Nothing fires up the passion and stirs the tribal pride quite like a derby match – each occasion offering an antidote to the trials and tribulations of recent weeks….writes Peter Jackson.
There are 12 such RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures over the festive season, spread out from Friday night all the way through to New Year’s Eve. By the time the dust settles on a dozen derbies varying in degree of locality the one certainty is that the results will not guarantee a season of goodwill to everyone.
Some of the RaboDirect PRO12 matches about to burst out onto the stage evoke memories of games from long ago, of famous local deeds which have stood the test of time like the day more than 60 years ago when 48,000 filled Cardiff Arms Park, then the world record for a club match.
There were no Cups or Leagues in those days, just an old-fashioned rivalry between Cardiff and Newport, clubs 12 miles apart with a penchant, albeit once in a blue moon, for beating the All Blacks.
The ancient foes bump into each other on Boxing Day at the Arms Park, on the bit which survived the transfiguration of the old international venue into the Millennium Stadium.
The attendance will be nowhere near 48,000 but the rival tribes ought to ensure the biggest crowd of the season since the club gave up their ground-sharing with Cardiff City Football Club as a bad job.
They may go by different names post-regionalisation as the Blues and the Dragons but this is merely the renewal of Cardiff-Newport rivalry in a slightly different guise.
Before they get round to Boxing Day, the Blues have another important piece of Welsh business to attend to when the Scarlets come to the capital on Friday night anxious to renew their chase of Ulster after losing to the leaders at the beginning of the month.
Since then the west Walians have played themselves out of Europe, losing back-to-back ties against Exeter Chiefs just as the Blues lost their home-and-away games against Montpellier.
With some of the wounded international brigade back in action, the match brings a duel between the heavyweight wings whose tries added up to a Welsh Grand Slam last season.
Alex Cuthbert lines up on one wing for the Blues against George North on the other for the Scarlets, a duel acclaimed by Wales and Blues flanker Sam Warburton as ‘a clash of the titans’.
Cuthbert will take some stopping. For all the Blues’ problems, he has scored seven tries this season, three in the RaboDirect PRO12, four in Europe.
He ran in three of them at Sale during the opening round of the European Cup only for the Blues to watch an imposing lead dissolve into a single-point defeat.
The capital club is in urgent need of improving on a RaboDirect PRO12 run of one win in six matches, and that against bottom-table Zebre.
Bradley Davies, the victim of Andrew Hore’s well-documented assault during the Wales-All Blacks match last month, has recovered from the consequent concussion and returns eager to repair the damage caused by heavy defeats against the Ospreys (12-33), Leinster (22-59) and Ulster (19-48).
Scotstoun hosts its first Glasgow-Edinburgh derby on Friday night, the first leg of the 1872 Cup, so called because the first match between Scotland’s grand old cities took place 140 years ago.
Edinburgh won the first one 3-0 but lost the last one, 17-12, on New Year’s Day last season when Moray Low’s try and four penalties helped the Warriors secure a top-four finish.
The fixtures take place after a traumatic few weeks for the game in Scotland what with the honourable Andy Robinson falling on his sword after the defeat by Tongan in Aberdeen.
That came in between a period of European Cup results which destroyed any hope of Edinburgh repeating last season’s thrilling run to the semi-finals and left the Warriors wondering what might have been after narrow failures against Castres on successive weekends.
Both teams will be driven by a desire to show that Scottish rugby deserves something better, a motivational force which ought to ensure that Scotstoun on Friday night will be no place for the faint-hearted, likewise Murrayfield for the return on Saturday week.
Nobody caught the mood of pride and passion better than Warriors flanker James Eddie: ‘You can cut the atmosphere with a knife’.
Nowhere on Friday night will space be harder to find than at Ravenhill for Ulster’s first crack at Leinster since the European Cup final at Twickenham last May.
Each has a point to prove, Ulster after losing their 13-match winning run to Northampton in Belfast and Leinster after Clermont rattled their cage to punishing effect in Dublin last weekend.
Two more derbies follow on Saturday in the north-east of Italy and on the west coast of Ireland. Zebre, still awaiting their first win of this their inaugural season, welcome Treviso to Parma with renewed hope of ending a 14-match losing run after running the Blues and Ulster, admittedly weakened by international calls, close in successive home games.
Munster, fighting to survive in Europe after succumbing to Owen Farrell’s late penalties for Saracens last Sunday, are in Galway where Connacht under Eric Elwood have become increasingly formidable. Biarritz and Harlequins will vouch for that, likewise Ulster and Leinster.
The four Welsh regions stand toe-to-toe on Boxing Day. While the Blues and the Dragons collide at the Arms Park, the bigger noise ought to be generated by the Ospreys’ home match in Swansea against their even closer neighbours from the western side of the Loughor, the Scarlets.
Ticket sales of 16,000 indicate that there’s no business like local business. The Saturday after Christmas brings a strong flavour of Ireland’s old inter-provincial championship with Leinster-Connacht in Dublin and Munster-Ulster topping the bill in Limerick.