Irish provinces given carrot of Pro12 final at Aviva Stadium
Leo Cullen expects congestion at the top of the table with up to nine real contenders
Players at the launch of the 2016/17 Guinness Pro12 season at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
In what should be an additional incentive to the four Irish sides this season, it has been confirmed that next year’s Guinness Pro12 final will be held in the Aviva Stadium.
Even the presence of one Irish side, never mind another all-Irish final, would assuredly see last season’s record attendance of 35,000 at Murrayfield eclipsed.
Ultimately Connacht’s startling success was also quite a boon for a competition which at the Aviva yesterday proudly relayed official World Rugby stats that the Pro12 boasted the highest average time in play, the lowest penalties and fewest TMO referrals of any league in the world.
The ripple effects of Connacht’s triumph ensured they remained the talk of the dozen head coaches present, even if, as Pat Lam conceded, “we understand the reality that we have the target on our backs”.
The presence of the trophy and clips from last season’s final may also have brought back happy memories for Lam and John Muldoon, but the Connacht captain maintained: “That’s gone. We’ve had our time celebrating. We’ve had our time with the cup. It’s back to business. I saw the cup an hour ago and I hadn’t seen it for six weeks before that. So we’ve definitely moved on.”
As for this season, Muldoon said: “We want to win it, so does everyone else, but being realistic a top-six finish is a good result. If you look at how the teams have recruited, top six would be an achievement.”
Lam echoed that view, while still noting a first Connacht appearance at the Aviva would be an enticing goal.
The stand-out game of the opening weekend is Connacht’s encounter at home to Glasgow on Saturday week, September 3rd. They can ill afford to bask in the rarefied air of defending champions, not least as they are a tad undercooked after the cancellation of last week’s game against Bristol.
While winning the league was “a massive highlight” in Lam’s career, this in turn emanates from his “biggest fear”, namely the odds that remain stacked against Connacht.
“If you rank the 12 teams in the Guinness Pro12, from resources, budgets and facilities and everything, we are 12th. It just emphasises the work that we all did and I am not just talking about the players.
“But certainly I am watching what the other clubs are doing with their signings. It’s certainly out of our reach but everyone is boosting, whether it’s playing staff, coaching staff, and that’s the challenge we face.”
Indeed, while the presence of six Connacht players amongst the 45-man Irish squad which completed a two-day training camp yesterday was further recognition of their progress, it still lagged behind Leinster, bulk suppliers as ever with 20, Ulster (12) and Munster (seven).
Yet Gregor Townsend, in his last season as Glasgow coach before assuming the reins at Scotland, maintained that Connacht should have the confidence from last year’s triumph to add to a highly skilful, ambitious and winning formula.
Right to the wire
“I see this Pro12 being more competitive than the last two, which were already pretty competitive, with four or five teams pushing right to the wire. I can see seven or eight teams this year in the mix.”
Leo Cullen went further and reckoned any of eight or nine could win the league. “Definitely at the top of the league it’s getting very congested.”
The memory of last year’s final defeat, and the carrot of an Aviva final, are both a source of motivation for Leinster’s captain, Isa Nacewa.
“Absolutely. We have good times here and I think genuinely all the younger guys want more good times. It would be great for us and great for our fans to play any game in the Aviva. We have Munster in a month’s times and also May is the time of the season to be here.”
Of all the Irish provinces, Ulster have made the biggest signings in Marcel Coetzee and Charles Piutau, the latter joining a clutter of indigenous international backs. But they were signed as much with the Pro12 in mind as Europe.
“We regard the Guinness Pro12 as the key part of our season, without a doubt,” said Les Kiss. “The European part is exciting but the home and away of the Guinness Pro12 is the bread and butter. It’s your season ticket holders, it’s your supporter base, it’s your week-in, week-out conversations about rugby.”
Another boost for Ulster is Tommy Bowe, who has said: “I feel fit. I feel great.” He hopes to be back playing “asap”, having taken the long-term view that a lengthy summer’s rest to cure bone bruising on his knee was the only solution to an injury that “has been a bit of a disaster over the last 10 months or so”.
He built up the strength in his legs to reduce the pressure it. “It feels like a new knee again,” he says, a welcome fillip in his bid to make a third Lions’ tour.
It was also confirmed that Guinness had agreed a new sponsorship deal with the Pro12 until the end of the 2019-20 season.