As the chairman of the RaboDirect Pro12, Andy Irvine conducts tours of clubs with considerable pride; as a pillar of the Edinburgh rugby community he admits he also does so with envy.

Fresh from duty as manager of the British & Irish Lions party which won its Test series with Australia this summer, the former Scotland captain and SRU president offered a warm welcome to the new season to players, coaches, dignitaries, administrators and media in Belfast yesterday.

Held at the Titanic Experience, it was perhaps ill-fitting that this launch was for the Pro12 rather than England's Aviva Premiership, given the statistics Irvine took satisfaction in reporting.

"Match audiences are up 4.3% which may not seem that significant but that compares with the Aviva which is down 1% on last year," he revealed.

No sinking feeling hereabouts, then, with Ulster's attendances up by almost 35%, those of Cardiff Blues up by nearly a quarter and Glasgow Warriors' up more than 13%.

Television audiences also increased and organisers expect that trend to continue to rise exponentially next year when, for the first time ever, they not only have a British and Irish broadcaster on board for the first time but can expect the full weight of Sky TV's marketing brilliance for support. They will be the main rugby vehicle with which the broadcaster will seek to defend its market share from BT Vision.

It also means that, as disappointing as it always is when a main sponsor departs, RaboDirect's announcement last week - that it would be leaving when the current deal expires at the end of this season - could have come at a worse time.

"It's massive . . . fantastic for us and we can't wait," Irvine said of Sky's involvement. "It will certainly help us find a new sponsor too. In fairness to Rabo they've been super to work with for the last two years and I'm sure they'll put a lot in this year.

"We've got to look at this as another opportunity to bring in a sponsor that can perhaps embrace three or four countries that bit greater because Rabo did have a bias towards Ireland for obvious reasons because that's where their commercials are based."

Things have certainly come a long way since the first tentative moves were taken towards creating this competition around the turn of the millennium.

Four grand slams, three more Triple Crowns and five Heineken Cup wins by the Celtic nations with their combined population of around 20% of either England or France demonstrate that this is by far the most successful of Europe's competitions when it comes to developing elite rugby teams. Irvine, though, is also a businessman and knows the PRO12 lags way behind the Aviva and France's Top 14 in commercial terms.

"It is encouraging but we've got to be realistic, we're still not playing week-in, week-out in front of packed audiences and that's what we've got to aspire to," he said. "Of all the countries, Ireland's been a success. Munster often play in front of a packed house, Leinster do; even lowly Connacht do a fantastic job. They've got a great community set-up there.

"They're incredibly passionate and supportive and I think they are a shining example of what a wee place can do. Look at Ulster . . . Ravenshill's been re-developed and Glasgow have made big improvements. It's great to see a big increase of attendances there and that's on the back of a successful side and good on them. They're not only winning but they're playing a great brand of rugby."

Most disappointing of all, however, is the contribution of his home city, one which prides itself on its rugby traditions but has been unable so far to provide a suitable venue for staging PRO12 rugby. "It really pains me to see Edinburgh playing at Murrayfield," said Irvine.

"I would love to see them in a smaller venue, even if it was somewhere like Meggetland in front of three and a half or four thousand."

While he could be seen as having contributed to that situation - he was part of the Murrayfield regime as SRU president around the time Edinburgh moved to the national stadium from Meadowbank - it is the professional administrators who make the final decisions.

"In fairness to the board and the executive they are well aware of the problem," he said. "I had a word with Alan Solomons [Edinburgh's new head coach] yesterday about it and he agrees. The players I'm sure would love to play in front of a packed audience even if it was four or five thousand."

While Ross Rennie, the senior Edinburgh player representing the squad at the launch, did not exactly refute that, he justifiably defended the much-improved quality of the Murrayfield experience over the past two seasons.

"I think the environment and the evening, the show that we put on at Edinburgh, is so much better with people standing on the track now," said the Scotland flanker.

"They can bring their kids and if the kids don't want to watch they can throw a ball about while others can have a beer and walk about which is much more of a club atmosphere.

"You find so often with Edinburgh people that if they're all just sitting in their seats no-one will say anything, whereas the fact that they are standing and having conversations about the game creates a really good atmosphere. I've got a lot of friends who didn't come and watch before but do now because of that."

Even so, Glasgow Warriors have, by comparison, the best of both worlds with the match-night environment Rennie describes, but in a suitably sized venue.

Consequently, for all that Irvine is anxious to be constructive in his criticism, few would argue with the assertions of a man who can recall thrilling evenings representing Edinburgh against the All Blacks, Australia and Fiji at club grounds.

"There are problems because there is no obvious ground that Edinburgh can go to and it's something I know they are working on it very hard. The trouble is it takes time to find a site to develop a stadium," Irvine said.

"Personally I would go to some of the smaller venues that are available at the moment. I would guess you could probably add 500 or 1000 to the capacity of Meggetland.

"I don't want to talk out of turn here because there may well be other reasons. There are certain regulations in the Rabo where there are minimum standards that you have to adhere to and if you don't have that then clearly there is a problem," he acknowledged.

"So before you're critical you have to check all of that out, but all I would say is that if it's going to take a number of years to find the ideal site then let's modify one of the existing grounds and try it."