After a summer during which the success of the Welsh Rugby Union's Age Grade championship was there for all to see, the 2009-10 season is poised to kick off on Sunday.
Moving into its sixth season, the competition has played a significant role in helping some of current Wales coach Warren Gatland's brightest youngsters establish themselves amongst the best players in the world.
What's more, when the British and Irish Lions squad was announced at the end of last season, the WRU was toasting its own significant investment in a tournament that has captured the imagination of all those involved since its inception back in 2004.
Lion kings Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny were both products of the system that the Union's head of rugby, performance and development Joe Lydon is hoping will once again bear fruit. And whilst there will be no formal under 20 competition this term, Lydon, the academy coaches and the national age grade selectors will certainly have their eye fixed firmly on the under 16 and under 18 tournaments as they swing into action.
Halfpenny, who was prolific throughout his five years in the competition, will always remember the days when he went to battle with the Ospreys. "Great days," said the Cardiff Blues wing. "It was crucial in our development that we had strong competition on a regular basis. The age grade tournament provided that and whilst the emphasis was obviously on developing players who would be good enough to go and make senior regional and international players, there was intense rivalry too. We all wanted to win the competition."
Last season it was the Blues North who lifted the under 16 crown, beating the Scarlets 16-13 in a tense affair at the Talbot Athletic Ground. And though the under 18 competition was as tight as it had been in any one of the previous four seasons, it was the Ospreys, for the fourth time, who took the spoils with a consummate 26-15 victory over the Scarlets.
So, for the Scarlets' region, Sunday's games against North Wales at Llandovery's Church Bank ground, represents an early chance to make up for last season's finals day disappointment.
In contrast, it was a challenging first season for North Wales, whose lack of physicality and conditioning left them trailing in the wake of the senior regions, despite putting in some impressive performances. Still, for performance development manager Marc Roberts, the experience of playing alongside the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons, will hold his sides in good stead for this term and beyond.
"I think we learned a great deal from our first season," said Roberts. "We realise that we are behind the other regions, especially in terms of our physicality and conditioning, but we have started to address that in the summer and are confident that we have made a few strides.
"Obviously we are not going to close the gap overnight and yes, this season will once again be tough for our sides. However, it took the Blues North three seasons to win a game and we achieved that in our first season. If we can build on those three victories and become more competitive, especially at under 18 level where our lack of physicality was exposed, we will all be very pleased.
"On top our conditioning, we have spent the summer working on our core skills, at under 12 to 14 levels so that when these boys come to step into the competition at 15 and 16, they will be well placed. It's an exciting time for North Wales rugby and I know that everyone is looking forward to the big kick off this weekend."
The Ospreys, Blues and Dragons will all kick start their campaigns next week with all three keen to get up and running ahead of what promises to be another outstanding season of age grade.
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