Celtic League (Rugby Union)

Celtic League (Rugby Union)

Pro 12
Current season or competition:
2013–14 Pro 12
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Sport Rugby union
Instituted 2001
Number of teams 12
Nations Ireland Ireland
 Scotland
 Wales
 Italy
Holders Ireland Leinster (2012–13)
Most titles Wales Ospreys (4 titles)
Website Official site

The Pro12 (known as the RaboDirect Pro12 for sponsorship reasons,[1] formerly known as the Celtic League & Magners League) is an annual rugby union competition involving 12 professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. The league is one of the three major professional leagues in Europe, along with the English Premiership and the French Top 14, that compete in the Heineken Cup.

Beginning in the 2001–02 season, the league was originally known as the Celtic League (Irish: An tSraith Cheilteach; Welsh: Y Gynghrair Geltaidd; Scots Gaelic: An Lìog Cheilteach; Italian: La Lega Celtica)[2] and comprised teams from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The league was sponsored by Irish cider makers Magners from the 2006–07 season until 2010–11.

At the start of the 2010–11 season, the league expanded from 10 to 12 teams, adding two Italian teams. Following the end of Magners sponsorship, from the 2011–12 season the league has been sponsored by RaboDirect.[1][3] The "Pro12" was adopted to reflect that it now includes teams from outside the Celtic nations.[4]

The league has used a play-off structure since the 2009-10 season to determine the league champion, similar to that used in the English Premiership.[5] Until the 2008–09 season, the league champion was determined from league performance.

Tournament format

The league season takes place between September and May, with each team playing every other team on a home and away basis. At the conclusion of the regular season, the top four placed teams enter the semi-final stage, with the winner of the first vs fourth and second vs third playoffs entering the Final (known as the "Grand Final" in 2010 and 2011). The venue for the Final is chosen by the highest placed team in the regular season. League matches traditionally avoided the international weekends in November and during the Six Nations Championship, however this will no longer necessarily be the case from the 2010–11 season onwards due to the increased number of games. Two Italian teams – the ex-National Championship of Excellence team Benetton Rugby Treviso, and a new team, Aironi – joined the league starting with the 2010–11 season. The Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby unions now use the league as the sole determinant for European qualification, and the Italian union uses it as the sole determinant for Heineken Cup qualification.

Many rugby union club competitions culminate in a play-off series to determine the champion, including Super Rugby, Top 14, and the English Premiership. Up until the 2009–10 season, the PRO12 did not use this format, and champions were decided by the final league table. Starting with the 2009–10 season the league champion is decided through the play-offs. This consists of the top four clubs of the league entering into a semi final with the winners progressing to the grand final. The winner of the final are crowned league champions.

Corporate organisation

The legal name of the body running the competition is Celtic Rugby Limited, an Irish private company limited by shares based in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. The company is owned by the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union, the Scottish Rugby Union and the Italian Rugby Federation. The board of directors consists of two representatives appointed by each Union and an independent chairman. As and from the start of the 2010–11 season, the league is being managed out of the same office of the RBS 6 Nations and the British and Irish Lions and sharing a chief executive (John Feehan) and staff with these two organisations.[6]

Media coverage

As of 2010–11 the League is broadcast live on BBC Two Wales, BBC Two Northern Ireland, RTE, the Irish language channel TG4, the Scottish Gaelic channel BBC Alba, the Welsh channel S4C.[7] The BBC Two Wales matches are usually made available to the rest of the United Kingdom via BBC Red Button. Complete match replays are also available on the BBC iPlayer. Each broadcaster provides feed to the others for matches in their home territory. While this means that the league is now available free to air in the UK and Ireland, in Italy it was only available on a subscription basis in its first year. For the 2013-14 season in Italy Mediaset broadcasts the games involving the two Italian clubs live on its digital free-to-view channel Italia 2.[8]

