Thursday 18 January 2018

December dates key to provinces' European dream

Back-to-back clashes this month will have a major say in how far all four Irish sides can go in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup

Johnny Sexton has been purring nicely for Leinster this season. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton has been purring nicely for Leinster this season. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The European season-defining back-to-back meetings begin this weekend with Leinster, Munster and Ulster looking to ensure that their Champions Cup dream goes on until at least the new year, while Connacht are aiming to do the same in the Challenge Cup.

Leinster are the only one of the three Irish sides in the premier competition with a 100pc record thus far as they will all resume their campaigns with varying degrees of confidence.

The form of Jacob Stockdale should be a big boost to Ulster boss Les Kiss. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
The form of Jacob Stockdale should be a big boost to Ulster boss Les Kiss. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile

Leo Cullen's side have been flying but are fully aware of how tricky this weekend's trip to Sandy Park is. Munster have a sizeable hole to fill in midfield, while Ulster are still to hit top form.

Connacht paid the price for their poor campaign last season as they are left in the Challenge Cup but there is at least the added incentive of knowing that this year's winners will qualify automatically for next year's Champions Cup.

The festive period can feel like an awful long time for teams whose European ambitions are over by Christmas, just ask Ulster who suffered such a fate last year, but all four should resume action, relatively happy with where they stand.

Time will tell whether or not they remain so in a fortnight.

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane and Ultan Dillane. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Kieran Keane and Ultan Dillane. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

Leinster

The three-time winners were handed a tough pool but they have been ruthlessly efficient in their two bonus-point wins over Glasgow and Montpellier. Exeter, the Premiership champions, lie on wait on Sunday before Rob Baxter's side come to the Aviva Stadium.

Stuart Lancaster's inside track on Exeter will be crucial as this will be Leinster's toughest European task yet.

Exeter have picked up where the left off last season and are flying high at the top of the Premiership, having lost just twice, and they have carried that form into Europe.

Like Leinster, they are unbeaten in Pool 3, and while they might not have the bonus points to show for either of their victories, the manner in which they came out with the win in Montpellier last time out, was a clear signal of their intent. Cullen will be delighted that the likes of Rob Kearney and Cian Healy returned to Leinster looking back to their best, while Johnny Sexton is purring nicely. James Lowe however is not yet registered.

Johann van Graan has a midfield crisis to deal with in Munster; Kieran Keane will be hoping that Ultan Dillane and his Connacht team-mates can bounce back at Brive in the Challenge Cup. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Johann van Graan has a midfield crisis to deal with in Munster; Kieran Keane will be hoping that Ultan Dillane and his Connacht team-mates can bounce back at Brive in the Challenge Cup. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sexton's influence will be crucial in Exeter and if his side can maintain their unbeaten run in the competition, they will take a big step towards making the knockout stages.

Munster

Johann van Graan got a close-up view of what the Champions Cup is all about in October when he sat in the stands for Munster's gritty win over Racing 92.

The Reds renew their mouthwatering rivalry with Leicester Tigers in Thomond Park on Saturday and this time the new South African head coach will be front and centre as he is expected to steer the ship onwards towards the quarter-finals.

Rassie Erasmus left the house in good order and while Munster might rue an under-par performance in Castres when they emerged with a share of the spoils, they remain level on points with Leicester at the top.

Van Graan does, however, have to deal with a midfield crisis after Chris Farrell was the latest centre to join the injury list. Sam Arnold's return to fitness is certainly welcome but the youngster is very much untested at this level.

Matt O'Connor will return to Irish soil with something of a point to prove and his side currently sit sixth in the Premiership, 12 points off Exeter.

Munster faced the Tigers at the same point in last year's competition when a comfortable win in Limerick was followed by defeat in Welford Road. They will be hoping to go one better this time around.

Ulster

Ulster arrive at this stage of another European campaign still not knowing where exactly they stand in the grand scheme of things.

An opening-day win over Wasps set them up nicely for a daunting trip to La Rochelle but they were blown away in what was a major wake-up call for the northern province. Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel haven't yet had the desired impact and while the entire coaching staff have remained ultra-positive, there is a sense that the natives are growing restless. A sloppy draw against the Dragons on Friday won't have helped the mood music.

Les Kiss knows that he is under big pressure to deliver this season but his side's soft underbelly has already been exposed on several occasions.

The loss of Marcell Coetzee (knee) cannot be understated, while Ulster will be hoping for a big impact from South African prop Schalk van der Merwe, who has yet to feature in Europe because of injury. A trip to the Stoop awaits on Saturday against a Harlequins side who will be buoyed by an impressive last-gasp win over Saracens yesterday.

That victory moved Quins up to seventh in the Premiership, but two defeats from two in Europe has already left them staring down the barrel of an early exit. Ulster must take advantage.

The form of Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson should boost Kiss' side but they can ill-afford to repeat the same kind of sloppy errors.

Ulster are capable of picking up two wins against Quins in the next fortnight but we have said that before, all too often. It's time for them to deliver before it's too late again.

Connacht

The reality for Connacht is that no one within the province wants to be playing in the Challenge Cup but having been handed a favourable pool draw, they may end up seeing this avenue as their best way to make it back amongst Europe's elite next season.

Kieran Keane has been slowly putting his stamp on the Westerners but a damaging defeat to Zebre has punctured the momentum that they had built up. The Kiwi missed the majority of pre-season due to his commitments with the Chiefs and the last month should have been crucial for Keane to get to know his players better.

Connacht must quickly put that loss in Italy behind them. Two wins from two has left them on top of Pool 5. What would ordinarily look like a tricky trip to Brive on Saturday may be decidedly more straightforward given the French side's domestic struggles.

Brive are scrapping for their lives, two places off the foot of the Top 14, and their interest levels in Europe could be minimal.

Juggling the Guinness PRO14 and the Challenge Cup will test Connacht's squad depth but after starting well in Europe, they will be quietly confident of going into the new year with their 100pc record still intact.

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