The 2013 season promises to be bigger and better than that of 2012 with the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia set to take centre stage.
The calendar is once again jam-packed with various international and provincial tournaments that will crown the greatest teams the respective hemispheres have to offer.
The highlight of the season will see the north and will collide in the most anticipated rivalry of the year as the Home Unions’ elite converge on Australia in June determined to set the record straight.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at what 2013 has in store for rugby enthusiasts.
Europe’s finest will once again kick-off the international season as they vie for top honours in the Six Nations.
The 2011 World Cup finalists France and England, fresh off their record-breaking trouncing of the All Blacks at Twickenham, have been instilled as the pre-tournament favourites by the bookies ahead of the defending champion Welsh.
France certainly head into the championship with the greatest momentum following an unbeaten end-of-year series that included a comprehensive 33-6 hammering of the Wallabies.
England will draw inspiration from their aforementioned win over New Zealand but they will need to prove that they aren’t one-hit wonders with a consistent campaign.
Wales will be up against it as they will be without head coach Warren Gatland, who will be cunningly plotting the Wallabies’ demise as mentor of the Lions.
Last year’s Grand Slam winners will also be missing key personnel in Rhys Phillips and Luke Charteris, both of whom have been ruled out through injury, while Jamie Roberts, Ian Evans and George North are all in a race against time to be fit for the opening round clash with Ireland in Cardiff on February 2.
An away victory over the Irish in Round Two and home win over Les Bleus a week later would put England in a commanding position, but with a tricky final assignment at the Millennium Stadium, France might just pip the English at the post as they conclude their campaign against Scotland at home.
IRB Sevens World Series:
New Zealand have established a healthy 14-point lead ahead of their nearest rivals France after the three opening rounds of the series and should go on to retain their title.
Fiji, South Africa and Samoa complete the top five and along with France, will look to wrest the title from New Zealand’s iron grip.
Leinster’s hopes of becoming the first club in history to win three consecutive European Cup titles are in serious jeopardy as they find themselves in second place in Pool Five with a 50 percent win record.
Clermont, the pacesetters of Pool Five, Harlequins and Toulon are the only unbeaten teams after four rounds - with Quins, boasting an unrivalled 19 log points, the form side of the tournament.
Fellow pool leaders Saracens, Leicester Tigers and Ulster have dropped just one match apiece and with French clubs Racing Metro, Toulouse and Montpellier waiting in the wings, the play-off race is wide open.
Harlequins are well-placed to retain their crown and an away victory over either Saracens or Gloucester in March would all but assure them of a place in the semifinals.
Leicester Tigers are in a great run of form and their clash with Quins at Twickenham Stoop in Round 15 could be a dress rehearsal of the decider at Twickenham on May 25, where should these sides make the final, the Tigers will be out to avenge their 30-23 loss in last year’s decider.
Ulster are in a class of their own in the Pro12, contested between teams from the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, along with two Italian franchises.
The Irish giants have suffered just a sole defeat – a 24-10 loss to Munster – and subsequently have a nine-point cushion over second-placed Glasgow.
Whilst the Warriors have been impressive, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to maintain their top-four standing with Leinster and Welsh outfits Ospreys and Scarlets breathing down their neck.
Defending champions Toulouse trail table-toppers Toulon, who they beat 18-12 in last year’s final, by a full 10 points.
Consequently, they will in all likelihood have to overcome the travel factor and the oppositions’ home ground advantage in the play-offs if they are to cling on to their title.
The most demanding tournament in the sport gets underway in earnest on February 15 and is bound to deliver high-octane action and a sublime show of skill.
The Chiefs begin the campaign in unfamiliar territory as defending champions and will be the target of many a team, none more so than the Crusaders, who will be desperate to reclaim the mantle as New Zealand’s premier franchise.
These two powerhouses will battle it out for supremacy in the New Zealand conference and should occupy two of the six qualifying slots come the business end of the season.
There will be little to choose between the Stormers and 2012 finalists the Sharks in the ultra-competitive South African conference, which will see the introduction of the Southern Kings.
The Eastern Cape franchise can expect a baptism of fire and will struggle to make the step up to Super Rugby after controversially being promoted from the second-tier First Division straight to Super Rugby at the expense of the Lions.
Although most of the matches are still awaiting IRB sanction, the Johannesburg-based franchise have lined up games against a host of international teams – including Russia, Samoa and the French Barbarians – as well as hit-outs against the South African Super Rugby franchises ahead of their promotion/relegation matches against the last-placed South African Super Rugby side.
The Bulls are the wildcards in the South African conference while the Cheetahs will be competitive in the local derbies and strong enough to avoid the threat of relegation.
Australian teams have to redeem themselves after a dismal collective showing in 2012. The Australian conference paled in comparison to the New Zealand and South African versions, with their ‘champion’ side, the defending champion Reds, gifted a home play-off by virtue of the competition’s flawed conference system last year.
The Reds and Brumbies look set to renew their rivalry for pole position in the Australian conference but neither are legitimate title contenders.
British and Irish Lions tour of Australia:
The Home Unions collective return to Australian shores in June with the intertwined objective to break a 16-year drought in all series and secure a first series triumph over the Wallabies since 1989 when the Finlay Calder-led Lions prevailed 2-1.
Wales and England will provide the bulk of the 2013 squad and considering the shaky state of Australian rugby, the tourists will fancy their chances if they are capable of fielding a full-strength squad.
The race for places in the squad is always an interesting sub plot and will be especially intriguing this year. Will Sam Warburton captain the team? Will Toulon-based Jonny Wilkinson be a surprise inclusion?
Will 2009 captain Paul O’Connell recover from back surgery in time and will fellow Irish great and former Lions skipper Brian O’Driscoll make a fourth tour?
These are just some of the questions that will make the Six Nations unmissable.
A new-look quadrangular tournament between the Springboks, their 2015 World Cup opponents, Scotland and Samoa, and Italy will be debuted in 2013 and will add extra spice to the annual incoming tour to South Africa.
Meanwhile, the clash of the titans will play out in New Zealand when the world champion and number one ranked All Blacks host the top-ranked Northern Hemisphere team of 2012, France.
The opening match of the three-Test series will be a repeat of the 2011 World Cup Final at Eden Park and is one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year.
The All Blacks will be overwhelming favourites to clinch their second successive Rugby Championship title and retain the Bledisloe Cup.
The schedule will be identical to that of last year’s inaugural four-nation tournament. Thus, should South Africa win their home and away matches against Argentina and Australia and New Zealand continue their dominance, the final round clash between the sport’s greatest rivals in Johannesburg will serve as the decider.
The Pumas will enter the tournament an improved side following their promising maiden campaign and could, with a bit of luck, register their first win of the tournament in 2013.
Western Province will aim to retain the silverware they won against all odds when the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world kicks off on August 10.
The Sharks will be equally determined to recapture the title after being on the losing side of home and away finals in 2012 and 2011.
The Golden Lions will want to prove a point following their Super Rugby snub and the Blue Bulls will seek to win their first Currie Cup title since 2009.
Redemption will be on the Free State Cheetahs’ mind after they were humiliatingly consigned to the bottom of the log last season while Griquas will endeavour to reach the play-offs for the first time since 1998.
Canterbury will take some stopping after turning in one of their most dominant seasons last year in which they made history by becoming the first ever team to win five consecutive national provincial championship titles.
Southern hemisphere sides will embark on their traditional European excursions to round off the year and will be welcomed by their respective hosts brimming with renewed hope of claiming a prized scalp following England’s famous win at Twickenham that closed out last season.
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