Tough draw and World Cup hangover has provinces fighting for Champions Cup lives
Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30
Over the past 17 seasons, the presence of an Irish team in the quarter-finals of the European Cup has been a staple of the sporting calendar.
Since 1998/'99 when Ulster claimed the crown, we have come to expect involvement in the last eight and beyond over the course of a glorious period for the provinces, but this season the road to that stage has rarely looked so treacherous.
Every season, the 2012 Heineken Cup, when three provinces reached the quarter-finals, before Leinster and Ulster met in the only all-Irish final at Twickenham, looks increasingly like the high-watermark for Irish rugby.
Since the Blues claimed their third title no Irish team has been back to a final. In 2012/'13 and 2013/'14, however, Ireland kept up a respectable rate of two quarter-finalists and one semi-finalist, while Leinster were the sole representatives in the last eight and semi-finals last season.
If that trend is followed, we may well be looking at a season where there is just one province in the quarter-finals who go no further, but the downward graph may be accelerated further because of a combination of the World Cup and an incredibly tough draw.
Each of the three Irish sides in this year's Champions Cup has their own huge challenges to face.
There was a time when past European performance would have guaranteed Leinster a seeding this year, but of course the changes before last season mean that your place on the start-line in Europe is completely based on performance in your domestic league in the previous season, and that is bad news for Leo Cullen and his men.
Finishing fifth in the Guinness Pro12 means that Ireland's most successful province go into the same pool as the two teams they faced in the knockouts last season and another who they barely saw off in the early stages.
Toulon, Bath and Wasps stand in the three-time champions' way and even Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa's return might not be enough.
They, at least, have a strong squad with fully-fit Ireland internationals to choose from, unlike their neighbours who are counting the cost of an attritional autumn.
Despite supplying fewer players to Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad than Leinster, Ulster and Munster have borne the brunt and are weakened significantly as a result.
Anthony Foley is coping without Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell in his back-row, while Paul O'Connell's loss will also be felt. Felix Jones' retirement is another huge blow. Ulster's new supremo Les Kiss faces the beginning of the pool stages without Iain Henderson, Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe.
None of the Irish provinces have been able to field their strongest XV in the build-up and so won't be able to rely on continuity in the opening weeks, while re-integrating the Ireland squad members into the club mindset and game-plan will be key.
While Leinster do look to have improved, you couldn't argue that either Munster or Ulster are stronger than they were last season when they failed to escape from tough pools. The draw has not been overly kind to either, albeit Munster do have the one Italian side, Treviso, first up which gives them a chance to gain momentum.
Still, French champions Stade Francais lie in wait in Paris in round two, while the head-to-heads with Leicester Tigers in December will define their season.
Ulster, similarly, face old foes Saracens in Belfast in week two and, while newcomers Oyonnax may lose interest over the course of the season as they focus on the Top 14, Kiss's men have the misfortune of being the first away team to visit the Jura and are likely to receive a hostile reception.
So, it is likely to come down to next month's back-to-back games with Toulouse to decide the men in white's fate and Henderson's availability for those games will be key.
While the French and English sides have picked off the cream of the World Cup stars for the coming season, Ireland's provinces have been trying to find bargains in the market due to the focus on retaining the best Irish talent and the madness in the market.
They are playing catch-up on a team with money to burn. Champions Toulon have only gone and strengthened again for their four-in-a-row bid and, by the time they meet Leinster in back-to-back clashes next month, will have integrated their World Cup stars into the fold.
On Saturday, they introduced Quade Cooper at the Stade Felix Mayol and ran in eight tries to beat Jake White's Montpellier.
In the coming weeks, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Ma'a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen and James O'Connor will bolster their efforts during the pool stages.
O'Connell's new team are already record-breakers, but they can extend their dominance for another year given the extent to which they've strengthened.
Perhaps the biggest movers in the chasing pack will come from England where the salary cap rules have been loosened to allow the recruitment of marquee signings.
Bath looked like a side ready to progress further last season when they lost out to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium and have strengthened despite losing Sam Burgess to rugby league.
Wasps have stolen a march on Ulster by bringing in their big-name signing Charles Piutau for a season before he arrives at the Kingspan Stadium, and he'll link up with another All Black in the Coventry-based side's back three in Frank Halai.
Dai Young has also added Wallaby great George Smith to his roster.
With Wasps at home at the RDS on Sunday and a visit to Bath six days later, Leinster must start well if they are to have a chance.
Elsewhere, James Horwill is at Harlequins, Victor Matfield will be togging out alongside JJ Hanrahan at Northampton Saints and Jean de Villers will link up with Leicester Tigers.
The French are struggling to keep pace with Toulon, although Racing 92 are doing their best and Dan Carter's post-World Cup form will be interesting to watch; particularly seeing how he fits in to a game-plan that seemed to grate with Sexton during this time in Paris.
The out-half's return to Dublin, combined with the healthy squad, mean that Cullen appears to possess the strongest hand of the Irish teams. It's just that his team are up against some serious rivals.
Racing are in another dicey pool that also contains Northampton, Pro12 champions Glasgow Warriors and the in-form Scarlets, and it is perhaps Gregor Townsend's men who are best placed of the Celtic sides to go furthest after their success last season.
In winning the league, the Scots exposed Ulster's inability to get over the line in the biggest games and Munster's distance to travel when it comes to dining at the top table.
So often, it has been O'Connell and O'Mahony who have set the tone for them in Europe and unless others step up, it is hard to see them progressing.
Indeed, if he can recover in time, it is the man who led Ireland at the World Cup who looks most likely to be there at the business end of the season than his former international team-mates.