Wednesday 20 September 2017

Horgan's lucky dip leaves old Munster foes licking their lips

David Kelly

David Kelly

It's not often that a Leinster man does his Munster foes a favour, but even their most fervent supporters couldn't have engineered a more favourable draw than that overseen by Shane Horgan.

Being permed with Gloucester may conjure up memories of 'miracle matches' and all that, but Munster will surely expect to proceed to the knock-out stages for a second successive year under Rob Penney.

Horgan's own former three-time champions would have been less inclined to 'high five' their erstwhile wing hero, even if Leinster's pool contains a trio boasting reputations that have flattered to deceive on the European stage, including Northampton, whom the Blues beat in that epic final comeback in 2011.

"It's a tough pool all round," admits that day's winning captain Leo Cullen. "All the teams are pretty evenly matched. You always have to beat the best teams to win the Heineken Cup."

In stark contrast to their provincial rivals, Ulster, despite their status as one of three Irish top seeds, have already been priced as second favourites to emerge from a devilish group that includes a re-emerging Leicester, and emerging duo Montpellier, quarter-finalists last term and Treviso, a side who are unbeaten on their last two visits to Ravenhill.

CONCOCTION

Connacht, beginning a third successive season in the top tier thanks to Leinster's hat-trick of European titles, have been handed a familiar concoction of the romantically impossible and the eminently winnable. They are set to face Toulouse, saracens and Zebre as they embark upon life under new coach Pat Lam.

"There's certainly plenty of history between us and the three sides in our group and obviously my direct knowledge centres on Edinburgh, who we played four times last season," says Penney of Munster's draw.

"In the Heineken Cup the final scores certainly did not reflect the closeness of those games and it was much the same story in the Pro12.

"I haven't come across Perpignan or Gloucester, but I'm aware of the great encounters we had in the past and I think each of them will reckon they have a score to settle. That alone always makes them formidable opposition."

Horgan believes that Munster may be better placed than Leinster in terms of transition as Penney's side seek to replicate last season's semi-final heroics.

"I think they'll go for JJ Hanrahan at 10 and that could be a great starting point for them," said Horgan.

"That will be a real demonstration of the type of rugby they want to play. Hanrahan is a serious bit of stuff and I'm excited about him.

"Other leaders are emerging in that Munster team and you can already see that in the back-row. So, with Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett gone, others will step up into the key positions.

"They reached the semi-finals last season and that's why there in a better position to compete. They could have done less well last season and been forgiven for it, given the nature of the transition.

"Beating Harlequins was such a key for their players. You could hear from the senior players what an effect it had on the younger players and it will bode well for them next season."

Leinster are likely to stage their traditional pre-Christmas game at Lansdowne Road, possibly against Northampton, if next month's fixtures schedule allows and, after last year's slip-up, Horgan stresses Matt O'Connor's side must be on song from the off.

"Leinster need to start quickly. It won't all be focused around Clermont and that was one of the failings last term because they weren't tuned into the first minute of the first game.

"They would have expected a bonus point against Exeter. Clermont were their primary focus. Now it's different, each game needs to be focused on. But you'd always expect them to come up because of their pedigree.

"You'd like to think Ulster can beat Treviso home and away. Leicester are coming back after a little bit of a fallow period in Europe. But depending on whom Ulster recruit, they will have a really good shot at the title this year.

"They were incredibly impressive and they just struggled in terms of resources midway through. They never had to compete on two fronts before, so they'll learn from that. They ticked a lot of boxes and last year's experience will stand to them."

Irish Independent

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