If you notice an extra spring in the step of the top British and Irish players this month, and perhaps see a few of them making an earlier than expected start to the season, it should be easy to spot why.
The 2007/08 season was all about the Rugby World Cup. All roads in the new campaign lead to the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in the summer of 2009.
With the new ELVs set to spice up the mix, it promises to be a fascinating nine months – plus one extra for the 10 Lions’ matches in South Africa.
Battle commences this weekend and the intensity of the fight for places in Ian McGeechan’s squad is likely to be even greater than four years ago. Then, Clive Woodward took an expanded Lions party of 45 with him to New Zealand.
The first target for the Lions ‘Likely Lads’ this time around will be Geech’s initial squad of 60 names in January. That will be reduced to around 35 before departure date in May.
There are 10 players who toured New Zealand who have since hung up their boots – Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood, Denis Hickie, Jason Robinson, Gordon Bulloch, Neil Back, Shane Byrne, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Graham Rowntree – and a further three who have stepped down from the international arena – Julian White, Gareth Thomas and Martin Corry.
But that still leaves a huge number of current international players – 32 – who have had recent experience with the Lions.
And as the Lions skipper in 2005, Brian O’Driscoll, put it so eloquently in an interview with Brian Viner in ‘The Independent’ this month: “I thought experience was over-rated. As an older player I think it’s very underrated.”
So, McGeechan won’t lack for experience when he sits down to select his squad. And neither will be any lack of talent.
Just imagine what kind of back three he might have if he mixes Ireland’s Rob Kearney with Wales’ Shane Williams, England’s Paul Sackey and Scotland’s Sean Lamont.
O’Driscoll is still in good shape, Gordon D’Arcy had made a full recovery from injury and is ready to start the season and then you have James Hook, Tom Shanklin, Chris Paterson, Matthew Tait and Jonny Wilkinson to consider for the positions inside them.
They may not be starting the season, but Ospreys and Wales scrum half Mike Phillips and centre Gavin Henson will be fit and strong again after summer ops by October and London Wasps’ Danny Cipriani hopes to be back buzzing before Christmas.
Promotion back into the Guinness Premiership by Northampton Saints has given their promising young hooker Dylan Hartley the chance to show off his talents on a bigger stage this season, while don’t discount a youngster coming from seemingly nowhere to steal a place in the biggest team around.
After all, England Under 20 won the Grand Slam and reached the final of the IRB Junior World Championship last season and are packed full of exciting young runners. Saracens’ Noah Cato and Worcester’s Miles Benjamin might just teach the old dogs a few new tricks, along with rising Welsh stars Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar and Ireland’s Keith Earls.
The point is that everything is up for grabs. The new laws mean that it is quite literally a new ball game all round.
McGeechan is too shrewd a coach to take any preconceived ideas on playing style or ‘old’ form into his thinking. He is someone who knows the value of experience, but has never been afraid to give youth its chance – or spring a surprise.
He did that in 1993, when Scott Gibbs ousted the more established Will Carling in the Test side in New Zealand and in South Africa in 1997, when Neil Jenkins became the hero at full back and Paul Wallace stood out at tight-head prop.
The Lions tour is going to give extra meaning to every fixture this season – and extra spark to some fascinating individual battles.