded this will be the main cup competition for the Welsh regions.

If the Blues have the full allocation of stars at their dis-posal, they should emerge alongside the French aristocrats to the last eight and then anything is possible.

But, while Young will be concentrating with life on the field, chief executive Bob Norster will be concerned with events off the pitch after the controversial summer move from the Arms Park to become tenants of the Bluebirds at the new Cardiff City Stadium.

It has been an inauspicious start at the two pre-season matches with 15,000 supporters turning up for the first game and only 8,000 fans at Leckwith last Friday.

A lot of supporters have reservations about the new 27,000 facility and the hierarchy still have a lot to do to ensure the place does not become a soulless stadium for most of the fixtures this season.

A winning team and another trophy would help that quest.

BLUES Coach: David Young Captain: Paul Tito Last season: Sixth Major ins: Sam Norton-Knight, Casey Laulala, Gareth Cooper, Dafydd James, Darren Morris Major outs: Nicky Robinson, Jamie Robinson, Jason Spice Key player: Jamie Roberts Rising star: Sam Warburton Verdict: Play-offs. Should qualify for top four, but could just fall short in knockout stages CONNACHT Coach: Michael Bradley Captain: John Muldoon Last season: 10th Major ins: Bernie Upton Major outs: Andrew Farley Key player: Gavin Duffy Rising star: Ian Keatley Verdict: Basement boys again DRAGONS Coach: Paul Turner Captain: Tom Willis Last season: Ninth Major ins: D anny Lee, Robert Sidoli, Gavin Thomas Major outs: Adam Black, Kevin Morgan, Richard Parks, Jamie Ringer, Tal Selley, Marc Stcherbina, Rhys Thomas, Andy Williams, Gareth Wyatt Key player: Joe Bearman Rising star: Dan Lydiate Verdict: Ninth place and bottom of the Welsh regions again Cullen Last season: Third Major ins: Shaun Berne, Nathan Hines, Eoin Reddan, Mike Ross Major outs: Chris Whitaker, Felipe Contepomi, Rocky Elsom Key player: Brian O'Driscoll Rising star: Jonathan Sexton Verdict: Play-offs. Lost key players, notably Rocky Elsom, but still should be in Magners mix MUNSTER Coach: Tony McGahan Captain: Paul O'Connell Last season: Champions Major Ins: Jean de Villiers Major Outs: Rua Tipoki, Frank Sheahan, Federico Pucciarello, Anthony Horgan, Brian Carney Key Player: Paul O'Connell Rising star: Keith Earls Verdict: Play-off place but could lose out on final prize with their eyes on Europe this season OSPREYS Coach: Scott Johnson Captain: Ryan Jones Last season: Fourth Major ins: Jerry Collins, Barry Davies, Liam Davies, Tom Isaacs Major outs: David Bishop, Filipo Levi Key player: Jerry Collins Rising star: Tom Isaacs Verdict: Champions. Might not finish top. but if they can make final four they have firepower to Coach: Rob Moffat Captain: Mike Blair Last season: Runners-up Major ins: Tim Visser, David Young, Steve Jones Major outs: Andy Robinson, Gavin Kerr, Hugo Southwell, Matt Mustchin Key player: Chris Paterson Rising star: Geoff Cross Verdict: Fifth. Just missing out on play-off spot after losing coach Andy Robinson to Scotland GLASGOW Coach: Sean Lineen Captain: Alastair Kellock Last season: Seventh Major ins: Chris Cusiter, Rob Dewey, Hamish Mitchell Major outs Lome Fa'atau, Andrew Henderson, Sam Pinder Key player: Chris Cusiter Rising star: Max Evans Verdict: Sixth. A slight improvement on last season but need to be more consistent LEINSTER Coach: Michael Cheika Captain: Leo SCARLETS Coach: Nigel Davies Captain: Mark Jones Last season: Fifth Major ins: Rhys Thomas, Richie Pugh, Sean Lamont, Gareth Maule, Tavis Noyle Major outs: Gavin Evans, Dafydd James, Kees Meeuws, Gavin Thomas, Ceiron Thomas, Simon Maling, Nathan Thomas, Sililo Martens Key player: Stephen Jones Rising star: Martin Roberts Verdict: Seventh. Scarlets should struggle although will prove to be difficult to beat at home ULSTER Coach: Brian McLaughlin Captain: Rory Best Last season: Eighth Major ins: Tamaiti Horau Major outs: Kieron Dawson, Rob Dewey, Carlo del Fava, Paul Steinmetz Key player: Stephen Ferris Rising star: Ian Humphreys Verdict. Eighth. Ravenhill still not easy place to visit but not much improvement expected under new coach

CAPTION(S):

Lions Leigh Halfpenny, left, and Jamie Roberts enjoyed spectacular seasons for the Blues last season with flanker Sam Warburton, inset, tipped for a similar impact this time round
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 4, 2009
Words:1381
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