Friday 2 December 2016

Pool of dread is exactly what Leinster deserve

Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip and his Leinster teammates were handed a nightmare Champions Cup draw
Jamie Heaslip and his Leinster teammates were handed a nightmare Champions Cup draw

Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip and many of his colleagues were glued to their laptops for the start of the Champions Cup draw - it would be interesting to note how many machines were flung against the wall when it concluded.

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With Pro12 meritocracy now correctly reigning supreme, Leinster were duly punished for their failure under the sacked Matt O'Connor to reach last term's league play-offs by landing in a group of death.

Munster have been handed a golden opportunity to emerge from a pool that, unusually for them, features the token shambolic Italian presence; if Anthony Foley's men flunk this test, their management will follow Leinster's out the gap.

Ulster, a bit like Leinster, have a few scores to settle, particularly a grievance harboured since the quarter-finals two seasons ago when an early red card for Jared Payne proved so costly in a Belfast quarter-final against Mark McCall's Saracens.

For Leinster, however, their pool's familiarity will breed little content, especially as they are still without a head coach to guide them.

Wasps, who deserved much more than the one draw they earned in two pool meetings last season against the Blues, will return with a vexed Jimmy Gopperth seeking to prove many supporters wrong.

So too, Bath, who ran Leinster ragged in an Aviva quarter-final before just falling short; Mike Ford's Premiership finalists will be ever better next season.

Oh, and did we mention Toulon, too?

Buttressed by Heaslip's successor as Ireland captain, Paul O'Connell, the three-time champions were only second seeds thanks to their league finishing position.

"Like most of the lads I was glued to the laptop," said Heaslip of a pool that can boast nine European titles, just one fewer than the combined total of the other four pools.

"Obviously there will be the hype around Paulie and his return to these shores to take on an Irish team, but leaving Paul O'Connell aside, Toulon are a formidable outfit and have recruited really well once again."

Perhaps mindful of this pool's difficulty, serial chokers Clermont have been installed ahead of Toulon as favourites to lift the title in Lyon next year; Leinster, Munster (16/1) and Ulster (20/1) are all outside the top eight in the betting.

Munster's pool will evoke painful memories of their early European odyssey - in successive years, they were controversially denied in a semi-final by Stade Francais (2001), when John O'Neill's try was incorrectly ruled out, before the infamous Neil Back-hander in the Cardiff final 12 months later.

"The last time Leicester played here they became the first visiting team to beat us at Thomond Park in European competition," noted Foley. "It's up to us to rise to the occasion.

"Last season, Thomond Park wasn't quite the fortress our fans had become accustomed to, so that will serve as a good motivation for us to put that right. Not getting out of our pool was tough to take and we don't want to be in that position again."

In the Challenge Cup, Connacht have been literally sent to Siberia - they face Russian side Enisei-STM - a fate that seemed set to befall Leinster at one stage during their calamitous league campaign.

Ultimately, like all the Pro12 sides, Leinster got what they deserved.

Irish Independent

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