10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
But there are only six points separating the next five teams in the battle for the next three places.
There are two Heineken Cup quarter-finalists in the chasing pack, Leinster and Ulster, last season's Amlin Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets.
The Magners League is growing in stature, influence and appeal both on and off the field with audiences increasing at games, on TV and on the internet.
Those were the pleasing facts issued to the participating teams by Celtic Rugby chairman Andy Irvine at a recent meeting in Edinburgh to review progress following the introduction of the two Italian clubs this season.
Both Benetton Treviso and Aironi Rugby have made positive contributions to the Magners League in their first season, with Treviso averaging almost 4,500 supporters per game.
And with gates set to break through the one million mark for the first time in the competition's history this season, Irvine is rightly pleased with the progress being made by Europe's youngest, yet arguably most competitive league.
"The figures produced after the first half of our expanded season are hugely encouraging and a tribute to all the hard work that has been put in both on and off the field by the clubs, coaches, players, administrators and marketeers," said Irvine.
"We know we have an excellent, expanding product and it is great to see more and more people engaging with it.
"Some of the world's biggest names are playing in the Magners League and the level of competition on the pitch continues to rise.
"The on-field battles are set to reach fever pitch over the next few months as the fight for places in the play-offs on the road to the second Magners League grand final hots up."
Among the headline figures revealed to the clubs by Irvine were:
• Sespite the difficult economic climate, attendance figures have remained constant on a game-for-game basis and show a 30% increase with the addition of the two Italian teams.
• Almost 700,000 fans through the gates in 16 rounds
• A league record gate of 50,645 for the Leinster v Munster game at the Aviva Stadium
• On target to top more than one million fans by the grand final on May 28
• 120 out of 134 matches being show live
• Matches shown on terrestrial TV in Ireland, Scotland and Wales
• A 10% growth in viewing figures in Wales with weekly averages of 254,750
• Online audiences of more than 900,000 unique users per month across the Magners League and club websites
• Leinster and Ulster reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and Munster the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup
Irvine added: "To use the marketing jargon, we feel we are really growing our brand and making incisive progress into our four national territories both on and off the field.
"Celtic Rugby has been administering the league since 2001 and this is only our 10th season. But even within those 10 seasons there have been substantial changes to the format and number of teams and, with the valuable addition of the Italians this season, it really has been a new beginning for us.
"In addition to that, the governance and control of the expanded Magners League has been taken over by CEO John Feehan's team in Dublin at the Six Nations and Lions offices and their impact has already seen a number of new initiatives put in place, notably regarding discipline.
"As we march towards the second Magners League grand final on Saturday, May 28, we have a clear leader at the top in Munster, but then have five teams within six points of each other.
"Just below the six, there is a chasing pack of four clubs split by only seven points.
"Just as last season, when we first introduced the play-off system and grand final format, the battle for the top four places is likely to go down to the wire.
"The Magners League is on the march and the prestigious grand final beckons for two of Europe's top teams."
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