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RaboDirect PRO12 chief: this league can be best in northern hemisphere

Four months after Shane Williams signed off his career in style to take the Ospreys to the RaboDirect PRO12 title in Dublin the best of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales prepare to do battle once more.

Dan Biggar’s touchline conversion of Williams’ last-gasp effort in May against Leinster makes the Ospreys the team everyone is gunning for heading into the new season which kicks off on August 31.

The defending champions face the tough task of travelling to Italy first up to take on a Treviso side keen to add some consistency to push on from the highest-ever points tally last year.

Speaking at the competition’s launch, RaboDirect PRO12 chair and former British Lion Andy Irvine insists that there could have been no better finish to last season’s tournament, and expects this year to be even more competitive.

“The competition in world rugby is fierce and in terms of population, numbers of players and financial resources we are always going to struggle but what we can show is we can beat others on the field of play,” said Irvine at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

“Our aim is to produce the best and most attractive competition in the northern hemisphere and we hope to build on that.

“The RaboDirect PRO12 is producing a great product. Players and coaches have to be congratulated on what they achieved on the field. Last year was a vintage year – you had six teams challenging for the play-offs and three different countries represented in the semi-finals which were terrific games.

“Then the final was box-office, a capacity crowd and the Ospreys just edged it at the end through, who else but, Shane Williams.

“You can look at the sides from the RaboDirect PRO12 in the Heineken Cup with five out of the eight quarter-finalists, three out of four for the semi-finals and both the finalists.”

While last season’s competition began with the backdrop of the World Cup, this year will see the teams at full strength from the off.

There is a new team in the shape of Italian outfit the Zebras under Roberto Manghi, who replace Aironi, while there are also five new men in charge – Phil Davies at the Blues, Simon Easterby at the Scarlets, Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend and Kiwi pair Rob Penney and Mark Anscombe at Munster and Ulster respectively.

With the Olympics now finished and rugby set to take centre stage Irvine admits the expectation will be high to top the drama and excitement of last season’s competition.

He added: “There’s a real buzz about rugby at the moment. This season we don’t have Aironi but we welcome Zebre based in Parma. Players are just about to end pre-season and embrace the new season where everyone is full of anticipation, hope and, dare I say it, a bit of expectation.

“This time last year we welcomed on board RaboDirect as a new sponsor. Last year attendances rose in the league overall which is no mean feat in a World Cup year, some teams saw a 100 per cent increase.

“TV audiences and sponsorship activity also rose which is really encouraging but what really matters is what happen on the field of play.”