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Eight reasons for rugby fans to be cheerful heading into the new season . . .

SO the blink-and-you-missed it oxymoron that is Scottish rugby's closed season is behind us for another year.

South Africa and New Zealand, the fiercest of rivals, go head to head to conclude the Rugby Championship. Picture: Getty Images
South Africa and New Zealand, the fiercest of rivals, go head to head to conclude the Rugby Championship. Picture: Getty Images

Barely seven weeks after the national team brought down the curtain on the 2013/14 campaign with a hefty loss to South Africa in Port Elizabeth, the Border League rumbled into action last weekend to get the 2014/15 edition under way.

Cue an outbreak of hand-wringing, brow-furrowing and an earnest treatise on how professional players will all be clapped out by the time they're 25? Eh, no. For a start, all the evidence of the past few years stacks up to say that players' careers have actually been prolonged in the era of pay-for-play rather than the opposite. But of far more importance than that is the simple fact that there is a heck of a lot to feel good about in this game as a new season gets underway.

So before the weather takes a turn for the worse, before those pristine pitches acquire the look and consistency of French onion soup and before kick-off times demand a 6am start for away trips, let's concentrate on the positives for a few moments. Let's focus on rugby's reasons to be cheerful.

1. European Rugby

Brinksmanship and petty posturing threatened its very existence a few months ago, but common sense prevailed and the future of top-flight European rugby was secured. It's no longer the Heineken Cup, but the new European Rugby Champions Cup looks suspiciously like the venerable tournament it has replaced, only with a more sensible and fairer qualification process. When the pool fixtures were released last week, fans scrambled to book flights and hotels. Comfortably the best club competition in the world, it should go from strength to strength.

2. Euan Murray

The mighty prop is now 34 and some thought he would hang up his boots when Worcester Warriors were relegated from the Aviva Premiership. Time out for injuries, though, as well as his refusal to play on Sundays for religious reasons, means Murray has fewer miles on his clock than many younger players and he could be set to enjoy an Indian summer on his return to Glasgow. A superb player, a fascinating bloke and a welcome addition to the Warriors' squad.

3. Nigel Owens

By some distance, the Welshman is the world's best referee. Like Scotland's Jim Fleming two decades ago, Owens understands the ebb and flow of rugby and has an empathy with players (although he can also put his foot down pretty firmly when he wants to) that few others can match. Owens came out as gay a few years ago, and the sport as a whole can be proud of the fact that he has suffered almost no homophobic abuse whatsoever from crowds wherever he has been in charge.

4. The Red Button

BBC Alba has done heroic service with its coverage of Celtic rugby over the past few years. Their programmes have been slick, imaginative and highly professional. Unfortunately, they have also been pretty much unintelligible to the vast majority of the sport's core audience in Scotland as commentary has only been available in Gaelic. This season, English commentary will be available as a red button option. Great news, but don't let that stop you going to the evening classes to learn God's own language as well.

5. Jonny Gray

Scotland's youngest international forward in more than 60 years, Gray is still six months shy of his 21st birthday. Already, though, he has five international caps to his name and has played in a PRO12 final. He has all the talent of his elder brother Richie, but those who have worked with both says he has a greater thirst for self-improvement and is more willing to take responsibility. He was the PRO12's Young Player of the Year last season. A big man from whom great things are still expected.

6. Tom Heathcote

The fly-half has committed himself to Edinburgh after finding game time difficult to come by at Bath where he lived in the shadow of George Ford. He may have to battle for his place now that Greig Tonks is fit again but, if he can get over that hurdle then he could just be the steadying influence they need. With Finn Russell blossoming at Glasgow, it seems that Scotland's playmaking drought could be coming to an end.

7. Mourad Boudjellal

The president of Toulon might not find favour with French rugby's old guard, but he - and the vast wealth he has amassed through his comic book empire - have transformed the fortunes of his home town club, moulding them into the powerhouse of the European game. Boudjellal has not only created a great team, he has created one of the greatest matchday experiences in rugby, turning Toulon's Stade Mayol into a febrile cauldron of passion and noise. They are going for a hat trick of European titles this season and you would hesitate to bet against the Provencal side, even after the retirement of Jonny Wilkinson.

8. South Africa v New Zealand

Long established as the fiercest rivals in international rugby, the Boks and the Blacks produced one of the greatest games of all time in their titanic Johannesburg contest last year. It ebbed, it flowed, and it drew eye-watering levels of commitment from both sides. New Zealand were deserving victors, although they were probably flattered by the margin of their 38-27 win. Cleverly, tournament organisers have fixed it that the two sides will bring this year's Rugby Championship to a conclusion at the same Ellis Park ground, almost a year to the day from their last mighty clash. It takes place on October 4. Book your armchair.

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