STUART DAVIES COLUMN: Can Lions spark regional surge?
WALES'S international stars head into the new season with their stock as high as it has ever been following the glorious Lions triumph this summer.
A lot of people suggested that Warren Gatland's squad could suffer because of the mental scars left by Wales's narrow defeats to Australia.
But in what proved a fantastic finale to the series, one which almost became another Wales v Wallaby showdown, the Lions came out on top.
Certainly, if you had added Alex Cuthbert, Gethin Jenkins, Ian Evans and Justin Tipuric to that starting XV in Sydney, the Lions would have been in no way weakened.
Of course, the series triumph has since been put into context by the All Blacks dominance of their Tasman rivals in the Rugby Championship.
No sooner are we in the northern hemisphere basking in the glory of a historic triumph Down Under, then New Zealand go and prick the bubble with a consummate performance that raises the bar again.
But there is no doubt, as we turn attention to another season, that Wales are near the top of the tree in the international game.
We are the Six Nations holders, provided the bulk of the Lions side and have a group of players who deserve to be bracketed as world-class.
Alun Wyn Jones will lead the Ospreys this season as a victorious Lions skipper, Leigh Halfpenny is the hot favourite to be crowned the IRB's international player of the year after taking the accolade for the Six Nations and Lions series; don't underestimate what Jonathan Davies achieved in playing all three Tests and deposing the great Brian O'Driscoll, while I was also delighted for Sam Warburton.
His injury was untimely, but his outstanding performance in that second Test silenced the detractors who had questioned whether he deserved his place in the side.
Warren Gatland too returns to the national camp in huge credit.
People talk about his brave call to omit O'Driscoll for that series decider, but equally courageous was his decision to withdraw Jonathan Sexton midway through the second half of that match.
Sexton had been as safe a Test Lion as any throughout the tour, yet Gatland wasn't afraid to haul him off with the game still not won.
As for the Lions tour itself, while the series was stacked with drama, I was left a little disappointed with the rest of the matches. I thought Australia showed a huge disrespect to the whole Lions concept by the way they put out weakened sides during the warm-up games and I wouldn't have blamed the Lions management if they had written to the Aussie rugby union and said they would in the future just tour South Africa and New Zealand, who would no doubt embrace the entire trip, not just make an occasion out of the Test series.
These are heady times for our national game and we must now accept our lofty position and target a clean sweep of wins in the autumn series.
Yet, the dichotomy of Welsh rugby still exists in that regional rugby remains in the shadow of the national team.
A host of new Lions stars are returning to our domestic game, but on the eve of the season, I can't see any of our regions lifting the Heineken Cup in Cardiff this season — in fact I will be surprised if any emerge from their pool.
The sad reality is, the Pro12 offers our best chance of success.
The Scarlets were the only region to make the play-offs last season and that will be their target again.
The return of Rhys Priestland will feel like a new signing, while the capture of John Barclay from Glasgow is for me the most significant signing of all four regions this summer.
The Jon Davies factor will add a buzz around Parc y Scarlets and it is the natural move handing him a captaincy role, while scrum-half Rhodri Williams is an exciting young talent and definitely one to watch.
The play-offs will be the target and again, they will do well to get there.
The Ospreys will hope to atone for their failure to make the last four and with the pack they have and with Dan Biggar steering the ship at fly-half, they should be in the mix come the end of the season. The departure of Kahn Fotuali'i to Northampton leaves a big hole to fill and even though Hanno Dirksen and the fit-again Eli Walker will add firepower out wide, I still fear the Ospreys don't possess enough quality outside of ten to truly compete as they should with the power they have up front.
You look at the Blues squad and they possess some of the best players in the world in their positions in Warburton, Halfpenny and Gethin Jenkins, but I still think they will struggle this season.
How they will cope off the field against the rival attraction of the Cardiff Redbirds (sorry Bluebirds) in the Premier League remains to be seen, but on it I am not expecting too much from them.
In contrast, the Dragons should be a lot better, although I still don't see them challenging for the top four.
Their reputation as a dogged side who are tough to beat at Rodney Parade was diluted last season and they will be keen to change that.
Keeping Toby Faletau is huge, while the return of Jason Tovey is also a boost for them. I'm also looking forward to seeing what the Chuckle Brothers (aka Lyn and Kingsley Jones) bring to the party. Both are serious rugby men who also enjoy the lighter side of things and I am sure Lyn will instil the 'us against the world' mentality there. It will be interesting to see how they go.