THE Celtic League will be sponsored by a brand with genuine worldwide pedigree after it was confirmed yesterday that Guinness have come on board with a two-year deal, which is understood to be a significant step up in financial terms to anything which has gone before.
With Sky already signed up on a four-year deal to broadcast 33 live games per season, including the play-offs and the Grand Final, these are exciting times for the competition – and the tournament organisers have ensured that this new era will start with a bang when last year’s finalists (Leinster and Glasgow Warriors) renew acquaintances on the opening weekend of the coming season.
The Irish side enjoyed home advantage the last time these two teams met at the end of May, and used their vastly superior experience of playing in high-pressure, winner-takes-all encounters to muscle their way to a 34-12 victory.
However, the Warriors will play host when the 2014-15 campaign kicks off on the weekend of 5 to 7 September and assistant coach Shade Munro insists that his squad are delighted at being given an early opportunity to exorcise a few demons as well as lay down a marker in what he hopes will be a season of unprecedented success for the Scotstoun outfit.
“Due to the nature of the final and the fact that we genuinely feel that we didn’t play as well as we can, this is the perfect game for us.
“The better team on the day won that game, and Leinster deserve credit for stopping us from playing the way we wanted to, but we have learned our lessons from that experience and I don’t think any of our boys have any doubt that we can turn it around when we meet again,” said Munro.
“The players I have spoken to are really, really excited about getting Leinster first up. Josh Strauss is bouncing off the walls – he can’t wait to get stuck into them – so it should be another fantastic occasion at Scotstoun.
“In fact, it is a really exciting start to the season for us because, after the Leinster game at Scotstoun, we are away in Wales on consecutive weekends to take on Cardiff Blues then the Dragons,” he continued.
“We beat the Blues twice in the league last year but lost our two Heineken Cup matches against them, and that really stung because we want to be more than just a good league team, we want to be serious contenders in Europe as well, so I think there is a bit of unfinished business there.
“And we lost both our games against the Dragons, so that is going to be another huge contest.
“Three wins out of three will really set the tone for our season, but the flip side is that, if we lose those matches, we are straight into an uphill battle.”
Munro went on to explain that the implications of the Guinness deal go way beyond commercial considerations and plays a valuable role in raising player expectations.
“We go up against these superstars from England and France when we play in Europe, and they genuinely don’t know who we are or what we can do. That’s maybe not the case for the Irish but it certainly is for the Scots.
“They expect to wipe the floor with us and are genuinely surprised that we are not a walkover.
“So, while that is a great motivating factor for our players, it does rub off on you a bit and you do sometimes feel that you are handicapped before a ball is kicked because you are constantly being told that you are the poor relations of European rugby,” he explained.
“Having a big brand like Guinness sponsoring the competition, and a broadcaster like Sky showing the matches, is a real self-esteem boost.
“It reinforces the point that we are playing in one of the big three leagues in Europe, and Glasgow are one of the top teams in that league, which is something I think we should be very proud of.”
Edinburgh will also face Irish opposition on the first weekend of the league, but they will be travelling to face European Champions Cup semi-finalists Munster at Thomond Park. They will play their first home game on the second weekend of September against fellow league strugglers Connacht.
Coach Alan Solomons said: “It’s always an exciting time for the players and supporters to learn how the season will start and how it’s going to pan out, though first we must contend with our pre-season fixtures against Leicester Tigers in Melrose and Newcastle Falcons in Hawick.