Setanta Sports previously held the live rights for Ireland and Scotland, along with a large number of international territories. STV took over the broadcast rights in Scotland after Setanta closed in the UK in 2009 and still cover the league in a weekly highlights programme. Despite no longer having the live rights, Setanta Ireland will continue to show RaboDirect Pro12 games on a tape-delayed and highlights basis during the 2010–11 season.[9]

Sporadic coverage of the tournament can be found in other territories – on Canal Plus in France, and on various Setanta Sports channels around the globe (including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South East Asia and the Middle East). The United States rights, formerly held by Setanta, are now held by News Corporation's Fox Soccer Plus.[10]

Broadcast coverage history

From 2004 to 2009, the Scottish and Irish rights were owned by Setanta Sports. Setanta closed down in Scotland in 2009, but Setanta Ireland and Setanta Sports 1 remained available to Irish subscribers. In 2010, RTÉ Sport, BBC Northern Ireland, TG4, BBC Wales, BBC Alba and SKY Italia came together to buy the Celtic League broadcasting rights.[12]

On 2 May 2013, Sky Sports announced that it had agreed a 4-year deal to broadcast 33 live RaboDirect PRO12 matches each season. This deal is due to commence at the start of season 2014-15, and will run alongside the continued regional screening of matches.[13]

Teams

The league is based on regionalised/provincial representation of the participating nations, except for Benetton Treviso which represents the city of Treviso itself. Benetton Treviso was selected for its long history after the project of a second Italian regional team, Praetorians Roma, failed.[14]

Team Stadium Capacity City, Area
Italy Benetton Treviso Stadio Comunale di Monigo 6,700 Treviso, Veneto, Italy
Wales Cardiff Blues Cardiff Arms Park 12,500 Cardiff, Wales
Ireland Connacht Galway Sportsgrounds 7,500 Galway, Republic of Ireland
Scotland Edinburgh Murrayfield Stadium 67,130 Edinburgh, Scotland
Scotland Glasgow Warriors Scotstoun Stadium 9,708 Glasgow, Scotland
Ireland Leinster RDS Arena 18,500 Dublin, Republic of Ireland
Aviva Stadium 51,700
Ireland Munster Thomond Park 26,500 Limerick, Republic of Ireland
Musgrave Park 9,251 Cork, Republic of Ireland
Wales Newport Gwent Dragons Rodney Parade 11,676 Newport, Wales
Wales Ospreys Liberty Stadium 20,750 Swansea, Wales
Wales Scarlets Parc y Scarlets 14,870 Llanelli, Wales
Ireland Ulster Ravenhill 13,500 Belfast, Northern Ireland
Italy Zebre Stadio XXV Aprile 3,500 Parma, Emilia Romagna, Italy

Italian participation since 2010–11

In November 2008, the Celtic League board met to explore the possibility of Italian participation, and on 5 December, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis, stated that the league was looking "favourably" on Italian participation.

Following a 19 December 2008 board meeting of the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) to discuss proposals to improve the standard of Italian rugby,[15] FIR announced that it would submit a proposal to join the Celtic League. FIR had two possibilities on the table – either entering four existing Italian clubs from the National Championship of Excellence into the league; or creating two teams, composed solely of Italy-qualified players, exclusively for the competition.[16]

On 18 July 2009, the FIR announced that Aironi and Praetorians Roma would compete in the Celtic League from the start of the 2010–11 season – beating bids from Benetton Rugby Treviso and Duchi Nord-Ovest. Praetorians would be based in Rome and would play at the city's Stadio Flaminio, while Aironi will be based in Viadana but would play some matches in the city of Reggio Emilia.[17]

On 2 October 2009, the FIR proposed Benetton Treviso in place of Praetorians Roma.[18]

On 28 January 2010, the FIR declared that they had withdrawn from all negotiations with the board of the Celtic League regarding two Italian teams joining the 2010–11 tournament, with the main issue being a €3 million warranty asked for by the board of the league.[19][20][21] However, by 7 February, the Italian clubs had come up with the required funding.[22]

By 8 March 2010, a deal had been finalised for Aironi and Benetton Treviso to enter the Celtic League from the 2010–11 season, with each team guaranteed a place in the Heineken Cup.[23]

At the end of the 2011–12 season however, Aironi will no longer be available to compete in future competitions as a regional club, as, on 6 April 2012, they were refused a license to continue on financial grounds.[24] They will be replaced by another Italian side, Zebre.[25]

Former teams

Before regionalisation, Wales was represented by Welsh Premiership clubs.

