It all started back in August, when some rugby players were still more interested in acquiring sun-tans than points. Edinburgh and Glasgow played Munster and Leinster respectively in the opening matches. Sadly, the Scots didn't make it all the way, despite a very encouraging run by Glasgow, but it is these same two Irish provinces who will do battle at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, this afternoon in the first final of the Celtic League competition.

There was a tendency for some folk to sneer at this new tournament with 15 clubs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the two pools. Because of fixture congestion, there was no time to have home and away fixtures for every side and the whole thing, it was suggested, would be over, and largely forgotten, by Christmas. Yet, if you speak to players, coaches and even spectators, you discover a very different view.

They have enjoyed the Celtic League. ''I loved going anywhere that wasn't Wales'', a leading Edinburgh back confided. Richie Dixon, the Glasgow coach, is a confirmed enthusiast, and the fact that so many fans from all three countries were prepared to travel is hugely encouraging. There were 5500 spectators at Glasgow's semi-final with Leinster in Dublin, and 12,500 at the Munster-Ulster clash.

I had a long chat with Dixon this week and he insisted: ''The competition has certainly captured the imagination of the players; there has been an extra dimension this season. Considering that there has been no major sponsor it has gone really well.

''For us to reach the semi-finals was a real boost. We were caught a bit cold at the start, but winning the last four pool games to qualify for the knock-out stages showed that we not only have players of skill but of the right attitude. We are a young side, which bodes well for the future.''

The Irish, of course, have been the most successful participants, which has reflected the generally robust health of rugby over the water. International captain Keith Wood, however, is still rueing the defeat at Murrayfield which killed off their Grand Slam hopes. ''Going on to beat England was a great thrill but we still knew we had scorned a wonderful opportunity.''

In Wales, the game is going through a difficult period with too many clubs, not enough talented players, and a lack of direction from the top. Even so, they too have appreciated being part of the Celtic League. Mike Ruddick, the former Leinster coach now in charge at Ebbw Vale, believes these fixtures help prepare British teams for European challenges. ''You can never have too many quality games,'' is his view.

I went back to Dixon for his view of what is likely to happen this afternoon. ''We are likely to be in for a very exciting final. They are two teams of quite contrasting styles - Leinster are the cavaliers, wanting to move the ball at every opportunity while Munster are more pragmatic and a very difficult side to play against.

''There can be no doubt that Munster have the greater experience. They are a mature side packed with seasoned internationalists like Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Michael Mullins, Peter Clohessy, Mick Galway and Anthony Foley. Their coach, Declan Kidney, is one of the best in these islands. That said, maybe some of the forwards could be struggling a bit if the pace is fast and furious.''

Leinster are a very talented side who have had 13 straight victories in the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup. Their great strength is their back five in the pack with Malcolm O'Kelly, Eric Miller and Australian import Keith Gleeson the key figures.

''In Denis Hickie and Girvan Dempsey, their backs, they have the tournament's joint top try-scorers with seven apiece. It is a really tough one to call, but I just feel Leinster have this sense of destiny about them this season.''

Well, we will see . . . or at least I will, because this one is too good to miss.

The referee today, attempting to keep control of what is bound to be a rather frenzied encounter, will be Nigel Whitehouse, of Wales. I will keep a particular eye on him because, in just 11 weeks' time, he will be making his Six Nations debut when he handles Ireland v Scotland at the very same venue.

By the way, Richie, we will have a Lady Godiva on today's outcome as I fancy Munster, with the boot of Mr O'Gara much to the fore. Don't leave the country.

Normally I take the view that if it ain't broke don't fix it, and was initially reluctant to support any changes in the Six Nations' Championship format, believing it to be the supreme sporting festival of the winter. But I have become persuaded that to condense it into a seven-week period, which has now be agreed, is probably for the best. Allan Hosie and his committee have come to a reasonable compromise.

I am still not convinced that more Sunday matches are to be welcomed, not for any religious objection, but simply because it is so much more difficult for supporters to get back to their work on the Monday. But the new set-up gives everyone - clubs, pro teams, and players - a programme which can be properly planned. Scotland will benefit as our international squad, one of the smallest after all, can work together for the whole period, rather like an overseas tour.

In that I agree entirely with Jim Telfer. What's the world coming to?