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Tom Hamilton
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Tom Hamilton was brought up near the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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Guinness PRO12
The rejuvenated PRO12
Tom Hamilton at the Guinness PRO12 launch
August 26, 2014
The PRO12 captains line up at Diageo's HQ © Inpho
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The launch of the new Guinness PRO12 season seemed geographically confused. It is a tournament contested for by teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy yet it was an occasion held in London. Much has changed in the off-season with Sky Sports signed up to broadcast 33 games and a new title sponsor, Guinness.

Walking into the plush Diageo headquarters housed within the less glamorous surroundings of Park Royal, you were greeted by a wealth of Guinness branding. It was all on a grand scale; captains walked down the stairs of the six-level building to applause while Sky Sports hosted the introduction in the grand foyer. There was a feeling of a fresh start, a new impetus and a determination not to be an afterthought.

"It's a statement of intent," PRO12 CEO John Feehan said of the decision to hold the launch in London. "We are confident in our own ability to appeal not to just those in the Celtic countries and Italy, but also to the whole of Britain. Sky and Guinness believe in us and we believe in ourselves."

The organisers of the PRO12 were keen to hammer home the quality of players in the league, the success the provinces have experienced in the old Heineken Cup and the strong record of Ireland and Wales in recent Six Nations history. The talk was of a new reach for the tournament. The off-field framework seems to be in as good a working order as it has ever been.

 
"There will always be a couple of headline movements but players have to do it for the matters that suits them but we have those 227 internationals from 14 countries in the league so you can't say we don't have really strong players"
 

"Even before Sky came on board we had half a million people watching games at the weekend," Feehan told ESPN. "The fact we are now going to be on Sky is helping our footprint in the UK. And Guinness will strongly support it throughout Ireland and Italy. We can do the things anybody else can do. It's the first time we've had the national footprint in Britain."

Off-field razzmatazz and grandiose statements are all very well and good, but it needs on-field performance to keep new viewers entertained. Speaking to the coaches from the four nations that make up the PRO12, the constant buzzwords were competitiveness and meritocracy.

The latter, owing to the re-jigged European format, is new for this season. Clubs will have to fight for their place in next season's Champions Cup, they will not get a divine right like yesteryear. Feehan said: "It means we will have a competitive round of games right up until the end of the season."

As for the standard of rugby in the league itself, Lyn Jones has experienced both the Premiership and PRO12 sides of the fence with London Welsh, the Ospreys and now the Dragons. "There's very little difference, the teams are the same standard," he says. "There is a little bit more ambition to play in the Celtic league than in the Aviva but the consistency of the front-five area in the English game is far superior due to the strength of the squads. It's pretty even-Stevens."

And in terms of the appeal of the PRO12 to players, while talk of Sexton's potential return to Leinster continues to dominate the Irish and French press, Feehan is adamant the league can go toe-to-toe with the Premiership and the Top 14 in terms of quality "We shouldn't over-exaggerate these drain of players. There will always be a couple of headline movements but players have to do it for the matters that suits them but we have those 227 internationals from 14 countries in the league so you can't say we don't have really strong players.

"We've had more Lions players than anyone else so we're in a strong position."

Come September 5, the action will kick off in Limerick and Swansea. For all the talk of improved frameworks, strong positions and competitiveness, those will be the first true proving grounds of the rejuvenated league.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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