Team Years Stadia and capacity City/Area
Wales Bridgend 2001–03 Brewery Field (6,000) Bridgend, Wales
Wales Caerphilly 2001–03 Virginia Park (5,000) Caerphilly, Wales
Wales Cardiff 2001–03 Cardiff Arms Park (12,500) Cardiff, Wales
Wales Ebbw Vale 2001–03 Eugene Cross Park (8,000) Ebbw Vale, Wales
Wales Llanelli 2001–03 Stradey Park (10,800) Llanelli, Wales
Wales Neath 2001–03 The Gnoll (6,000) Neath, Wales
Wales Newport 2001–03 Rodney Parade (11,676) Newport, Wales
Wales Pontypridd 2001–03 Sardis Road (7,861) Pontypridd, Wales
Wales Swansea 2001–03 St Helen's (4,500) Swansea, Wales

Defunct teams

Team Years Stadia and capacity City/Area
Scotland Border Reivers 2002–2007 Netherdale, 6,000 Galashiels and Hawick, Scotland
Wales Celtic Warriors 2003–2004 Brewery Field, 12,000 and Sardis Road, 8,000 Bridgend and Pontypridd, Wales
Italy Aironi 2010–2012 Stadio Luigi Zaffanella, 6,000 Lombardy & Emilia Romagna, Italy

Other nations

Talks have been held intermittently with both Italy[26][27] and South Africa[28][29] about the possible expansion of the Celtic League. A Rainbow Cup involving South African and Italian teams was announced in 2005,[30] but because of financial issues on the European end of the deal[29] and changes in the leadership of the South African Rugby Union (SARU), the idea was abandoned before a ball was kicked.

In February 2009, rumours spread that South Africa was negotiating entry of its current Super Rugby teams into the Celtic League, to take effect when the current media contract between SANZAR and News Corporation expires after the 2010 season,[29] although these rumours were immediately denied by SA Rugby, the commercial arm of SARU.[31]

London Welsh have in the past expressed an interest in joining the Celtic League if promotion and relegation were to be removed from the English Premiership.[32]

History

Wales and Scotland had joined forces for the 1999 and 2000 seasons, with the expansion of the Welsh Premier Division to include Edinburgh and Glasgow to form the Welsh-Scottish League.

In 2001, an agreement was made between the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) and Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) to create a new competition which would bring in the four Irish provinces. 2001 would see the very first incarnation of the Celtic League.

Some saw the competition as the forerunner of a British/Irish league with teams from England also taking part. The WRU had previously negotiated with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to form an Anglo-Welsh league but negotiations had broken down over how many teams from each union would take part.

2001–02

The first season would see fifteen teams compete: the four Irish provinces (Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster), two Scottish teams (Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow) and all nine Welsh Premier Division teams (Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Llanelli, Neath, Newport, Pontypridd and Swansea).

Played alongside each country's own national competitions, the teams were split into two groups (of eight and seven) and played a series of round-robin matches with each team playing the other only once. The top four teams from each group proceeded into the knock-out phase until a champion was found. Clashes between teams in the Welsh-Scottish League also counted towards the new competition.

The 2001–02 competition was dominated by the Irish teams with all four sides reaching the last eight, three progressing to the semi-finals, and the thrilling final played at Lansdowne Road contested between Leinster and Munster with Leinster running out 24–20 winners.[33]

2002–03

The demands of the Celtic League led to the Scottish/Welsh league being abandoned in 2002. The Irish inter-provincial championship was also downgraded.

The format of the league remained the same for the second season, except for the addition of a third Scottish side, the newly re-established Scottish Borders.

