Introduction of South Africans, the return of Saracens and low seeding makes Champions Cup difficult prospect for Irish sides
Never has a spin to the Aviva Stadium looked so treacherous.
Next May, the capital will host the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals and already 60,000 tickets have been sold. You can be sure that there’s plenty of optimistic locals praying for safe passage for their team.
Certainly, a home final is a distinct possibility for a Leinster team who were 40 seconds from glory against La Rochelle in last year’s show-piece in Marseille.
It’s a loss that has haunted the four-time champions, but they weren’t the only ones who suffered a sporting trauma in their exit from the tournament.
Munster’s penalty shootout loss to Toulouse sent them into a spiral and they couldn’t recover their form in the United Rugby Championship, while Ulster thought they had the same opposition beaten over two legs but came up short. Connacht, meanwhile, were hockeyed by Leinster in Dublin.
Three of them return to the startline, while the western province are in the Challenge Cup. They may have Irish company by the knockout rounds, considering the strength of the competition.
It’s almost customary at the start of any tournament to herald it as the toughest-ever edition, but with the addition of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers from South Africa and the return of Saracens, there’s definitely a stronger field at the start-line of the Champions Cup.
The format is the same as last season in the pool-stages, with one major change at the last-16 stage, where the contest will take place across one game rather than two legs.
As a refresher, it’s two pools of 12 with the top eight from each going into the knockouts and the teams ranked 9 and 10 entering the Challenge Cup.
The top seeds carry home advantage with them through the knockouts and if any of the provinces can earn that they’ll know they can take home the prize without ever leaving Ireland.
It’s quite a carrot, but their struggles in the latter end of the URC has left them with tricky tasks.
For the first time since meritocracy was introduced, Leinster are not top seeds and face a tough set of games against Racing 92 and Gloucester.
At least they’re in Pool A, which looks a weaker list of teams than Pool B, where Ulster and Munster are up against each other, champions La Rochelle, 2021 winners Toulouse, English champions Leicester Tigers, French champions Montpellier, URC holders The Stormers and Clermont.
As mid-ranking seeds, they both have tough routes out of the pool.
Munster must park their uninspiring URC start and get something out of Toulouse while beating Northampton back to back, while Ulster will be aiming to negotiate their way to home wins and a couple of bonus points away as they face a strong Sale Sharks and Ronan O’Gara’s holders.
At least none of them have to play in South Africa at the height of the local summer.
There’s a reason the locals don’t play in December and January, but the fixture list is what it is and thus Harlequins, Clermont, Lyon, Bordeaux, Exeter and London Irish will be packing their sun-cream and heading for the Rainbow Nation in searingly hot conditions.
No one knows quite how the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks will adapt and, while there’s suspicion about their arrival in English and French circles, those of us who’ve been watching the URC closely know what they’ll bring.
The risk comes with the travel and the potential for things to go wrong.
Whether it’s outbreaks of new variants of concern, hookers getting bitten by lions or teams being laid low with stomach issues, the URC’s move into the Rainbow Nation has been beset by difficult moments.
Where that tournament has room to manoeuvre when it comes to re-arranging games, we know from last year that the Champions and Challenge Cup has none.
One of the provinces recently sent a missive to staff reminding them of the dangers of Covid-19 and, while daily testing is no longer a reality, we’re about to enter the riskiest time of year.
Last year’s pool stages became a farce, so organisers will be crossing their fingers that they will get through this one with all games played.
The fear comes particularly from the French, who are lukewarm towards the South Africans and concerned about any logistical challenges that could have a knock-on effect on their Top 14 campaigns.
Toulouse and La Rochelle are the most recent winners, Exeter and Saracens before them. You have to go back to 2018 for an Irish winner and Leinster’s victory is the only one in 10 seasons.
It’s a paltry return for a team routinely heralded as the best team on the continent and with Johnny Sexton likely to retire at the end of the campaign, Stuart Lancaster on the way to Racing next summer and a home final on the cards, the pressure is on Leo Cullen’s side.
We know they have the quality and the squad, but the re are lingering worries about their capacity to stay with the biggest teams with the deepest squads and manage the 80 minutes. It remains to be seen if the Marseille damage lingers.
The return of their old friends, Saracens, is another matter and the English club have started their Premiership campaign like a train.
After a year in the Championship and a run in the Challenge Cup, they may take a little while to adjust to the top level again but there’s enough quality in that squad to strike fear into opponents – even if most of them are out of form at international level.
Can the South Africans produce a winner at the first attempt like they did in the URC?
It seems unlikely, but this time last year they’d made a terrible start to the season and recovered to have a Cape Town final between the Stormers and the Bulls.
The Sharks and the Bulls are on Leinster’s side of the draw and, while the Natal franchise are the strongest on paper, they just lost heavily to Cardiff and have sacked their coach.
The Bulls have the advantage of a home ground at altitude and a sizeable squad with plenty of European experience throughout. If they get a high seeding for the knockouts, they could be real contenders.
The Stormers are on Munster and Ulster’s side of the draw and have a lovely mix of big forwards and exciting backs, but getting a good seeding from Pool B looks very difficult.
For Munster and Ulster, it’s all about getting to the knockouts. Leinster are after top seeding. That, and the strength of their squad, makes them the most likely Irish winners.
Could Connacht join them on a celebratory weekend?
Certainly, Andy Friend’s side will look at the Challenge Cup field and fear no one.
Things change when the Champions Cup sides drop down and it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see Ulster or Munster there, but home advantage stays with the teams who started in the competition so there’s a path there if they can hit form.
The last two finals weekends in Dublin happened without any Irish interest and, while there’s good reason to hope things will be different next May, there’s plenty of room for heartache along the way.
Castres Olympique, Saracens, Bulls, Bordeaux-Begles, Harlequins, Leinster, Racing 92, Gloucester, Sharks, Lyon,
Exeter Chiefs, Edinburgh
Who plays who:
Castres v Exeter, Edinburgh;
Saracens v Edinburgh, Lyon;
Bulls v Exeter, Saracens;
Bordeaux v Gloucester, Sharks;
Harlequins v Sharks, Racing 92;
Leinster v Racing 92, Gloucester;
Racing 92 v Leinster, Harlequins;
Gloucester v Bordeaux, Leinster;
Sharks v Harlequins, Bordeaux;
Lyon v Bulls, Saracens;
Exeter v Castres, Bulls;
Edinburgh v Saracens, Castres;
Montpellier, Leicester Tigers, Stormers,
Toulouse, Northampton Saints, Ulster, La Rochelle, Sale Sharks, Munster
Who plays who:
Montpellier v London Irish, Ospreys; Leicester v Ospreys, Clermont;
Stormers v Clermont, London Irish; Toulouse v Munster, Sale;
Northampton v La Rochelle, Munster; Ulster v Sale, La Rochelle;
La Rochelle v Northampton, Ulster;
Sale v Toulouse, Ulster;
Munster v Toulouse, Northampton