With the new Magners League season now approaching Round 7, we take a look at the impact of the competition’s new boys.
While the major talking point last season was the introduction of the Play-Off system, this term’s most highly publicized move has been the decision to extend the Magners League family beyond the traditional Celtic members.
Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams have been joined by two Italian counterparts as the Magners League welcomes a new era of cross-border competition. Benetton Treviso and Aironi entered the fold back in September, with the move winning plenty of plaudits.
Treviso have taken the league by storm, winning three of their first six matches. An opening day victory over the Scarlets has been followed by an historic triumph against previous winners Leinster and another home win at the expense of the Dragons.
Franco Smith’s men have been the surprise package of this year’s competition and, while Aironi have fared less favourably results wise, the introduction of the Italian outfits has been seen as a major plus for the league.
Aironi may be yet to pick up a win, but few people expect that to remain the case for too much longer. And with the long-term development of the game in Italy expected to benefit greatly thanks to the step up in quality that has accompanied their move to the Magners League, things are looking good for all parties.
But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s what coaches and players from Aironi, Treviso and their opposition have had to say about their progress.
Treviso head coach Franco Smith
"This is a massive opportunity for the players, club and country as a whole. It is our chance to grow and influence the future of the sport in Italy.
"Playing in the domestic game in Italy we were attracting just 600-700 supporters and were lucky to get a report in the local paper, but in our first game over 5,500 people turned up and all the national papers covered the game.
"Success at club level will filter throughout the game, right from the international side down to the youth and it is a really exciting time.
"We have done extremely well in the Italian league system, however, we started to stagnate as the competition wasn't always there and this is our chance to play and test ourselves in a world-class environment on a weekly basis.
"We understand the challenge ahead but if we can put the foundations in this season we can build something very special for the future."
Treviso shocked former champions Leinster in Round 3
Aironi defence coach Rowland Phillips
"This will change Italian rugby forever and is brilliant for the domestic and international game.
"We may not see the full results in the first or the second season, but once the Aironi name and the culture of the team is embedded, that’s when we will get the results.
"For the Italian teams playing in the Heineken cup in previous years, they had the chance to dip their toes into the real world of high-level rugby but then had to go back to the Italian leagues.
"Now the sides are playing at that level every week in the Magners League which is fantastic. It keeps the players at a high intensity which is going to massively benefit us in Europe. It’s about playing at this level week in, week out."
Ospreys director of coaching Scott Johnson
"It's a great credit to the Magners League that we've got new teams in and they've done well first up.
"I think this is the great strength of the Magners League because we have got so much diversity within our own group.
"When you look at the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 in France, everyone does it their own way whereas we've got this completely different philosophy within our own group and I think that's great for rugby.
"It's great for your coaching and it's great for players. This cosmopolitan feel that we have in the Magners League is fantastic.
"I wasn't surprised (with the way Treviso started) and I'm glad for the sake of the tournament that we've now got a genuine competitor and, for rugby as a whole, I think it's wonderful that they're in the tournament.
"I think it gives us greater credibility. They're in Europe and the Magners League has produced so much good for Europe over the last five or six years and I think that will just make Europe a little more difficult, which is good for the game.
"I think Italian rugby's really on the up. I've watched their improvement over the last few years, subtly, and the results probably haven't gone their way. But there's genuine talent across the board and they've now got more players to pick from."
The Ospreys beat Treviso in Round 2 and Aironi in Round 4
Cardiff Blues director of rugby Dai Young
"Treviso is already looking like one of the toughest places to get a result in the Magners League.
"I was surprised at the way Treviso were written off at the start of the season given their experience in Europe.
"The Italian teams have already proved they are worthy of their place in the league with their results.
"It's an exciting new development to the competition. They are getting decent crowds and their inclusion has added something new."
Aironi forwards coach Andrea Morrati
"We know it's going to be tough throughout this year. But we must stay focused on our work and keep our confidence.
"We must understand that we are in a learning curve. This first year will be crucial for us to develop the right mentality to compete at this level."
Aironi second row Marco Bortolami
"We are moving in the right direction but it will take time – we are a new team with new players.
"We have some very experienced players, who I know well from the Italy set up, and we have some younger players, but there is a good mix.
"Some of the younger guys just need some time to understand where we are and the level of the competition, but we are getting there.
"There were a few reasons behind my decision to return to Italy. The big appeal was the fact that two Italian teams were playing in the Magners League. It's a big adventure and it's a historic moment for Italian rugby.
"Things have really changed since my Padova days. The media attention around the team is very different. It’s growing all the time and the atmosphere around the sport is increasing.
"Supporters are now coming out in numbers to watch high-level rugby games, which is raising the profile of rugby."
Marco Bortolami returned to Iatly beacuse of the Magners League
Italian international and Leicester Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni
(Treviso came within three minutes of a stunning Heineken Cup win over Leicester this month)
"Treviso have been the Leicester Tigers of Italian rugby for 20 years. They always won everything, but not so in Europe.
"The most important thing that has happened to them is a change in mentality. A South African coach (Franco Smith) has come in and made them play better rugby.
"The challenge of playing in the Magners League has given them an extra motivation. They have won games early on and now they have confidence.
"They have a lot of good young players who now play for Italy and they have a few overseas players who make a difference.
"I went there last season to watch them in the Super 10 and there might have been 300 people in the stadium. This season, there are 5,000."