Sunday 21 July 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Defending champions, Zebo factor and condensed schedule - many threats for Munster after tough draw'

Reds and Connacht land in testing pools but Leinster and Ulster should be quietly confident

Racing 92's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Racing 92's Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Back in February of last year when Simon Zebo was preparing for his French sojourn, the prospect of playing against Munster for Racing 92 was put to him.

"I would pull a sickie, I wouldn't play," Zebo quipped.

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"I couldn't play against Munster. There is no way I'd play."

Come next season, that will be put to the test as Munster's top try-scorer is one of many potent threats in a Champions Cup pool that is the epitome of a 'group of death'.

Having already been landed alongside Saracens, who were the worst possible tier-one opponents, Racing, who were unquestionably the next team Munster least wanted to face, joined a brutal looking Pool 4 that is completed by the Ospreys.

If you thought the draw was bad for Munster, spare a thought for the Welsh side.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

As soon as it became clear that Ronan O'Gara would not be returning to Thomond Park with La Rochelle, you just knew the other major narrative would come to pass, and so it did.

As strange as an occasion as it will be, Zebo and Donnacha Ryan will relish the chance to play against their home province in Limerick, while attack coach Mike Prendergast will be doing his utmost to ensure Racing prevail against his former club.

Munster have had a busy, but successful few weeks, adding Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree to their coaching staff.

Larkham won't arrive in Limerick until August, while it will be October before Rowntree starts his new job.

Although Munster have done very good business by recruiting such an experienced duo, their late arrivals mean that their philosophies will take even longer to be fully implemented.

Being drawn in such a difficult pool leaves very little wiggle room and Johann van Graan has learned that the hard way.

The head coach has repeatedly spoken about the importance of playing knockout rugby at home and to do so next season, his side are going to have to conjure up something special against the reigning champions and the previous season's beaten finalists.

Saracens will start next season as the team to beat and having gone through the entire last European campaign unbeaten, it will take a very good side to end that winning streak.

Sarries dumped Munster out at the semi-final stage in two of the last three years and with Racing, who beat them in the 2018 semi, also in the pool, it sums up the treacherousness of the road ahead.

All three heavyweights will fancy their chances of beating the Ospreys home and away, but Allen Clarke's side have the potential to cause an upset or two.

If Munster were given the worst possible draw, then Leinster are definitely at the other end of the scale - sitting pretty.

Despite enjoying an excellent domestic campaign in which they finished third in the Top 14 table, Lyon have little-to-no European pedigree.

On paper at least, they should provide the biggest competition for Leo Cullen's men, who will be wary that Northampton are on the up again, as are Benetton, who will have Dubliner Ian Keatley in their ranks.

That said, Leinster should have little trouble advancing from this pool as winners, as well as having their sights firmly set on being the No 1 seeds heading in to the knockout stages.

Given that they entered the draw as a tier-three team, Connacht knew they were always going to be handed a tough pool.

The Westerners will make a welcome return to the main stage alongside Toulouse, who they will face for the fourth time in their past five Champions Cup campaigns.

The newly-crowned French champions will feel like they have unfinished business having limped out so poorly against Leinster in the last four.

An immediate return to Kingsholm is on the cards for prop Paddy McAllister, who has joined Connacht from Gloucester, as the English outfit and Montpellier make up Pool 5.

Andy Friend's squad strength will be stretched next season as they fight on both fronts, and two daunting trips to France will test that depth.

Speaking of unfinished business, even a couple of months on from losing to Leinster at Aviva Stadium, Ulster will still wonder what might have been in that enthralling quarter-final clash.

Like Leinster, Ulster will be quietly satisfied with their draw and will be confident they are good enough to emerge from the pool.

Clermont will be tough to beat, particularly in their own back yard, but there is nothing to fear with Harlequins or Bath, which will see a return to these shores for Girvan Dempsey.

Ronan O'Gara will be glad to have avoided Munster and the circus that would have inevitably come with that. His first foray into the Champions Cup as head coach of La Rochelle sees his new team up against Exeter, Glasgow and Sale.

The club season will be thrown in disarray with the World Cup and the problems that brings, particularly for the nations who advance the furthest in Japan.

The Champions Cup is set for a later-than-normal start in November, and as all roads lead to Marseille on May 23, every team will know that they must hit the ground running.

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