Wednesday 17 January 2018

Leinster can end Ireland's Euro famine - Here is how the provinces fare in Champions Cup

Leinster's Johnny Sexton
Leinster's Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner applaud the Leinster support after their victory against Ulster. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Everyone loves a story where the playground bullies gets their comeuppance. Even if it's a tall tale. Take the European Cup.

After the dastardly English and French had grown tired of the victorious Gaelic drinking sessions from one end of the continent to the other, the big boys designed a carve-up to ensure never again would a drop of Heineken pass an Irish lip.

And so it came to pass; after pesky Paddy's run of five title wins between 2006 and 2012, France and England gathered all since beneath their greedy oxters.

Yet as Paddy cried foul, he ignored a simple fact.

Munster and Leinster dominated Europe between 2006 and 2012 because they were vastly superior to anyone else; that they then stank the place out happened because they have been vastly inferior.

Irish rugby, and Leinster and Munster in particular, could blame nobody but themselves for the dip in European performances between 2012 and 2017.

"Glory days are over," the cheerleaders wept! There is nobody more blind than the devout patriot.

December witnessed Irish provinces complete their first ever clean sweep of the back-to-back games (not forgetting Connacht in the Challenge Cup).

This, in a campaign where English clubs have suffered one weekend when all of their seven sides managed to lose.

The nasty English and French have, of course, emitted their petty bleatings, ruing all manner of factors such as international commitments, the IRFU's Player Welfare cotton wool and the primacy of Premiership and Top 14 rugby. Yet these have remained constants throughout this century!

The English and French have tended to discriminate towards lucrative domestic rugby ahead of European fare. The Irish clubs and IRFU - follow the money! - always did the reverse.

Whoever lifts the title in Bilbao in May - the head says Leinster, the childish heart still yearns for Clermont - will do so because, as usually happens in sport, they are the best in show.

Leinster

Leo Cullen's men remain the bookies' favourites to win the title after winning their opening four pool games for the first time since 2004/05; unlike then, there is little indication that they will falter come the knock-out stages.

Having said that, they still have business to attend to as Montpellier's steady stream of bonus points has maintained their interest; Leinster are favoured by their fifth game being at home to Glasgow, whose European record stands in stark contrast to their free-wheeling domestic form.

A five-point haul at home will be expected and then, at the very least, a point in France in round six can ensure a home quarter-final; it would be helpful if Exeter did them a favour in round five, while the tightness of other pools may also work to their advantage.

Aside from the mathematics, the aesthetics look promising for Leinster, who can now play the game any way they choose and with anyone they choose to play it with.

They have a hardened edge up front, with Scott Fardy adding Antipodean grit reminiscent of previous Cup winners in Brad Thorn, Nathan Hines and Rocky Elsom.

Behind the scrum, their threat remains potent and has been augmented by the emergence of Jordan Larmour, among others, and star signing James Lowe, even if Leinster wallowed in the luxury of omitting him from the pool stages.

Steering the ship with unremitting resolve is Jonathan Sexton. Leinster remain the complete package.

Expectations are growing, as they should be. This could, perhaps should, be their season.

Munster

A bit like Leinster last season, a sloppy draw in Castres could cause problems further down the line for a side who will compete their pool campaign under the watch of a different head coach, another self-imposed difficulty.

Munster emulated Leinster's feat of reaching the semi-finals last season but found, in contrast to their Irish rivals who could not adopt a tighter game to prosper, they couldn't move beyond the limited kick and chase game that had thrived in the lower-fare PRO14.

They have, slightly, moderated their game this term. This week's trip to Paris will define their campaign; win there and a home romp against presumably disinterested Castres, as Racing travel to Welford Road, will seal a last-eight spot, but probably away from home.

Lose and the fingernails will need chomping on the last day of reckoning.

Ulster

December's double-header against a limited Harlequins revived hopes of a rare northern exposure in the knockout stages but the extravagant La Rochelle, visitors to Belfast this weekend, followed by a trip to Wasps, pose extreme difficulties for Les Kiss' erratic squad.

Ulster aren't a side to be trusted and unless they can iron out their deficiencies at set-piece and occasionally loose defending, they will go nowhere, particularly as their rivals will presumably harvest five-point hauls against Harlequins.

Rival threats

Exeter and Saracens are the only realistic English challengers among a desperately poor crop and even they most somehow negotiate a passage in the slipstream of competition favourites, Leinster and Clermont.

With Montpellier preferred ahead of Exeter, Mark McCall's two-time champions Saracens will scrape through, as we expect Toulon to do from the unfair - but thankfully last - pool with the drowning Italian minnow.

That the champions of the past five years are struggling to qualify for the knock-out stages illustrates the Champions Cup increasing competitiveness. Which means that if Leinster could pin a fourth star to their shirt, it would be their finest achievement yet.

Connacht

Kieran Keane's first season in charge at the Sportsground has been marked by poor domestic form but Europe, where Connacht remain unbeaten, has energised them and they will surely target this competition as another viable route to the Champions Cup as they are capable of beating any of their rivals.

Even a defeat to Worcester this weekend will not derail their aim to finish as top seeds as they will surely be capable of inflicting a bonus-point win on Oyonnax in round six.

Going deep in Europe would be a boon for the Kiwi coach in his first season.

Irish Independent

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