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Tony Ward column: Pro12 league finally given the edge it has been lacking

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Fergus McFadden celebrates Leinster's Pro12 League victory at the RDS last May. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Fergus McFadden celebrates Leinster's Pro12 League victory at the RDS last May. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Fergus McFadden celebrates Leinster's Pro12 League victory at the RDS last May. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

A quick confession. For the first time since the game went open and the Celtic League kicked into gear this observer is genuinely excited about the four-nation competition beginning this weekend under the newly acquired moniker Guinness Pro12.

As in life, success in sport is all about timing and for Guinness, or more accurately Diageo, this sponsorship on the back of the successful Anglo-French coup d'etat, kicking European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) into oblivion, could scarcely be better timed.

Whether European Champions Cup rugby through the newly formed European Professional Club body (EPCR) will take the domestic game in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales to a new level remains to be seen, but the starting base is pretty good. Nowhere near perfect but a giant step along the way.

For various reasons, rightly or wrongly, the initial Celtic League was built on mistrust. The suspicion was there from the off that the Irish were using it to their own ends (selecting a la carte) but with little pressure given that the big three provinces - Leinster, Munster and Ulster were all but guaranteed premier European Cup involvement irrespective of where they finished in the league table.

The Welsh Regions in particular felt aggrieved that the IRFU-controlled policy of resting players meant understrength teams travelling to Wales. It was a fair grievance, even if Irish success has been consistent all along the way.

Aspire

The IRFU Player Welfare model has become one to which other countries still aspire but of course with the advantage of centrally contracted players it was and continues still a no brainer once the provincial coaches, however reluctant to releasing players they might be, are included in the process.

Or so it has gone up until now. But with the dawn of a new season leading into next year's World Cup, a new title sponsor, a bigger and better television deal with Sky, and above all a competitive qualifying process for the European Champions Cup based on Pro12 performance gives the league a bite it has lacked in its many and varied manifestations up until now.

With just one Irish side guaranteed a place in the 2015/16 Rugby Champions Cup, having had all four involved (Connacht on the back of Leinster's most recent run of success) in recent seasons, suddenly the potential exists for the professional game here to go from a feast to a famine. Call it perverse thinking, but that excites me.

There is now an edge to the league that has clearly been missing heretofore, and on that basis alone the Anglo-French coup had a very real justification. Of course there were other factors but on the field Irish sides competing for one or possibly four Champions Cup places - improbable but not impossible - makes for red raw competition.

And that - despite Irish success - has been badly lacking up until now.

It is still far from perfect. Possible relegation would add bite at both ends but that won't happen now or in the foreseeable future. More's the pity.

With ring-fencing comes apathy in the final stages for clubs outside of the qualification chase.

There is too, despite Irish domination, real concern over lack of Italian, Scottish and Welsh success. Once the WRU and Welsh Regional rugby manage to raise the salary cap, the Welsh four will be back in the hunt for silverware with a vengeance. Take that as read.

But what the Pro12 competition needs more than anything is for Alan Solomons and Edinburgh to follow Gregor Townsend and Glasgow in taking a rugby-playing country (once on a par with Ireland) into a consistently challenging mode.

With just two professional franchises/districts there is no excuse.

The Italian involvement too is of great concern, and while Zebre and Benetton Treviso can generate some domestic interest by way of the chase for that guaranteed Italian slot, the fact that it is likely to be as 11th and 12th-placed sides does nothing for the competition overall.

To be fair to the IRFU, they have given Pat Lam and Connacht unprecedented support in this off-season thereby moving the pro game closer to four competitive entities rather than the three plus one it has been up until now. Amen to that.

And just like Connacht, the Newport Gwent Dragons have the potential to compete with the other three in Wales and by extension the Pro12, thereby leaving the Italian issue the festering boil still to be lanced.

Naturally I yearn for further Irish success in the nine-month marathon ahead but I suspect I am not alone in wanting to see the Italians, Scots (specifically Edinburgh) and Welsh (watch for Cardiff with Mark Hammett calling the shots and Gareth Anscombe driving the show) up the competitive ante from this opening weekend on.

From an Irish perspective Leinster still appear the best bet by far.

Despite the loss of Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll to Father Time there continues a sense of direction and continuity both on and off the training field.

For Ulster the key is in re-adapting to a new regime under Les Kiss and Allen Clarke because the in-depth talent is unquestionably there.

Munster under an entirely restructured, home-bred management team is the province most in transition, with new head coach Anthony Foley worthy of the type of breathing space I'm not too sure he'll get.

Connacht could be the surprise package but pressure via increased financial resources from Dublin is now on.

Tony Ward's Pro12 predictions

Champions: Leinster

Runners-up: Glasgow

Other Champions Cup qualifiers: Cardiff, Treviso, Munster, Ulster, Edinburgh

 

Club game in safe hands as Louis takes office

Congratulations to former Leinster lock and Ireland final trialist Louis Magee, who becomes the fifth member of Bective Rangers to become IRFU president.

He follows in the footsteps of John Hamilton O'Connor (1911-12), Billy Fallon (1949-50), Mick Cuddy (1993-94) and John Lyons (2008-09) to the top of the administrative tree.

Louis is a grandson of the great Louis Magee, Triple Crown winning captain in 1899. Louis is a club, and specifically Bective, man to the core. Here for sure is the definitive grassroots president.

Following his retirement in 1987, he coached at various levels, becoming director of rugby from 1991 until 1994 and going on to become club president in 1997-98.

Having been elected to the Leinster executive in 1996, he went on to become branch president in 2003/04. That same season he was elected to the IRFU, serving on various committees, culminating in this the supreme honour now.

I wish the former Marian College pupil and teacher all the very best in the 12 months ahead, safe in the knowledge that the battling club game has a president who cares.

Irish Independent