Ruaidhri O'Connor: Leinster lead challenge as provinces hope to bounce back
Champions Cup set to remain a scrap between English and French powers
Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30
Once, not too long ago, the Irish provinces looked forward to Europe in expectation rather than hope.
This weekend, the Champions Cup campaign gets underway and not one of them is ranked among the favourites. The shortest price you'll get on an Irish winner is the 22/1 on offer for Leinster reclaiming the crown they last won in 2012.
After a season in which no team from the Guinness Pro12 made it beyond the pool stages, it is hard to make the case for a winner from these shores.
Although there has been no World Cup disruption to factor in this year, any optimism should be tempered by doubts over the quality of opponents the provinces have faced so far. They'll know far more about where they stand when they all face French Top 14 sides this weekend.
The tournament is in its third season as a leaner, meaner entity and everyone at the start-line this week knows full well that there is little room for error.
At last week's launch, Munster's new director of rugby Rassie Erasmus wryly observed that when you look at your fixtures and don't see any easy games, then you are the easy game.
Last year, between them the Irish provinces only secured six wins out of 16 games against English or French opponents in the top competition.
The failure to secure at least one place in the quarter-final was the nadir of the Celtic teams' European involvement, and even the competition organisers have conceded that the image of an Ango-French carve-up is bad for business.
Yet, breaking the stranglehold is easier said than done, particularly when the three historically strong provinces have found themselves in difficult pools.
Connacht, the Pro12 champions, are back in the big time after two seasons in the Challenge Cup and, for the first time, they're here on their own merit.
Winning the league earned them top seeding in the draw and they've been rewarded with the most manageable pool in the competition given the presence of Zebre alongside Wasps and Toulouse.
The English side reached the semi-finals last season, but Toulouse are far from the force of old.
The question for the western province is whether their already depleted squad can survive the efforts of competing on two fronts, but 18 points might get them through.
Leinster and Ulster have the panels to compete, but face tougher tests in pools that contain two French sides each, while Munster have a big job on their hands.
The addition of Charles Piutau has added real class to an already impressive Ulster backline, but Les Kiss' pack looks under-powered and over-reliant on Iain Henderson for go-forward ball.
They have been drawn against three teams who were all in the same pool last season and will know each other well. Just a point separated Exeter, Ospreys, Bordeaux and Clermont last season, with the English team emerging on points difference and Clermont exiting in last place.
Clermont are back to form this season and sit on top of the Top 14 and await Ulster in the back-to-back fixtures at Christmas. The first two games against Ian Madigan's Bordeaux and Gareth Steenson's Chiefs will be key.
Leinster's pool sees them renew acquaintances with Northampton Saints, while they have back-to-back French opponents in the first two rounds.
Of all the Irish sides, Leo Cullen's are the best set up for a proper European run. Unlike Munster, they have a strong core of players who have lifted the trophy, while their set-piece is strong enough to hold its own and more in elite company.
In Johnny Sexton, they have the tournament's finest out-half, and outside him is a centre partnership that has some way to go before it hits the heights of their predecessors but should be able to trouble teams.
Cullen now has more experience alongside him in Stuart Lancaster, while the attacking plan looks to have come on since Graham Henry's whistle-stop visit.
The pool is tough, but negotiable, and if they can make it through then they'll fancy a run.
However, they are light on cover if Sexton picks up an injury. Joey Carbery is rightly attracting rave reviews but is unproven at this level.
For Munster, the task is daunting and Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony have already set about dampening expectations for fans of the two-time champions.
On Sunday, they travel to Paris to take on Ronan O'Gara's Racing 92, who have started slowly since winning the Bouclier de Brennus last June and are coming into the tournament under the shroud of controversy after three of their most high-profile players were implicated in a doping scandal.
Yet, the powerful French side have an enormous pack and plenty of back-line talent and will fancy their chances of topping the pool. Glasgow Warriors have lost their best player Leone Nakarawa to the Parisians and with him has gone their X-factor.
Munster again meet Leicester after failing to pick up a point last year. There's little evidence that they are better placed to beat them this time.
Still, there is plenty of room for improvement for the Reds, as there is across the board. Leinster will fancy their chances, Connacht will hope to amass enough points to squeeze through on Wasps' coat-tails and Ulster are in a dog-fight they can win.
Europe has never been easy - it has never been this difficult either - but there is hope for a better season.
Whether that can deliver a semi-final or final place largely relies on the draw, but champions Saracens look to have more than everyone else as they approach their defence. They could take a weakened Toulon out in the pool, but Racing, Wasps and Clermont will all fancy their chances.
The Irish sides look a bit behind the gold standard, but they'll focus on getting to the business end and seeing from there.
Predicted quarter-finalists: Racing 92, Wasps, Saracens, Leinster, Clermont, Connacht, Toulon, Montpellier