Gregor Townsend has presided over some marvellous occasions in his time, none more so than the Glasgow Warriors’ crowning as Guinness PRO12 champions in Belfast 15 months ago.
And yet as far as Scotland’s head coach-designate is concerned, the growth of the tournament is a marvel in itself.
“I have to pinch myself to appreciate how far the PRO12 has grown in a short time,’’ he says. “This really is a wonderful time for our competition.
‘’When I played for the Border Reivers we had two conferences and six matches. It was all over by Christmas. Since then it’s been built into this fantastic competition, guaranteed every week to generate a really passionate atmosphere wherever you go.’’
Townsend played his last match in what was then the Celtic League on May 12, 2007, for the Reivers against Ospreys at Netherdale. Despite the Welsh region’s arrival in Galashiels requiring a win to clinch the title, the occasion fell some way short of breaking any box-office records.
On a day when two Sonny Parker tries and four James Hook goals helped the Welsh region overtake Cardiff Blues and take the crown instead, the end of a professional team in the Borders passed without too many rushing to pay their last respects.
Fewer than 2,000 turned up and some of those had made the long haul from Swansea, Neath and other parts of Ospreylia. The most striking example of how the game has changed is to be found contrasting average attendances then and now.
It explains why Townsend keeps pinching himself. Nine years ago, the Warriors were playing in Glasgow to crowds of barely 2,000, Connacht to fewer still in Galway.
Since then each has trebled its average attendance – the Warriors from 2,089 to almost 7,000, Connacht from 1,980 to approaching 6,000 with more to come. How fitting, therefore, that the defending champions and their immediate predecessors should collide in the opening round this weekend.
Saturday’s top-of-the-bill in Galway will have them flocking to the Sports Ground, extended now to hold almost 8,000, a number that would have been unheard of not so long ago. When Connacht and the Warriors met twice on momentous occasions last May, there wasn’t a seat or standing room to be found.
Converted tries from Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran ensured more than a winning finish to the regular 22-match season. The win also meant that the defending champions would have to retrace their steps for the play-off semi-final a fortnight later. It turned out to be as close as everyone said it would.
Connacht ensured the Warriors came up short again, this time by five points thanks to Niyi Adeolokun’s touchdown and four goals from AJ MacGinty. An all-Ireland final at Murrayfield the following week made it a tough viewing for Townsend and his Warriors who had won the title in such exhilarating fashion against Munster twelve months earlier.
“Not as tough, though, was watching the replay of our semi-final in Galway,’’ Townsend says. ‘’We had a meeting on the Sunday and you could see the hurt written on the faces of all the players.
“We know how much hard work goes into just getting to the play-offs. It would be such a thrill to get back there again this season and I firmly believe we have the squad capable of going a long way.’’
Wherever he looks, Townsend sees serious contenders for the title. Connacht, bottom or second from bottom for six consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2010, are unquestionably the team to beat. If last season’s success was unexpected, to say the least, nobody ought to be one bit surprised should the Pat Lam-John Muldoon partnership make it a double.
“Connacht did it on their ability to move the ball and their all-round range of skills,’’ Townsend says. “They place a big emphasis on skills, they really have a go at teams and that was one reason why I enjoyed the final.
“Irish rugby is really strong but there are so many other reasons why this season will be the most competitive of all. More teams will be in contention for the top four than ever before.
“Ospreys are always in the mix and I felt last season they were affected more than most by the World Cup, not just in respect of their Welsh players but with the injuries to key Canadians (Jeff Hassler and Tyler Ardron).
“Cardiff Blues are much improved. Then you look at the Scarlets. If they are all fit, they will have surely the best back line in Europe.’’
In an attempt to avoid being run-out of the top four as they were last season after losing three of their closing four matches, the West Walians have recruited from
Near and far. While Rhys Patchell has made the short switch from the other side of the South Wales belt, Johnny McNicholl of the Crusaders has come from the other side of the world.
When Townsend speaks of the best back line in Europe, he can scarcely be accused of over-stating the case, not with Gareth Davies and Patchell at half-back, Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies at centre, DTH van der Merwe on one wing, McNicholl on the other and the dazzling Liam Williams at full back.
Other match-winning arrivals ought to keep the attendance graph on its steep upward curve. By pinching himself at the growth of the PRO12, Townsend cites Ulster’s 18,000-capacity in Belfast. Even that may not be big enough now that the electrifying All Black Charles Piutau has joined the northern province after a season on loan to Wasps.
Nine years ago, Ulster were averaging around 10,000, Munster 7,190 and Leinster 11,592. Last season all three had raised their figures by more than 50 per cent and that in spite of the fact that none of the trio won any silverware.
Newport Gwent Dragons have experienced a similar increase, from barely 5,500 nine years ago to 8,000. And Edinburgh have more than doubled their support, from 2,685 to 5,479 with plenty of room for more.
No wonder Townsend feels the need to pinch himself.