Surprisingly, the champions Leinster failed to make the quarter-final stage in 2003. In their absence, Munster went on to easily win the competition by beating Connacht (QF 33–3), Ulster (SF 42–10), and Neath in the final 37–17. The final of 2003 was played in Cardiff.[34]

2003–04

A major change in Celtic League philosophy came during the early part of 2003, partly due to the commercial success of the league itself but mostly because of the Welsh Regional Rugby's financial constraints that left Wales with only five fully professional clubs. It was decided that the Celtic League would become the sole professional league of the three countries, incorporating all four Irish, three Scottish and the five new Welsh (Cardiff Blues, Celtic Warriors, Llanelli Scarlets, Neath-Swansea Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons).

Reformatted into a traditional league competition (double round-robin style, all clubs play each other twice, once home, once away), which meant that a season long 22-round match program was launched, and with a new strength in depth due to the amalgamation of Welsh teams and the continuing strengthening of Irish and Scottish teams through the re-signing and retention of star players, the league has been in rugby terms a success. Also introduced for the 2003–04 season was the Celtic Cup, a straight knock-out cup competition between the 12 Celtic League teams.

However the unfortunate timing of the league's launch and poor organisation of a working calendar meant that first the 2003 Rugby World Cup and later the Six Nations Championship prevented many of the league's top stars from playing in over half the games. This caused the league to struggle commercially, especially regarding the newly adopted regions in Wales where the game has always traditionally been played on a club basis, not having the regional histories of Ireland or Scotland. The season ended with the Llanelli Scarlets running out as eventual winners, four points ahead of Ulster.[35]

2004–05

The league format was further refined at the end of the 2003–04 season, with the participants deciding to better manage the dates of the matches so as to not interfere with the national squad set-ups and to make the league more commercially viable. The league was played until April, and then the Celtic Cup was contested amongst the top eight teams of the league.

However, even the prospect of the improved league structure wasn't enough to keep all the competitors viable, with the liquidation of the Celtic Warriors region by the WRU, which meant that starting in 2004–05, Wales would have only four entrants in a league of eleven teams. The new format took the league into what many saw as a make-or-break season, clear of massive distractions such as the Rugby World Cup. With the Welsh regions partly embedded, the signs were that the Celtic League would be a competition that could continue.

The 2004–05 season was the first season that Ireland agreed to use the Celtic League standings to determine which provinces would enter the Heineken Cup. The IRFU had previously classed Connacht as a "development" team and so nominated Leinster, Munster and Ulster over Connacht – fearing the loss of revenue from one of the "big three" teams failing to qualify for the Heineken European Cup.

The IRFU also insisted on International team squad training sessions taking precedence over Celtic League matches. A consequence of this was that Irish provinces (especially Munster and Leinster) often fielded virtual second teams for Celtic League games. This had the effect of devaluing the competition. However, despite this apparent half-hearted approach, Irish teams finished second (Munster) and third (Leinster) in the league, as well as winning the Celtic Cup (Munster). The Ospreys were crowned eventual champions, making it two in a row for Welsh regional sides.[36]

It was suggested that Italian sides might join an expanded Celtic League – whilst this proved to be merely a publicity "bubble" at the time, it would eventually materialise in 2010.

2005–06

In 2005, there were discussions over a potential Anglo-Welsh cup competition which some saw as undermining the Celtic League. Despite Welsh assurances that the proposed Anglo-Welsh tournament would not interfere with their commitments to either the Celtic League in its present format or an expanded 'Rainbow League', the SRU and IRFU claimed that the WRU had made arrangements to play games on five weekends without regard to Celtic League fixtures. The SRU and IRFU purported to expel the Welsh sides from the Celtic League in June 2005. It was proposed that the competition would continue as a Scottish and Irish affair for the 2005–06 season, with the possible addition of four Italian sides and the re-admittance of Welsh sides for the 2006–07 season. A deal was then reached that allowed for the Celtic League to continue with the Welsh sides readmitted, with some fixtures involving Welsh clubs restructured to accommodate the Anglo-Welsh cup.

