THE newly re-branded Guinness Pro 12 involves teams from Italy, Wales, Ireland and Scotland so naturally enough the launch was held in the Diageo head office in West London. I suppose it was equally difficult for everyone.
There was some method in this madness. One Diageo bigwig by the name of Ed Pilkington informed us that the office used to be the site of the Guinness brewery.
The nice man from Diageo talked up the Celtic League as if his life depended upon it. In the brave new Guinness-sponsored world everything was fantastic…he used the word seven times in a three-minute speech. The tournament was fantastic, the competition was fantastic, the clubs…fantastic, the opportunity for Guinness to spread the gospel…fantastic, the experience…you guessed it, the fact that Sky Sports were involved was fantastic and, just in case we still harboured any lingering doubts, the entire kit and caboodle was “absolutely fantastic”.
Mr Pilkington obviously hasn’t had to watch Connacht play Zebre on a wet and windy night in Galway where, incidentally, they have to run a dog race around the track before every match just so the bar licence kicks in.
The captains of the 12 teams were introduced and sat on a stage in front of the cameras. In amongst them was Matt Scott, Edinburgh’s injured centre who will almost certainly not captain the club this year. He had the decency to look a little uncomfortable, a counterfeit coin with a dodgy shoulder sitting alongside some genuine sovereigns.
This is a big season for the somewhat sleepy “Celtic League” with a raft of changes, most of which should give things a healthy boost. Sky Sports bring production values that BBC Alba or anyone else for that matter can only dream of and half a dozen matches will be shown on BBC2 Scotland. Sky are still smarting about losing England’s Aviva Premiership to BT Sport and they are sure to trumpet the Guinness, if only to undermine their broadcast rivals. Former scrum-half Rory Lawson will bring a much-needed Scottish accent to their analysis team.
Sky will broadcast 33 matches, said the league chief executive John Feehan, to “everybody in the UK”. Well, everybody with a Sky Sports subscription, that is.
Guinness are the new headline sponsor, it’s a global brand and they know how to do these things properly. Above all else, qualification to the European Rugby Champions Cup (ERCC) will go to those clubs that finish in the top seven, with the probability of others being involved in a play-off with the English/French, the details of which have still to be agreed. That will imbue a host of otherwise meaningless matches with a real edge and the league will benefit.
It needs a boost because there are a couple of structural weaknesses in the Guinness Pro12. The first is that teams don’t always play their strongest teams – Irish internationals tend to enter the fray one month after everyone else – but the play-off system counters that criticism.
The big problem with the Guinness is the two Italian teams. Between them Treviso and Zebre won ten out of 44 league matches last season and we have to hope that rumours of a big sponsor waving an equally large cheque at one or other of the Italian franchises prove to be more than wishful thinking.
The weakness of the Italians affects qualification for the ERCC, with one team from every European country guaranteed a place. Last season Edinburgh finished eighth in the league and, to accommodate an under-performing Italian club, they will probably need to finish in the top six this season to guarantee participation. While Alan Solomons’ side were just three points off the Blues in seventh at the end of 2013-14, the 17-point gap to the Scarlets in sixth looks like a chasm.
Edinburgh will be much better than last year but nobody else is standing still. The Dragons have lured Lee Byrne home from Clermont and former Scottish international prop Bruce Douglas is helping coach their set scrum. Connacht can somehow afford to sign Bundee Aki from the Chiefs and former All Black Mils Muliaina. Leinster have recruited rugby league’s Ben Te’o to replace the irreplaceable Brian O’Driscoll and the Cardiff Blues have hired coach Mark Hammett from the Hurricanes .
The prize is huge, the stakes just got higher and, if either or both Scottish pro-teams does manage to qualify for the ERCC by right, they will have done it the hard way, which is how it should be.