Tony Ward: Shift in balance of power means four provinces have to make early impression
Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30
Hard to believe I know but this is the 22nd playing of what is now the European Champions Cup. The trophy, albeit in its previous ERC Heineken Cup existence, has made its way to these shores at the climax of six of those tournaments.
Where once pool qualification for Leinster, Munster and Ulster was a given, now it is anything but. That in itself is no bad thing but equally it's hard to comprehend the negativity that surrounds all four Irish professional entities this season, each having qualified by their own efforts alone for the first time ever.
Yes, it is a very different playing field since EPCR took control and the money men waded in but to suggest an element of 'what's the point?' beggars belief. We do not have the TV riches of Top 14 or English Premiership clubs but what we do have on this island is an excellent underage system still churning out fine players.
Do we wish it were different? Of course we do in terms of hard cash and the ability to compete for top signatures but to suggest this a cause no longer worth fighting is very wrong.
The Champions Cup is international rugby in all but name and certainly the most prestigious tournament outside of the Test arena. I know I speak for most when, to borrow from the previous sponsor, 'Champions Cup rugby refreshes the parts most others can't reach'.
This is a great tournament and outside of international rugby is the highlight of the professional calendar. Even the insular French have come around to that way of thinking despite the still-massive emphasis on the domestic Coup de France, the Bouclier de Brennus.
Certainly the Pro12 teams, and the Irish element in particular, will be tested to the full this opening weekend given the Top 14 v Pro12 factor to all four games involving Irish teams. Around this time last year, the disappointment of the World Cup from an Irish perspective impacted hugely on morale both on the field and off.
The anticipation experienced by players and fans alike was marked by its absence when Round 1 in mid-November eventually kicked into gear. We won't pretend it will be at fever pitch 12 months on but I will be more than a little surprised if Leinster and Connacht are not dealing with close to full houses in the RDS and Sportsground come kick-off time today.
Leinster will be first into action when facing down Castres at the RDS. Obviously winning will be first and foremost in Leo Cullen's mind but the way in which this tournament has evolved over the years denying the opposition a losing bonus point is every bit as important when the final points are tallied in late January and Leinster travel to Stade Pierre Antoine for the return leg. Against Munster last week, without wishing to over exaggerate, they won pulling up. They weren't anywhere close to top gear and yet never were they really challenged despite Munster crossing the white wash twice.
Robbie Henshaw looks a great signing and while it is ridiculously early to be touting his combination with Garry Ringrose for the Autumn Internationals, there's no denying it did look tasty but will require much stiffer examination before a definitive judgement can be made. The atmosphere and likely intensity today ought provide another step along that road.
Leinster might not have the all-singing, all-dancing stars of old but there is enough in this squad to suggest qualification from a difficult pool including Montpellier and Northampton.
That said, winning today by more than seven is an essential given the severity of what lies ahead, particularly on the road.
In Galway, a little piece of history will be created when John Muldoon (pictured) leads out team Connacht in the premier competition for the very first time on their own merit. Against Ulster last week they were quite superb even if they do choose to live dangerously (as in the second half) when the hard graft appears to be done.
Pat Lam's comment of Toulouse looking to suffocate while obvious is also true. Turn back the clock to 2013 when they did just that, winning 37-9. And yet when Connacht play purposeful, possession rugby the New Zealand way, it is very difficult to counter. It's a lot easier to create point-scoring opportunities with the ball than without it.
Toulouse are no longer the Galacticos storming Europe like they once did but they are still the club with the most tournament wins (four) to date. They prioritise Europe, making today 'must-win' territory for Connacht, although both have the advantage of competing in a pool in which two teams (because of the Italian presence) ought qualify. With Wasps likely to be one, the importance of today's outcome scarcely needs elaboration.
Tomorrow sees home advantage with the French as Ulster and Munster travel to Bordeaux and Paris respectively. Ulster were anything but impressive last weekend in Galway and, despite the early second-half 14-point comeback, they flattered to deceive.
Les Kiss has called for an instant reaction in terms of how they start against Bordeaux-Begles. It is vital they lay down an early marker in their attempt to create that platform for Paddy Jackson to do his thing. Jackson is every bit as important now to Ulster as Johnny Sexton is to Leinster.
Linking is still paramount but game management from first whistle to last is now a demand and not an aspiration. With Ian Madigan set to be immediately opposite, the added spice is obvious although I will be more than a little surprised if Joe Schmidt moves beyond his stance on players playing abroad. Can't say I agree but another argument for another day.
Last but not least into action is the team (along with Toulouse) that made this tournament what it subsequently became. Munster were devoid of presence last week in the Aviva and for the life of me I can't see whence that creative spark is likely to come. This, as alluded to by Rassie Erasmus in mid-week, is about digging deep and delivering on history and tradition.
Nobody understands the emotional relevance of a Munster dressing room better than Ronan O'Gara. Advantage Racing. Take a two-two split this weekend with home comforts proving decisive.