FORMER Scotland and British and Irish Lions full-back Andy Irvine has hailed the Celtic League as one of the most fruitful and entertaining in world rugby.
After returning to the upper echelons of the sport as SRU President in 2005, Irvine has gone on to wear many hats, and, as well as the tour manager of this year’s successful Lions trip down under, he is chairman of the RaboDirect PRO12 league.
As its new season launch in Belfast yesterday, Irvine welcomed the clear growth of the competition over the last number of years, with a 4.3 per cent increase in match attendance last season, increased TV viewership with figures in excess of 1.2 million and increased attendances at both Scottish clubs, which had struggled to keep pace with the Irish and Welsh provinces.
But, also a keen fan of the game, he insisted that the quality of rugby and levels of ambition in the league, which also features Italian sides Treviso and Zebre, compared favourably with the English Premiership and Top 14, and remains hopeful that Edinburgh and Glasgow will be play-off contenders this seasons.
“We are proud of our competition,” he said. “Our competition is a breeding ground for developing young players and exciting open rugby which last season saw 526 tries – almost four tries per match.
“The representation of the RaboDirect Pro12 players on the successful Lions tour to Australia was the highest it has been, with 24 of the original 37 coming from the Celtic regions.”
Skipper Al Kellock was at Belfast’s Titanic Experience visitor attraction on behalf of Glasgow, while Ross Rennie was Edinburgh’s representative. It was an interesting choice by the capital club made because Edinburgh’s new head coach Alan Solomons is yet to determine who his captain will be for the new season, with Greig Laidlaw having been a popular leader in recent seasons. Having only joined the club just over two weeks ago, Solomons will not be rushed into decisions, however, and it may be that a new skipper is not named ahead of the kick-off and he starts by rotating the role.
But Rennie will not be able to show the new coach what he can do for some weeks yet. The openside flanker’s injury woes have continued this year with him suffering a shoulder injury in the game away to Zebre in March, which could cost him another six or seven months of rugby.
It was another frustrating season for the 27-year-old, whose career has been punctuated by serious injury. He worked his way back into the national squad early last season but suffered a dislocated shoulder against New Zealand at Murrayfield in the 55-21 defeat. He was given the all-clear to return to action on 21 March, and played for Edinburgh against Ulster, only to be forced off the following week in Italy and back into an all-too-familiar summer of rehabilitation.
Rennie is a philosophical character, and is not looking beyond a comeback date inside the next eight weeks, but many Scotland supporters will be hoping that his form for Edinburgh once he does return can re-ignite hopes of him adding to his 20 caps in the autumn Tests or RBS Six Nations Championship this season.
This season’s RaboDirect PRO12 kicks off on 6 September, with Glasgow at home to Cardiff on that Friday evening and Edinburgh opening their new campaign the following day away to Munster in Cork’s Musgrave Park. The 22 rounds of competition will again be followed by play-offs for the top four teams and a final on 31 May, 2014.