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Celtic League (Rugby Union)

From Academic Kids

The Celtic League is an annual Rugby Union competition involving regional sides from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

History

Despite Rugby Union being widely played as a national sport in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all three national leagues had began to fall further and further behind the English Zurich Premiership and the French TOP 16 in terms of quality. This was especially apparent regarding the relative strength in depth of the leagues and also their commercial strength. This was in turn affecting the clubs' European Rugby Cup and international team performances.

Two seasons of a Scottish / Welsh league (essentially the Welsh Premier Division with (Edinburgh and Glasgow) added on) had already been played. An agreement was made between the three countries federations to create a new competition which would bring in the four Irish provinces. 2001 would see the very first incarnation of the Celtic League.

Some saw the competition as the fore-runner of a British / Irish league with teams from England also taking part. The WRU had previously negotiated with the RFU to form an Anglo-Welsh league but negotiations had broken down over how many teams from each union would take part.

2001/02 and 2002/03

The first season would see fifteen teams compete - all four current Irish Regions (Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster), two Scottish teams (Edinburgh and Glasgow) and all nine Welsh Premier Division teams (Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Llanelli, Neath, Newport, Pontypridd and Swansea).

Played alongside each country's own national competitions, the teams were split into two groups (of 8 and 7) and played a series of round-robin matches with each team playing the other only once. The top four teams from each group proceeded into the knock-out phase until a champion was found.

Ironically the demands of the Celtic league led to the Scottish / Welsh league being abandoned in 2002. The Irish interprovisional championship was also downgraded.

The second (2002/03) season's format was identical except for the addition of a third Scottish side, the newly formed Scottish Borders.

2003/04

A major change in Celtic League philosophy came during the early part of 2003, partly due to the commercial success of the league itself but mostly because of the onset of Welsh Regional Rugby due to financial constraints in Wales that left Wales with only five fully professional clubs. It was decided that the Celtic League would become the sole professional league of the three countries, incorporating all four Irish, three Scottish and the five new Welsh (Cardiff Blues, Celtic Warriors, Llanelli Scarlets, Neath-Swansea Ospreys and Gwent Dragons).

Reformatted into a traditional league competition (round-robin style, all clubs play each other twice, once home, once away), which meant that a season long 22-round match program was launched, and with a new strength in depth due to the amalgamation of Welsh teams and the continuing strengthening of Irish and Scottish teams through the re-signing and retention of star players, the league has been in rugby terms a success. Also introduced for the 2003/04 season has been the Celtic Cup, a straight knock-out cup competition between the 12 Celtic League teams.

However the unfortunate timing of the league's launch and poor organisation of a working calendar meant that first the 2003 Rugby World Cup and later the RBS Six Nations Championship prevented many of the league's top stars from playing in over half the games. This meant that commercially the league has struggled, especially regarding the newly adopted regions in Wales where the game has always traditionally been played on a club basis, not having the regional histories of Ireland or Scotland.

2004/05 and 2005/06

The league format was further refined at the end of the 2003/04 season, with the participants deciding to better manage the dates of the matches so as to not interfere with the national squad setups and to make the league more commercially viable.

The league will now be played until April and then the Celtic Cup competition will be contested amongst the top eight teams of the League.

However even the prospect of the improved league structure wasn't enough to keep all the competitors viable with the liquidation of the Celtic Warriors region by the WRU, meaning that in 2004/05 Wales will have only four entrants in a league of eleven teams.

The new format takes the league into what many see as a make or break season, clear of massive distractions such as the Rugby World Cup and with the Welsh regions now at least partly embedded, the signs are looking optimistic so far that the Celtic League will be a competition that can continue on for many years to come.

The 2004/5 season was the first season that Ireland agreed to use the Celtic League standings to determine which provinces would enter the Heineken Cup. The IRFU favoured Leinster and Munster over Ulster and Connacht since they contributed the bulk of the Ireland national team. A consequence of this was that Irish provinces often fielded virtual second teams for Celtic league games and put their first team out only for Heineken Cup games as the results did not really matter. This had a knock-on effect of devaluing the competition.

There was an announcement that a 'Rainbow Cup' would replace the Celtic Cup with 4 Italian sides and 9 South African provincial sides alongside the Celtic League sides. If this were to take place Italian sides might join an expanded Celtic League.

As of 2005 there are discussions over a potential Anglo-Welsh cup competition which some saw as undermining the Celtic League. Despite Welsh assurances that the proposed Anglo-Welsh tournament would not interfere with their commitments to either the Celtic League in its present format or an expanded 'Rainbow League' the SRU and IRFU cited the fact that the WRU had made arrangements to play games on five weekends without regard to Celtic League fixtures. Welsh sides were expelled from the Celtic League in June 2005. It was proposed that the competition will continue as a Scottish and Irish affair for the 2005/6 season with the possible addition of 4 Italian sides and the readmittance of Welsh sides for the 2006/7 season. A deal was then reached that allowed for the Celtic League to continue with some restructuring of fixtures involving Welsh clubs to accomodate the Anglo-Welsh cup.

Statistics

Celtic League
SeasonTeamsWinnersRunners-Up
2001/0215LeinsterMunster
2002/0316MunsterNeath
2003/0412LlanelliUlster
2004/0511OspreysMunster
Celtic Cup
SeasonTeamsWinnersRunners-Up
2003/0412UlsterEdinburgh
2004/058MunsterLlanelli

See also

External Links


Competitons
Celtic League | Celtic Cup

Federation Links
Welsh Rugby Union | Irish Rugby Football Union | Scottish Rugby Union

Celtic League Regions
The Borders (Scotland) | Cardiff Blues (Wales) | Celtic Warriors (Wales - defunct) | Connacht (Ireland) | Edinburgh Rugby (Scoland) | Glasgow Rugby (Scoland) | Leinster Rugby (Ireland) | Llanelli Scarlets (Wales) | Munster (Ireland) | Neath-Swansea Ospreys (Wales) | Newport Gwent Dragons (Wales) | Ulster (Ireland) |

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