Maybe, just maybe, the Celtic League/Magners League/Rabo Pro12/ Guinness Pro12 has come of age. As its various incarnations ably testify, the league has had its share of teething problems, and it's only taken 14 seasons to get there but perhaps it has finally found its niche in European rugby and with that a reason for its very existence.
You can’t beat history. The Bouclier de Brennus trophy carries a meaning and mystique in French rugby as befits a competition which is 122 years old.
Even the English Premiership has been there for 24 years, and neither the French or English leagues suffer from the logistical difficulties which come with cross-border competitions (As the Anglo-French agitators for the new
are now discovering.).
Lest one forget too, the inaugural Celtic League featured 15 teams comprising four from Ireland (perfect), nine from Wales (way too many, as the performances of Caerphilly, Ebbw Vale and others testified) and two from Scotland (too little, and the pity is that the Border Reivers, who supplemented Scotland’s numbers for the ensuing five seasons, are no more).
The league’s worst enemies were in some respects its founding fathers, ie the three respective unions, for while the SRU have made a mess of their “regions” from the word go, and the WRU have increasingly done so, they each had legitimate grievances about Ireland’s commitment.
John Feehan, CEO of the Pro12 for the last three seasons as well as the Six Nations and the Lions, admits that the League's biggest problem was simply a lack of resources. "David Jordan was running it as the tournament director with some agencies but it didn't have a centralised focus or its own offices. It was recognised by all the parties that it had to step up their game basically. There is now a centralised office, with special functions in terms of having communications people, digital people, PR and finance and commercial people, and also an operations director as well."
For its first five seasons, the league couldn’t even acquire a title sponsor. When Magners stepped aside after five years, the league were left scrambling for Rabo to come on board, although with their sponsorship the league was rebranded as the Pro12. That Diagio, a global brand, have come on board, in the shape of the Guinness Pro12, is a major boon, especially in such a turbulent climate.
“We’ve had great television coverage by the individual, national or territorial broadcasters, but we needed a broadcaster across Britain and Ireland and we have that now in Sky. We’ve improved things like the discipline and doping controls, and we’ve introduced more training for the referees.”
This will also be the sixth season of play-offs and the fifth campaign in a row after a 12-team, 22-game, home and away format. This may seem like small beer but in its fourth incarnation the Pro12 has never known such stability.
With league standings determining the seven qualifiers from the league, and from this season onwards the next two will go into a four-way play-off with the seventh placed teams in the Top 14 and Premiership, competition and interest should permeate down the table until the 22nd round.
In any case, it's all a far cry from six seasons ago, when Munster were crowned champions on a Friday night by dint of the Ospreys failing to obtain a bonus-point win over the Dragons. With Munster preparing for a Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster at Lansdowne Road on the ensuing Sunday, which they lost 25-6, their league triumph didn't exactly register on rugby's Richter scale, while all bar Connacht of the 10-team league qualified for the ensuing 2009/'10 Heineken Cup, with no Italian presence and no play-offs.
Attendances have grown steadily, rising from 1.02 million in 2010/’11 to 1.1 million in 2012/’13 and almost 1.2 million last season. Jordan, the tournament director since 2005, points to the various ground redevelopments at Leinster, Munster,
, Glasgow, Cardiff and the Scarlets, as well as ground improvements in Connacht and the Dragons, as further evidence of the Pro12’s growth.
“The Pro12 has provided the stability which has allowed the clubs to develop their facilities, and we have increased year on year,” says Jordan. “Last season, for the first time, both semi-finals were sold out. We had a record crowd in Glasgow, and a first semi-final sell-out in the RDS.”
Glasgow brought over 3,500 supporters for the final, almost comparable to their average home attendance four or five years ago, and the Warriors’ emergence as a force in the Pro12 is good for the league, less so the mismanagement, bickering and pining for an Anglo-Welsh league in Welsh rugby, and lack of progress in Italian rugby.
“We’re invariably going to be compared to the French League or the English Premiership but in fact we’re doing pretty well,” says Feehan. “We’re now very much a strong league. We’ve had the winner of the European Cup in five of the last nine years. Coaches who have coached in the different leagues, say we’re every bit as strong.”
Last season Leinster became the first team to retain the league title, but their newly installed captain Jamie Heaslip maintains: "You start from scratch again."
Accordingly there has been no mention of a three in a row. “As far as goal setting goes, we never set goals to say we want to win X, Y or Z. We kind of focus more on actionable things that we can do every day in terms of driving standards and values, more so than on winning the Guinness Pro12 or whatever, or backing it up.
“They would be great, amazing things to do, but all that is the outcome of every day habits and every day standards.”
Last season saw 64 one-score games, equal to the Premiership, and which was a significant increase on previous seasons (45, 51 and a 55). “Year on year, 100 per cent this league has improved,” maintained Heaslip. “The average standard is increasing. You can see that progression in Europe and how competitive our teams are against the other leagues. The gaps between teams are getting smaller. And I think the World Cup year will boost standards and the new qualification rules for Europe will also help. When the internationals are away, those windows are hugely important.”
And Leinster are the standard bearers.