Ryan Byrne/INPHO John Ryan, JJ Hanrahan, Paul O'Connell and Donnacha Ryan celebrate after Munster's semi-final win.
# Pro12
'More tries. More competitive. More punters - The season that the Pro12 fought back'
Neil Treacy reflects on a record-breaking year for the league.

MORE TRIES. MORE competitive. More punters. This was the season that the Pro12 fought back.

The standard of the Italian sides may be as big a concern as ever, but for the most part, the new Champions Cup qualification process has had a huge impact on the quality of the league.

A record number of tries, the most closely-fought top four since the expansion to 12 teams, a further increase in attendances, and with something to fight for in every game in round 22, it’s clear that the 2014/15 edition of the league has given us the most entertaining campaign yet.

From an Irish perspective, the new qualification process for Europe had a major impact on Connacht, whose form for three-quarters of the season was the most refreshing aspect of the season.

The numbers don’t lie – this was the best yet.

The four semi-finalists may have been guaranteed their places heading into the final round, but with the 100% record of home sides in the last four, the scrap to secure territory on the final day was beautifully set.

Iain Henderson with Keith Earls Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Indeed, it was the closest top-four race since the expansion to 12 teams in 2010. After full-time of round 22, just six points separated first-place Glasgow and fourth-place Ulster — half the total that was between the top four this time last year.

The season before that saw a 15-point gap, 16 in the year prior, and a chasmic 20 points separating them in the 2010/11 season.

The race for the top four may have been the closet yet, but it was the meritorious rules for Champions Cup qualification that had the biggest impact on the league this season, with the mid-table competition greater than ever.

Previously, Connacht’s season would never get going after they’d fall behind Munster, Leinster and Ulster in the race to finish as the top three Irish sides, but a Champions Cup spot for finishing sixth, as well as a playoff for finishing seventh, gave them and the other middle-of-the-road sides real incentive the longer the season wore on.

While we saw the smallest ever gap between the top four, we also had the narrowest margin between the top six. Just 19 points separated Glasgow from the Scarlets, eight less than in the previous two seasons.

And despite being closer to the top of the table than ever before, the sixth-place team still had to endure a close fight to take that spot. There was just nine points in the difference between the Scarlets in a Champions Cup position and Edinburgh, who missed out on a playoff.

Kieran Marmion scores his side's first try James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

In previous seasons, the gap between 6th and 8th was much, much greater at 17, 16, 18 and 17 points respectively, a telling statistic on the impact of the new European qualification processes.

The league table was tighter than ever but that’s not to say the games were any less entertaining for those in attendance, a number which was up 318 punters per game on average from last season.

With 575 tries scored in the 22 regular seasons rounds, it was a whopping 49 tries higher that the previous record set two years ago, and 50 tries more than we saw last season. Compared to the 2010/11 season it looks even more impressive, 94 greater than the first 12-team league.

It’s likely with Leinster being the sole Pro 12 representative in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup, there was less need for the likes of Munster, Ulster, or even the Ospreys to rest big name players as the season wore on, with the meeting of Munster and Ulster in Kingspan Stadium in Round 21 a perfect example of how important strong teams can be for the league to become more popular.

That draw in Belfast was the 8th and final stalemate of the campaign, again a record, and another stat which shows how close the top sides were in the competition.

However, while the league as a whole has been a far better product, the performances of the Italian sides are a major concern.

Treviso fell to their record low number of points since entering the league five seasons ago, finishing second bottom on 19 points, while Zebre’s 15 points marked the first ever time that the bottom two accumulated less than 20 points each.

Both were stranded at the bottom, with the 16 points separating Treviso from 10th-place Cardiff double the biggest gap seen between the two positions since they entered the league.

When they and Zebre were beaten, they were beaten badly, picking up just six losing bonus points between them, the lowest combined total for the two Italian sides since they entered the league.

It’s arguable that a guaranteed Champions Cup place for the Italian sides, regardless of position has had its say on their performances: on the final day of the season, Zebre could have secured top-tier European rugby for next season with a bonus point win against Cardiff.

Finding the incentive for them to become competitive again is the only thing stopping next season from being even better than the one just gone.

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