Irish trio have what it takes to repeat last season's heroics
But the December double-headers will hold key to progress, says Jim Glennon
Looking back on the evolution of Ireland's participation in the European Rugby Cup, it's interesting to note a pattern of gradual changing of the guard after the skirmishes of the inaugural years.
Ulster made the breakthrough with victory in 1998/'99, followed by Munster in 2005/'06 and 2007/'08, and finally Leinster in 2008/'09, 2010/'11 and 2011/'12. While Ulster's victory came from left-field, Munster especially and Leinster, to a lesser extent, reached the summit only after several years of sustained assault. Indeed Connacht's own Everest, that of meaningful participation, wasn't achieved until the competition's 17th renewal. It's reasonable to assume that the aspirations of all are now higher.
Having been memorably added last season to the growing list of distinguished casualties at the Sportsground, Harlequins' leading role in the proposed alternative competition is understandable, particularly in light of them having to revisit Galway this season.
Connacht will fancy their chances of a repeat result, and will have their eyes too on a potential hat-trick of home wins, particularly with the new Italian franchise Zebre looking vulnerable. Biarritz back to back in December will be a challenge though, as will all the away jousts. Having justified their participation last season, the westerners will want to make further progress, and should do so, provided their casualty-list stays within reasonable proportions and that it doesn't include marquee names, new recruit Dan Parks principal among them.
Munster will be looking to relive former glories under the all-New Zealand leadership team of coach Rob Penney and skipper Doug Howlett. Starting in Paris next week with Racing Metro, they face an uphill climb, and will need both Keith Earls comfortable in his position and a fully-fit Paul O'Connell firing on all cylinders if they're to maintain their remarkable record of near perennial quarter-final qualification.
Racing, Edinburgh and back-to-back opponents Saracens will relish the prospect of lowering the colours of the once-mighty but a successful foray to France for their opening game will not only generate confidence but will also send the 'normal service resumed' signal to interested parties, particularly Edinburgh who are due in Thomond the following week.
Similar to their breakthrough in 1999, Ulster's qualification for last season's final came as something of a surprise, possibly even to themselves. As with recent tragic events, the experience will stand to them and I expect a big season from them. Their fate could hinge on the outcome of the back-to-back with Northampton, as they could go into those games unbeaten.
The homecoming of winger Tommy Bowe and the return from injury of fullback Jared Payne would be significant additions to any squad. Combined with proven top-drawer performers in pivotal positions in tighthead John Afoa, hooker Rory Best, second-row and captain Johann Muller, and scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, not to mention a fully-fit Stephen Ferris, they will be a match for most.
The missing piece of the jigsaw however is at outhalf, and young Paddy Jackson's capacity to banish the ghosts of last season will be the focus of much attention. He appears to have the ability to do the business at this level and the hope is that he proves it this season. Ulster need him now and the importance of the outhalf position is clear from reflection on the quality number tens on Irish Cup-winning teams -- David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara, and Jonathan Sexton; top-class teams don't have journeymen at outhalf.
The final takes place in Dublin on Saturday, May 18, 2013 -- an extra incentive for any Irish team with designs on the trophy. Leinster would put themselves in that category, notwithstanding another scratchy start to the season, and a potentially historic third successive title, in Dublin, is indeed the stuff of which dreams are made.
Regrettably, some of the team appeared to be in dreamland at the Sportsground last week and duly received an unceremonial reintroduction to reality. That reversal may well turn out to have been a very cheap lesson as reality will be a vital element of their campaign, regardless of its source.
It must be remembered that the European competition is, in essence, an amalgam of two separate tournaments. The first, the pool, runs from October to January with the second, the knock-out, running through April and May. Success in the former is a prerequisite for qualification for the latter. The trick however is to qualify well -- with a home quarter-final. Statistics show that home wins are twice as likely as away ones.
Last season the open draw for the semi-final dictated that Leinster travelled to France for a joust with Clermont-Auvergne, a game which transpired to be the pivotal one in the tournament. This time round the sides meet in the pool stage and their back-to-back encounters in December will have a major bearing on the ultimate destination of the trophy.
Last year, in addition to the usual injury-list, there was an obvious hole in their second-row alongside Leo Cullen; this year Leo is a year older and the hole, filled so spectacularly last year by the remarkable Brad Thorne, remains. The Clermont semi-final game in Bordeaux was a pitched battle from which Leinster emerged victorious, their temporary second-row signing having played a starring role. They'll be doing very well to repeat the result in his absence this time, and may well have to rely on Llanelli Scarlets or Exeter Chiefs to take points from their rivals to clear their route to top the group.
Only the very brave, or very foolish, would predict a tournament winner at this stage. But I'm sticking my neck out far enough for now by suggesting a repeat of last season's three Irish sides from eight quarter-finalists -- enough to accentuate the grievances of the English around the competition's perceived bias towards the Celts.
Sunday Indo Sport