Rory Best targets Guinness PRO12 title charge
Skipper wants to bring an end to Ulster's long silverware drought
The all-new Guinness PRO12 is ready for lift-off, with yesterday's launch at Diageo's London headquarters in Park Royal setting the tone for next weekend's eagerly anticipated start on September 5.
The launch was attended by each of the participating 12 clubs' captains and coaches. Skipper Rory Best and backs mentor Neil Doak were there to represent Ulster.
With Ulster having finished as runners-up to Leinster in 2013, who also beat them in last season's semi-final, and without a trophy since 2006, Best is hoping it will be a case of third time lucky for his province.
"It is a fresh start for us and we have a very exciting young back line, along with the two older boys – Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble," he said.
"We have come close on a few occasions and probably just fallen short on a little bit of experience and tactical nous in the big games," he admitted.
There was much talk yesterday of Ireland out-half Jonathan Sexton's return to Leinster when his contract with Racing Metro expires in June 2015.
Asked if that news had come as a surprise to him, Best replied: "Not in the slightest. What you want is to have your players back with your provinces. It would be a great boost for the PRO12, the club, Ireland and in general. You want your best players here.
"To have world class players playing in this league, then the better it is going to get. We have some fantastic internationals in it – to bring Jonny back into that next season it would be a big boost for the league.
"It might be a pain in the bum for the rest of us, but that is the way it goes!"
And unable to resist the temptation of a joke at his Ireland team-mate's expense, Best suggested Ulster had no need of Sexton.
"We probably wouldn't want him! We have Paddy Jackson and Ian Humphreys," he said before adding: "But it would be a major bonus to have Jonny playing here."
Having seen off Ulster in May's semi-final, Leinster then put paid to Glasgow Warriors in the RDS shoot-out for the trophy.
As fate would have it, they play one another in next weekend's opening round.
The Scots' captain – for the ninth season in a row – is Al Kellock. Recalling that 34-12 defeat at the RDS, he said: "It was a great day but from our point of view it was obviously disappointing to lose it.
And in anticipation of the Scotstoun re-match, he added: "The whole city is looking forward to the first game.
"It has been a good few years and we have gradually been getting better and better. We have got a few lessons we need to learn, mostly from Leinster, over the last couple of years."
With the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italians clubs' qualification for the European Rugby Champions Cup now dependent on their finishing positions in the Guinness PRO12, the new league competition promises to have added bite.
With no English clubs in the competition, the decision to stage the launch in London raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted.
But John Feehan, the PRO12's Chief Executive Officer, clarified matters by saying: "It's a statement of intent. We are confident in our own ability to appeal not to just those in the Celtic countries and Italy, but to the whole of Britain."
And referring to the fact that the new-look PRO12 now has two global business giants in unison – title sponsors Guinness and Sky Sports as broadcasters – he added: "Sky and Guinness believe in us and we believe in ourselves."
Highlighting the PRO12's status, Feehan continued: "Even before Sky came on board we had half a million people watching games.
"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."
That 'European qualification on merit' was something on which the powerful English and French clubs insisted during protracted negotiations to thrash out an agreement on a new format, their view being that inclusion had to be earned rather than guaranteed regardless of how the Irish, Welsh, Scots or Italians fared in the previous season's PRO12.
Last term, for example, saw all but one of the PRO12's dozen clubs feature in the Heineken Cup, with Newport Gwent Dragons, who finished 11th, the only absentees from the premier tournament.
The 11 PRO12 clubs in the Heineken Cup included Zebre, despite the fact that they had finished bottom of the pile after losing all 22 of their league matches in the 2012-13 season. That anomaly rather made the case for the English and French in their insistence on change.
As of now, the only guarantees are that the best-placed Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian outfits will all be in the European Champions Cup. After that, all additional places must be earned.
Feehan saw that as a huge positive, saying: "It means we will have a competitive round of games right up until the end of the season."