Comment - Fast start needed for Irish provinces to reach final destination
A first decider since 2012 is the next step for the Irish provinces as they return to Europe
A year ago, the Dublin launch of the European Champions Cup was a pretty sombre affair.
None of the teams who were pitching up at the National Convention Centre had made it beyond the pool stage in 2015/16 and there was talk of Anglo-French dominance stretching on for a couple of more seasons.
Yesterday, many of the same faces gathered in the same spot on Dublin's quays with a sunnier disposition.
Semi-final appearances from Leinster and Munster and a quarter-final from Glasgow Warriors marked an up-tick in form from the Celtic nations - even if Saracens collected the tin cup at the end of it all.
In 10 days' time, Ulster get the 23rd instalment of the tournament up and running against Wasps.
Five seasons have passed without an Irish winner and having seen an improvement in fortunes last year, there is perhaps an expectation that the glory days are on the way back.
As they face into this week's PRO14 derbies and the subsequent opening rounds in Europe, the final weekend in the Basque city of Bilbao seems a long way away, but having an Irish representative at the San Mames would represent a further season of progress.
None of them look strong enough to stop a Sarries three-in-a-row just yet, although Johnny Sexton was adamant Leinster could have taken them had they managed their way past Clermont last season.
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To have a chance they must hit the ground running in the coming weeks and there are valid reasons for concern after a disjointed opening to the post-Lions season.
No one has an easy route to the knock-outs, but there should be confidence in the Munster and Leinster dressing-rooms that when they get it right they can take on all-comers after last season's exploits.
Ulster, meanwhile, remain one of rugby's great mysteries but a good start on Friday week can set them on their way in what is arguably the most manageable pool of the three.
Leinster's injury profile and lack of time together before a star-studded Montpellier team, currently top of the Top 14, land in Dublin must concern Leo Cullen, while Munster are similarly under-cooked and facing a winter of change as Rassie Erasmus hands over to a new man during the pool.
Ulster lost to Zebre at the weekend, so that's hardly the best preparation for the big show. This weekend, the four provinces meet in what is traditionally the signal that the season is getting serious.
Connacht, consigned to the graveyard shift of the Challenge Cup, will likely continue to target the Guinness PRO14, but for the other three it is Europe that will define their success.
Munster were the story of last season as they overcame the tragic death of Anthony Foley and fuelled their emotion into an unforgettable run to the semi-final where Saracens proved far too strong.
After achieving so much in his first season in charge, the future looked bright under Erasmus but that future has been whisked away.
If they reach the latter stages of the tournament, he will be watching from South Africa. The uncertainty over the coaching situation is one concern for the two-time champions, but perhaps a more pressing issue is their under-powered tight five with James Cronin and Gerbrandt Grobler out injured.
When their front-liners are in harness the Reds are a force, while JJ Hanrahan adds a creative edge, but their squad looks less able to sustain injuries than some of their rivals.
Their pool contains familiar foes and none of them will fancy a visit to Thomond Park, particularly if fans can recreate the special atmosphere they achieved last year.
Leinster's famed depth is being tested currently and in particular Cullen has midfield issues. With Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa out, he needs Robbie Henshaw to hit the ground running on Saturday.
We are guilty sometimes of bigging up the French challenge, but there is real reason to respect the task that Leinster will face on Saturday week.
Winning your home games has long been the key to advancement and two seasons ago an opening loss to Wasps put Cullen's men on course for their worst European performance.
With his injury issues and a lack of time with his returning Lions, the coach is rightly concerned - especially when he sees Montpellier flying high in the Top 14.
Last season, a star-studded team coached by World Cup-winning coach Jake White flattered to deceive in the pool stages, even after they threatened to flatten Leinster in their home game.
Under Vern Cotter and with Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden steering the ship, they look a far more serious proposition this time around - one that shouldn't fear a trip to Dublin with a 1pm kick-off.
Dave Rennie's in-form Glasgow and English champions Exeter Chiefs await, so things are not about to get easier for Leinster who hit such heights in their run to the semi-finals last season.
So far this season, they have looked well short of the fluency they achieved en route to their losses to Clermont Auvergne and Scarlets and they have little time to get their game-plan moving.
Ulster have a new coaching team together under Les Kiss, but their issues remain very familiar and the fitness of Springbok power-house Marcell Coetzee looks like the key issue in assessing their chances.
Jono Gibbes' hard edge and European experience should help, but much will fall on the shoulders of John Cooney, who appears to be relishing the responsibility of replacing Pienaar and kicking goals in Paddy Jackson's absence.
So, there are question marks hanging over the provinces as they approach the start-line.
Their reaction to the gun will set the tone for their campaign.
A slow start would quickly render 2016/17's progress a distant memory.