Thursday 22 February 2018

Leo Cullen's Leinster lead Irish charge: Champions Cup Pool-by-Pool guide

Robbie Henshaw of Leinster is tackled by Conor Murray and JJ Hanrahan of Munster
Robbie Henshaw of Leinster is tackled by Conor Murray and JJ Hanrahan of Munster
Leinster appear the strongest Irish contenders having come so close to beating Clermont in Lyon last April. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Leinster and Munster fell back in love with European rugby last season and the feeling was mutual as the return of the Irish provinces added much-needed colour and, more importantly, crowds to the latter stages of the Champions Cup.

Ulster and Connacht couldn't join the party, but after no representative from the Guinness PRO14 emerged from the pools in 2015/'16, the presence of the Irish pair and Glasgow Warriors represented major progress.

Just because they did well last season, there's no guarantee that they'll hit those heights again and as they approach the start-line, each of the Irish representatives in the competition have their issues.

At Munster, there is a coaching change-over ongoing, a lack of clarity about who the No 1 out-half is and a shortage of second-rows.

Leinster have a number of senior men on the injured list and face a hugely difficult pool, while Ulster also have injury issues, have lost Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding indefinitely and their form is patchy.

All around them, the competition has strengthened.

Saracens are favourites to deliver a third title in succession, while Montpellier have recruited heavily and look ready to challenge under Vern Cotter.

Even within the PRO14, Glasgow Warriors and Scarlets look like they can do damage, while Toulon are overdue a run into the knockout stages.

As ever, there is a battle for hearts and minds between the haves of the English Premiership and Top 14 the relative have-nots from this part of the world.

Traditional forces are on the wane. Toulouse are spending a season in the Challenge Cup for the first time, while Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Northampton are well down the betting.

The days when the two leading Irish provinces landed five titles in seven seasons, culminating in the Twickenham final between Ulster and Leinster in 2012, have faded into memory.

The name of the tournament is not the only thing that has changed in the intervening years; basing seeding on the league performance has made life harder and the reduction to 20 teams has heightened the intensity of the pool stages.

Public interest has definitely been affected by the dual-television deal which thankfully comes to an end at the end of this season, but last year's run appeared to reignite the Irish relationship with the competition.

Leinster appear the strongest Irish contenders having come so close to beating Clermont in Lyon last April.

Leo Cullen has strengthened over the summer, upgrading his second-row with Scott Fardy's arrival and adding James Lowe to his back-three options.

Their set-piece is strong, while the young guns who drove the run to the last four last season are all a year wiser.

Throw in Johnny Sexton's capacity to drive standards and win games and it is a heady mix. They face a challenging pool full of contenders, with English champions Exeter Chiefs, big-spending Montpellier and a classy Glasgow Warriors. If they can emerge from that, then they have a shot at the title.

Munster, however, have lost Donnacha Ryan, Francis Saili and Jaco Taute from last year's run and they will have to go through a coaching change midway through the pool.

They are seeking to improve their attacking game after coming up so short in the semi-final defeat to Saracens at the Aviva Stadium, but they need to stay true to their own values as well when doing so.

Win in Castres on Sunday, and things will begin to look up and they'll fear none of their opponents.

Ulster have changed up their backroom team and, in particular, Jono Gibbes adds European experience to the mix given his Leinster and Clermont credentials.

The mood around the Kingspan Stadium remains sombre, however, and the absence of Jackson in particular is a real concern. But their pool looks highly winnable, particularly if they can pick up wins in their opening two games.

Last year's finalists Saracens and Clermont are in the same pool but both are likely to reach the quarter-finals, while PRO14 champions Scarlets renew acquaintances with Toulon as they look to build on their league success.

Mark McCall's team remain the team to beat, having strengthened their squad on the back of their second title in succession. Only Toulon have won three in a row, but the Londoners have everything in their armoury and are deserved favourites.

It will take some effort to dethrone them, Leinster may be the best bet if they can make it to Bilbao.

Once there, anything is possible.

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