Despite these problems, the league enjoyed its most successful season, with the record attendance at a Celtic League match being broken four times from 12,436 at the Cardiff Blues v Newport Gwent Dragons match in December to 15,327 for the Cardiff Blues v Leinster match at the Millennium Stadium. The total attendances for the season were up nearly 50,000 at 571,331 compared to 521,449 for the previous season.

The league went down to the last round with Ulster and Leinster both in contention. Following Leinster's victory over Edinburgh and with Ulster losing against the Ospreys, it looked like the cup would go to Dublin but David Humphreys kicked a last minute 40-metre drop goal to clinch the game and the league for Ulster.[37]

2006–07

In May 2006, Magners Irish Cider were named as the competition sponsors for the next five seasons, and the league was renamed as the Magners League. Although the brand is known as Bulmers Irish Cider in the Republic of Ireland, the Magners name is still used there for the league.[38] The sponsorship follows on from Magners' existing presence in rugby union with sponsorship deals with Edinburgh and the London Wasps.

The Scottish Rugby Union announced that the Borders territory would be disbanded from the end of the 2006–07 season. And that it will be reopened when the Scottish Rugby Union debt decreases and it is financial suitable to reopen the territory along with a possible fourth Scottish territory (Four professional teams being the original plan for the SRU) with Falkirk, Stirling or a London based team being possible locations; or even the Caledonia Reds, the forgotten Scottish region, being reopened. But for the meantime Scotland would have only two professional teams based in Edinburgh and Glasgow.[39]

The league was won by the Ospreys on the final day of fixtures. The Blues' home win over Leinster allowed the Ospreys to top the league by a single point and take the title with an away win at Borders.[40]

The league's record attendance was smashed in this season with a full house at Lansdowne Road (48,000) for Leinster v Ulster. This was the last game in the stadium prior to its demolition, and was billed as "The Last Stand".

2007–08

Only ten teams competed in the 2007–08 season, after the Borders were disbanded at the end of the 2006–07 season. Glasgow Warriors moved their home games to Firhill.[41] After missing out on the title on the last day for the previous two seasons, Leinster finally won the 2007–08 title with one game remaining, however they had been runaway leaders for much of the season.[42]

In April 2008, it was announced that the Celtic League was to introduce a play-off system at the end of the season, commencing in the 2009–10 season, to determine the league winner, thus generating a greater climax to the league campaign and also to bring the league in line with other major leagues such as the Guinness Premiership and Super 14.[43]

2008–09

The 2008–09 season was decided quite early in the season as Munster claimed the title without playing, as they were preparing for their Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster. The final challenge from Ospreys was snuffed out when the Dragons denied them a bonus point win on 30 April. Munster had led pretty much from the start of the season with a team largely captained by Mick O'Driscoll showing Munster's squad depth. Munster lost only four games, three to the other Irish teams, including a double loss to Ulster. Felipe Contepomi finish as league top scorer for Leinster, the year they went on to win the Heineken Cup.

2009–10

The 2009–10 season was the last 10-team league as the Italian teams joined in 2010–11. The league was one of the most competitive in years with perennial wooden-spooners Connacht challenging Ulster all the way for the 3rd Irish Heineken Cup spot. Ulster needed a superb away bonus point win at Edinburgh to seal it, ending Edinburgh's own play-off hopes. Scarlets had a disappointing campaign as typical Welsh underdogs the Dragons had a great season, eventually finishing mid table and comfortably qualifying for the Heineken Cup. Luckily for the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues won the Amlin Cup and thereby earned Wales an extra Heineken Cup place. 2009–10 was also the first time a play-off was used to decide the champion, previously the top team at the end of the season was champion. The Scottish teams and particularly Glasgow came of age and had a fine season, finishing 3rd in the end. The four qualifiers for the play-offs were Leinster, Ospreys, Glasgow and Munster in that order, each country having at least one team. In the semi-finals Leinster defeated Munster at the RDS,[44] after Ospreys overcame Glasgow in Swansea. In the Grand Final at the RDS in Dublin the Ospreys shocked Leinster, winning the title with their first win in Dublin in five years.[45]

2010–11

The 2010–11 saw the introduction of the two Italian sides, Aironi and Benetton Treviso. In the new 12 team format, the play-offs came down to Munster hosting the Ospreys in one semi-final, and Leinster hosting Ulster in the other.

