6 Biggest Storylines Entering the New Guinness PRO12 Season
The Pro12 has been a source of substantial controversy over the past 18 months or so, with broadcasting rights and European involvement ranking highly among the topics of discussion.
Those concerns appear to have been satisfied for the foreseeable future, and Leinster head into the 2014-15 campaign with a view to defending their title in as comfortable a fashion as possible.
The Celtic giants will, as always, be pushed hard for their honours, however, and a new era of rugby for the teams in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy promises to make for a stellar campaign.
With the kick-off of this new season just around the corner, we discuss some of the topics likely to draw some intrigue over the coming months.
1. Can Wales Bounce Back from Recent Dread?
Last season was the first Pro12 to finish without a Welsh team in the play-offs, Ospreys and Scarlets having clinched top-four places in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively.
It was a damning indicator of the turmoil surrounding the provinces at present, a back-and-forth struggle between the Welsh Rugby Union and the independent clubs going on for too long now.
However, BBC Sport reported earlier this week that Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons will sign a new deal with the WRU that hopefully means funding, money distribution and player rights will be sorted in an acceptable manner.
The situation is so laughable that Wales national team captain Sam Warburton comes into the new season as the only player with a central contract, the rules thus preventing him from representing a club.
Cardiff Blues coach Mark Hammett is quoted by BBC Sport as saying he's hopeful that the impending agreement will allow Warburton to play, but this is just one facet of a much zanier tapestry.
Welsh clubs will be hoping the recent exodus of their stars to France and England will be culled by a new ability to retain up-and-coming talent and the league success that goes along with it.
2. 3 the Magic Number for Leinster?
Leinster's domestic dominance of late has been fully deserved, the Irish titans having built on the second-place finish of 2012-13 with top spot in 2013-14 and winning the title on both occasions.
With Brian O'Driscoll no longer a part of their line-up, the questions will intensify as to how Matt O'Connor intends to prolong that success.
The inaugural European Champions Cup has handed Leinster a winnable pool of Castres, Harlequins and Wasps, allowing the club to split their attentions somewhat between the two competitions.
However, rising powers in the Pro12 may not have the same distractions at hand, and the likes of Munster and Ulster are likely to challenge once again.
3. Television Coverage Breaking New Ground
The Pro12 has received criticism in the past for showcasing a wealth of games not of an elite quality, with fans struggling to jump on board with clashes involving some of the weaker teams.
However, with a slick new Guinness sponsorship added to its brand and Sky Sports involved in the league's coverage, the division is on the rise as a rugby power.
Sky will give the Pro12 a net reaching further when it comes to captivating international audiences, something local broadcasters and smaller networks may not have been capable of in the past.
Any financial benefits that come in the clubs' direction will only be of positive worth, and the European Rugby Champions Cup's new qualification format promises to see teams competing more fiercely than ever.
4. European Contest Lacking in Competition?
Linked to our previous point on where the Pro12 stands alongside Europe's other top leagues, only as the season progresses will we find out how they compare on a team-by-team basis.
For some time now, it's been expected that the allure of England and France, having stripped the Pro12 of some of its top talents, would enter a new generation of dominance.
Private investment in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 has seen clubs like Toulon, Montpellier, Saracens and Northampton Saints usher in success that many of the Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides can't compete with.
Ireland's bastions are themselves only just hanging on for the large part, but a tighter grip on IRFU contracts has seen them stay within distance.
ESPN Scrum quotes Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons in saying France and England aren't running away with things just yet:
"The Pro12 is right up there with the Premiership and the Top 14” says Edinburgh head coach Alan Solomons. Agree?— ESPN Scrum.com (@espnscrum) August 27, 2014
France and England contributed five of the eight quarter-finalists in last year's Heineken Cup, an acceptable enough ratio, given the size of the compared nations.
However, it's now that the Premiership and Top 14 may look to set themselves apart in terms of quality, and the Pro12 as a whole faces a fight to remain on level ground.
5. Can Glasgow Warriors Maintain Recent Strides?
Although they were wholeheartedly outshone by Leinster in the final, Glasgow Warriors can be proud at having made the final of the 2013-14 Pro12 campaign.
With Edinburgh selling off a host of major players this summer, logic would dictate that the capital club will once again finish below the Glaswegians, having done so in the past three consecutive seasons.
The Warriors have some way to go before they can expect to be figuring in the finals season after season, but one would expect Gregor Townsend's men to at least win the battle of the Scots this term.
6. Is This the Year Italy Escapes Its Shackles?
Another season, another year in which Benetton Treviso and Zebre will look to wrestle away from their confines and compete with the rest of the league—not only at the bottom but higher in the ranks.
Last season, Zebre once again finished as the basement team, but it's significant that the margin between them and 11th-place Treviso was just one point, Connacht only five points ahead of them.
For Treviso, the 30-point finish was a substantial step down from the 50 points taken in 2012-13, and Umberto Casellato will look to fire his outfit up the standings once again.
However, this summer has again seen major players cherry-picked from both teams by the Pro12 and Premiership legions (mostly), making the task an uphill struggle in a very familiar setting.