'There's no doubt about the attractiveness of the competition — it's going in the right direction'
THERE are two rules of life: Real Madrid's bank manager will suffer heart palpitations every summer and someone from the Pro12 league will pop up with stats extolling the virtues of a competition that is so often written up as the troubled child of European rugby.
We don't know for certain if any crash teams have been sent to the offices of the hombre who decides whether to wave through loans to Real, but it seems safe to assume the chap in question needs to be watched closely after the free-spending Spaniards agreed to not only hand over £86 million for Gareth Bale but also pay him more in a week (£300,000) than Barack Obama earns in a year (£260,000).
And the late August sighting of a bloke from the Pro12 banging on about how great the competition is? Right on cue, chief executive John Feehan did the honours.
"I would categorically deny we are the poor relative," said chief executive Feehan in answer to a suggestion that the league was struggling to keep pace with the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 after the decision of Dutch banking group RaboDirect not to renew their sponsorship at the end of the coming season.
"We had more British & Irish Lions than any other league. Our growth rates are higher than anyone else's and the development of our stadiums and teams is happening.
"Everything is going in the right direction. When Magners finished as sponsors in 2010 we only had about 900,000 people through the turnstiles, while this year it was 1.1m. That says more than a sponsor. There's no doubt about the attractiveness of the competition."
In fairness to Feehan, the figures on crowds and number of Lions in the league are worth repeating.
But over the Severn Bridge there is still a stubborn perception that the league doesn't quite cut it.
Undoubtedly, it has been a challenging summer for all connected with the Pro12.
Not only has the main sponsor signalled their intention to move on, but George North, Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts, Kahn Fotuali'i and Jonathan Sexton are among leading players who have departed.
How significant are those exits? Well, if you were picking a northern hemisphere-based side to take on the best of the south tomorrow, all five of those players would be in contention to start. For all the talk of freeing up space for youngsters to come through, the Pro12 will be significantly weaker for the quintet's absence.
Then there are the regions and their seemingly never-ending struggle for extra funding.
The Welsh Rugby Union have set aside £1 million as a one-off means of helping the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons, but even chief executive Roger Lewis admitted this week: "We know that more than £1m is required."
Over the Severn Bridge, the words of Sale chief Steve Diamond almost came across as gloating. "We have the toughest club competition in the world," he said of the Aviva Premiership. Quite what the likes of Toulouse, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Stade Francais, Racing Metro, Castres and Perpignan make of such a claim is anyone's guess.
But that is a debate for another time and another place.
The Pro12 simply has to make the best of itself.
Player losses may have hurt the league, but Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Jonathan Davies, Richard Hibbard, Ian Evans, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, Brian O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien, Ruan Pienaar, Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell and Cian Healey are still around and all are players of the very highest quality. In an ideal world, such players would be available week-in, week-out.
But rugby is as far removed from an ideal world as it is possible to be, with a season that remains woefully structured, and so for much of the season squad players will be as important as those who have asterisks against their names in matchday programmes.
Maybe in time tighter qualification for the Heineken Cup — the English and French still want to see only six Pro12 sides in the tournament, not the 11 which will take part this time — will see the focus changed, but that would need the co-operation of the governing bodies who invariably give higher priority to national teams.
The Welsh challenge is undoubtedly hurt by the modest funding. And the concern this term is that Treviso will push on and offer a serious challenge for a play-off place after making significant strides last season.
If the well-funded Italians join Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Glasgow in the play-off hunt, then it could prove a testing campaign for the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons. The Ospreys look the strongest of the regions, with a first-choice pack that could involve five Lions and Ryan Jones. Firing on all cylinders, and with fit back-up, that lot could give any forward unit in Europe a game.
Dan Biggar offers rock-solid dependability at fly-half, and could even kick on if he can use as his default setting the outstanding display he came up with against Leinster in the final game of last season, when he lost nothing in comparison with Sexton, the Osprey doing all he could to trigger a massively depleted backline.
Eli Walker is a potential diamond out wide, while the Ospreys will also have more penetration when they get Hanno Dirksen fit. It goes without saying that they need Jeff Hassler, Aisea Natoga and Tito Tebaldi to hit the ground running in the league — and it wouldn't hurt for the highly regarded Tyler Ardron to prove a hit up front, either.
The Scarlets have lost North's quality behind and Matthew Rees's experience up front. John Barclay will add to their strength in the back row, but they look short of a gain-line busting No. 8 and a top-notch wing. But if Jordan Williams and Rhodri Williams come through, the West Walians could yet have some sparkle behind.
Out east, the Blues have recruited Jenkins and Rees and have a fly-half in Rhys Patchell who is being talked up as the next big thing. But they still lack a Heineken Cup-quality tight-head prop.
Under Lyn Jones, the Dragons should be more competitive. Faletau's decision to stay is a huge boost, Lydiate's departure a massive loss. Swings and roundabouts. All will be seeking a good start.
A tight competition beckons, one in which the Ospreys, Glasgow, Ulster and Leinster, even without Jonny Sexton and the retired Isa Nacewa, will be fancied to be there or thereabouts when the dust settles in May. It might even be a memorable season. For sure, the Pro12 needs one.