The two home sides went on to win their respective matches, and the final was held in Thomond Park, home of Munster rugby, where they defeated Leinster, who they themselves were crowned champions of Europe a week earlier.

2011–12

Main article: 2011–12 Pro 12

The 2011–12 season saw the launch of the new branding of the competition, the Rabo Direct Pro12. Leinster were the runaway winners of the regular season, with a 10-point cushion over the Ospreys in second.[46] The top four were Leinster, Ospreys, Munster and Warriors in that order. Ospreys easily overcame Munster at home in the first Semi-final in Swansea.[47] Leinster beat Warriors in the RDS after giving up a strong lead.[48] In the final, also held in the RDS, Leinster were aiming to become the first Celtic League team to complete a domestic and European double, after beating Ulster the previous week in the Heineken Cup final. After trailing for most of the game, Ospreys took a late lead through a try by Shane Williams. Dan Biggar then landed a difficult conversion to give Ospreys their fourth title by a single point.[49]

After two years in the competition Aironi played their final match, as their licence to compete was revoked by the FIR for financial reasons.[50]

2012–13

Main article: 2012–13 Pro 12

With the demise of Aironi, the FIR replaced them with a new FIR controlled team to be based in Parma called Zebre, near the Aironi base in Viadana.[51] The Welsh clubs will operate under a new self-imposed salary cap. This has led to a number of high profile defections from the Welsh teams as they struggle to balance the books.[52] Some of the most high profile Welsh players have moved to the French Top 14, but other Pro12 teams have also benefited. High profile league moves include Casey Laulala to Munster from Cardiff, Sean Lamont to Glasgow from Scarlets, Dan Parks from Cardiff to Connacht and Tommy Bowe from Ospreys back to Ulster.

Results

By year

By championship wins

Team Titles Years Runners-up Years runners-up
Wales Ospreys 4 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10, 2011–2012 0
Ireland Leinster 3 2001–02, 2007–08, 2012-13 4 2005–06, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–2012
Ireland Munster 3 2002–03, 2008–09, 2010–11 2 2001–02, 2004–05
Ireland Ulster 1 2005–06 2 2003–04, 2012-13
Wales Llanelli Scarlets 1 2003–04 0
Wales Cardiff Blues 0 2 2006–07, 2007–08
Scotland Edinburgh 0 1 2008–09
Wales Neath 0 1 2002–03

By country

Country Titles Teams Runners-up Teams
Ireland Ireland 7 Leinster (3), Munster (3), Ulster (1) 8 Leinster (4), Munster (2), Ulster (2)
Wales Wales 5 Ospreys (4), Llanelli Scarlets (1) 3 Cardiff Blues (2), Neath (1)
Scotland Scotland 0 1 Edinburgh Rugby (1)
Italy Italy 0 0

Player of the year

Player statistics

Career

  • Most tries: 50 (Tommy Bowe, Ulster)
  • Most points: 1,226 (Dan Parks, Glasgow, Cardiff Blues and Connacht)
  • Most successful kicks: 397 (Dan Parks, Glasgow, Cardiff Blues and Connacht)
  • Most appearances: 132 (Mick O'Driscoll, Munster)

Season

Attendance

Season League Avg. High Team Low Team
2009–10 8,803
2010–11  ??
2011–12 7,721 Leinster (19,023)
2011–12[53] 8,199 Leinster (19,791) Zebre (1,977)

Notes:

  • The decline in attendance following the 2009-10 season coincides with the entry of two Italian teams into the Pro 12.
  • Highest attendance at a PRO12 match: 50,645 (Leinster v. Munster, Aviva Stadium, 2 October 2010)

See also

References

External links

  • Official site