Friday 23 February 2018

Comment: Champions Cup revamp proves a success and whoever wins 2018 edition will have earned it

 

Saracens' Owen Farrell Photo: Henry Browne/Getty Images
Saracens' Owen Farrell Photo: Henry Browne/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Professional sports teams are well-versed in horsing out the clichés; "to be the best, you must beat the best" is near the top of many lists but only because the most repeatable clichés are the most truthful.

If the Champions Cup favourites Leinster are to pin a fourth star to their collective chests in Bilbao this spring, Leo Cullen's men will certainly have earned the right to call themselves the best team in Europe.

Munster's Conor Murray Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Munster's Conor Murray Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Nine games are required to lift the trophy but, even after completing two-thirds of their campaign, it doesn't feel like they are more than halfway to their destination.

Were it not for Ulster's calamitous implosion, ushering Saracens through the back door, Leinster would have been handed an eminently easier task against the fitful northerners; they deserved their fate, Leinster probably didn't.

For Munster, who completed their game with a potential choice of opponents, the emergence of Toulon as their quarter-final rivals quite brutally completes the sternest of challenges for the two remaining Irish qualifiers.

If they are to keep their title hopes alive, they must respectively dismiss the winners of the last five Champions Cup competitions - a tall order on the face of it but, with both sides building their game to iron the crinkles that hampered them in last season's semi-finals, neither task should be beyond them once their best players remain available.

Leinster's Johnny Sexton Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Leinster's Johnny Sexton Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Brutish

With five brutish encounters awaiting in the Six Nations between now and the weekend of the quarter-finals at the end of March/start of April, the make-up of their squad remains out of their control.

Little wonder the province's hardcore fans might pine for a properly-constructed season where there are no interruptions; there is no guarantee that either can automatically reclaim this weekend's momentum given their next European challenge is more than two months away.

The same holds true of their rivals, of course.

Scarlets' Tadhg Beirne Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Scarlets' Tadhg Beirne Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Leinster's superb achievement in emerging from the group of death - French champions, English champions and PRO14 conference leaders - with a blemish-free record might have demanded certain privileges but the belatedly stream-lined Champions Cup affords no such leeway.

And so Leinster will be paired with a resurgent Saracens, bidding for a third successive triumph as they seek to follow in the footsteps of the only other side to have claimed a hat-trick of European titles.

Even if their refined game-plan proves cutting enough to puncture the durable, if increasingly fallible, Saracens defence, Leinster's billing as top seeds will not necessarily guarantee the Dublin semi-final that their billing as top seeds might suggest.

In the last four years, there have only been two away quarter-final wins in 16 games - Saracens won both of them.

One of the quirks of the new knockout format - a vast improvement on the old system which relied upon the pure luck of an open draw - means that certain away sides can be rewarded for winning a quarter-final.

Racing's Dan Carter Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers
Racing's Dan Carter Photo: Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Considering it is a rare enough feat - historically an average of just one in four triumph away from home, albeit last season all the home sides won with alarming ease - the incentive is justified and re-affirms the welcome trend towards greater meritocracy.

And so this season's breakthrough stars La Rochelle, should they storm the west Wales citadel of the revitalised Scarlets, may add to Leinster's travel plans, re-directing them instead to France en route to a possible final in Bilbao.

Munster's draw in Castres, like Leinster's slip there last season, more obviously complicated their route to the final as they must travel in the semi-final, also to France, with Racing 92 or Clermont their potential opponents.

They would not be favourites to emerge from either of those; nor, however, will the two-time winners fear either opponent as they develop the type of game to get beyond the penultimate hurdle which stymied them last term.

Parochial eyes may alight upon the Irish duo but rugby fans will also thrill to the renewed rash of Scarlet fever; despite losing their opening two matches, the commitment of the reigning PRO14 champions to an expansive game-plan, allied to some steel last Sunday to edge victory against Toulon, has won many admirers.

They may return to Dublin for a semi-final date against Leinster; last season, despite an early Steff Evans red card, they out-witted the Irish side before blasting Munster in the final; both Irish provinces have been forced to respond to Wayne Pivac's enterprising side.

Struggled

Even though Saracens and Toulon have struggled in the pool stages, the fact remains that both qualified. Their recent ability to thrive in the white heat of the knockout stages is proven; the Irish must yet demonstrate that nous.

Toulon's survival, though, owed much to their Italian jobs; the removal of automatic qualification from Italy will remove the final obstacle to true meritocracy; from then on there will be no free passes.

It has been a positive campaign for the PRO14 in general, which provides three qualifiers, all of whom, crucially, will stage their quarter-finals at home.

The Top 14 boast their strongest representation since the 2010/11 campaign. Only one club emerged from the Aviva Premiership, their lowest since 2011/12 and yet, aside from the demise of Exeter, that number should not be as surprising as it seems; the quality of the clubs in England is poor at the moment.

Just two years ago, five of their sides qualified so this represents a steep decline but, despite predictable carping about IRFU player management, the English clubs would do well to look within, rather than without, for answers.

Irish Independent

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