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Cup won't be won in October but it might well be lost

W ith last night's showdown in the Aviva over and done with, signalling as it did the first real confrontation of the season for the majority of Irish fans, the stage is now set for the return of the Heineken European Cup next weekend.

While Leinster have drawn most media attention because of their highly disappointing start to the season, it's Ulster's prospects that I'll address first. It is reasonable to suggest that nobody lucky enough to be present at Lansdowne Road in 1999 for Ulster's crowning as European champions, the first Irish side to achieve it, in only the competition's fourth season, would have expected to still be waiting more than a decade later for another quarter-final appearance; incredible as it may seem, that is precisely what has materialised.

Hopes are high up north at present however that, with their early-season form, and particularly their results, and bolstered also by a very strong South African contingent within their squad, they will finally begin to right the wrongs of the barren noughties.

What should be a bonus-point win at home to the Italians Aironi, who are understandably struggling to find their feet in the early weeks of their existence, next Friday would provide a very welcome boost for their trip to the Basque country the following week. There they will face a Biarritz team driven by their inspirational No 8 Immanol Harinordoquy, but languishing in ninth place in the French Top 14.

Ulster have an impressive four wins and a draw to show from their opening five league games but their performances have been by no means as impressive as their exalted league position suggests.

Friday night against Glasgow was an excellent example. They failed to find a coherent rhythm as they scrapped and scratched to maintain their unbeaten league record. Brian McLaughlin, Jeremy Davidson and their colleagues urgently need to nail down their optimum combinations in the back-row and at half-back; they're not short of talent either, but injuries to flanker Stephen Ferris and out-half Niall O'Connor will serve to concentrate their minds.

I am fearful for Leinster in the opening rounds of a very tough pool, with high-flying Racing Metro of Paris first up at the RDS, in advance of the trip to Wembley to face Brendan Venter's impressive Saracens the following week.

The 2009 champions' home record in the Heineken Cup is impressive, and they certainly aren't in the habit of losing at the RDS in any competition, but there has been nothing in their league form this season to inspire confidence that the current squad has what it takes to qualify for the knockout stages.

Having said that, and with individuals of such proven ability and mental strength as Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip, and Jonny Sexton in their ranks, it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see a home win, particularly when the notorious record of French teams away from home is factored in.

A negative result, on the other hand, will lead to a potential season-breaker the following week in Wembley. New coach Joe Schmidt and his management colleagues are certainly under pressure already but any rush to judgment of the new regime over the next few weeks will be hasty and premature -- if only for the injury-enforced absence of the pivotal Sexton.

Munster's trip to the Madejski Stadium to face London Irish is undoubtedly one of the ties of the round and should be a cracker. When the draw was made this was the dream fixture for London Irish players -- a massive occasion. Coach Toby Booth's team are currently flying high in the Aviva Premiership and will definitely fancy their chances of turning over their vaunted visitors.

Munster, though, have traditionally been a massive challenge for their opponents, both mentally and physically -- and particularly in the Heineken Cup. Their steady, if unspectacular, start to the season has provided no indication that there will be any deviation from the norm. Munster will come away with at least a losing bonus point.

I've long been of the view that predicting the likely winners of this competition in advance is a futile exercise. One of its unique features is its four different stages -- the three separate phases of the pool, played in October, December, and January, and then the knockouts in April/May. There's a lot of luck involved, and squad depth is a major element in the overall equation, as is a capacity to adapt to widely differing weather and ground conditions.

Factor in the lessons learned by the Irish sides on that hugely disappointing semi-finals weekend last May when Leinster, Munster and Connacht all fell to French opposition, and we have good reason to tread warily as we step back onto the European stage again.

The preliminary sparring bouts are now behind us, the 'real' season is upon us, and it isn't beyond the bounds of possibility that the victors in Cardiff next May might even have cause to reflect smugly on a winless opening in October.


Sunday Independent