Rise of the celtic warriors
Sometimes looked down on by its more established equivalents in France and England, last weekend's Heineken Cup results suggest the Pro 12 has become much more than just a noisy neighbour
THE history books show that the results in the opening round of this season's Heineken Cup were only the second best on record for the Celtic sides since the foundation of their league in 2001.
However, in real terms, last weekend represented arguably the most significant statement the league has made since clubs of Ireland, Scotland and Wales came together in their own competition.
Leaving aside the recently inducted Italian outfits, who only joined the league in 2010, last weekend was behind only the opening weekend of 2006-07 in terms of wins recorded.
That season, Edinburgh were the only side from the Celtic League to lose in the opening round of the Heineken Cup. That record might have been bettered this weekend but it was two Irish sides who failed to make it a clean sweep for Celtic teams.
Connacht's defeat away to Harlequins and Leinster's draw in Montpellier mean that, on paper at least, '06 was a better start.
However, seven other Celtic sides were successful, with wins for three Welsh regions over French opposition. Cardiff's victory in Paris against Racing Metro, Edinburgh's success at London Irish and Ulster's gutsy come-from-behind triumph against a star-studded Clermont in Ravenhill were the stand-out results for supporters of the Pro12.
Even allowing for the heightened significance French sides place on their domestic championship and the gruelling schedule of English clubs who compete in two cup competitions alongside their Premiership, those results landed a significant blow for a league that has been considered inferior to its French and English equivalents.
A series of name and format changes, the collapse of Scottish outfit Borders, the addition of the Italian teams and the absence of relegation have provided ammunition for the Pro12's detractors.
Those factors, coupled with the fact that no side from either Scotland or Wales has contested a final in Europe's Premier club competition since the Celtic League began (Cardiff made the final in 1996, five years before its inception), means the Pro12 has struggled for the recognition the Top 14 and the Premiership enjoy.
That dim view of the Celtic League has not gone unnoticed and has irked some. Ronan O'Gara lit the touch paper ahead of a 2006 Heineken Cup clash with Leicester at Welford Road before the Corkman memorably landed the game's winning penalty at the death.
"They still assume they should come out on top every time because, apparently, the natural order in rugby is that England are the greatest," he said.
A similar attitude to the Pro12 still prevails in places. Some bookmakers were offering in the region of a 30-point spread on Connacht's trip to the Stoop, but Eric Elwood's side proved they were well able to live with the side who have won their first eight games in the Premiership and are four points clear at the summit of the table.
The following day, Michael Bradley's Edinburgh travelled south having won just three games out of eight in the Pro12, but they held London Irish scoreless for the entire second half to come out on the right side of a 20-19 result that the former Connacht coach said could "define their season".
Leinster lock Damian Browne is well-travelled. The Galway native made his Heineken Cup debut for the Blues in the draw with Montpellier last weekend, but he has played in both the Premiership with Northampton and a stint in the Top 14 with Brive and believes the Pro12 is played at a higher tempo.
"The French league is a lot more attritional, a lot more forward-based and it's surprisingly slower," he said shortly after his move to the RDS from France.
"There's a myth that it's all 'joue, joue, joue,' but if you take the average French game it's very much a dogfight up front, a lot of pick-and-goes, mauls and scrum time. There's a lot more rugby played here in the Pro12."
When Ulster out-half Ian Humphreys stated that he could see his side winning at Leicester this weekend, he echoed the growing confidence of Pro12 teams on their travels in the Heineken Cup.
"We feel that, even when we go away from home, we've got the quality to beat teams," he said. "We'll be travelling to Welford Road full of confidence and thinking that we can win that game.
"Winning away in Europe is about breaking down mental barriers and I think we have done that. We are not thinking, 'we'll go and give it a crack, we might get close and maybe get a losing bonus point.' We are now going over there thinking there's no reason why we can't get the four points."
Even after a landmark weekend for Celtic sides in the Heineken Cup, it is still much too early to argue for the Pro12 as the continent's premier domestic competition, but all the signs suggest the Celtic cousins are at least heading in the right direction.