Thursday 17 October 2019

No negotiation needed in this Europe

Anglo-Irish relations are set to get fiery rather than frosty this weekend

Simon Zebo takes on the Leicester duo Owen Williams (L) and Peter Betham at Thomond Park at the same stage of the European Champions Cup last season. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo takes on the Leicester duo Owen Williams (L) and Peter Betham at Thomond Park at the same stage of the European Champions Cup last season. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rarely has rugby been so on trend. At a time when Anglo-Irish relations are dominating the news agenda across Europe, the three Champions Cup provinces face pivotal back-to-back clashes against English opposition.

Talk, thankfully, plays a far less significant role in this realm than it does in the so-called real world where phraseology can tear a continent apart.

Rugby may be a complicated game, but the stakes are simple and at the end of it all there will be winners and losers.

On the pitch, these pre-Christmas clashes will be more fiery than frosty and normally take on a life of their own.

They all have their own character.

Munster v Leicester is a now almost annual meeting of aristocrats - no longer the forces of old but still capable of a pitch battles. This is the third season in succession they have been drawn in the same pool and the schedulers have always put them on in the back-to-backs because for all that neither has won a title since 2008 they remain box office.

In Leinster's meetings with Exeter Chiefs, we have a more contemporary feel. There is no rivalry between these sides who met twice before in Joe Schmidt's last season as Leinster coach and the Chiefs have only gone from strength to strength since - winning the Premiership at Twickenham last June.

Many observers reckon the Sunday evening fixture is the tie of the round, the perfect test for the English title holders' European credentials against the cream of the Guinness PRO14.

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And then there is Ulster's meetings with a Harlequins side that represents the last chance saloon for both teams in this season's competition.

Games against English opposition have always defined Irish involvement in the competition.

While the glamour ties against the French can be landmark occasions, the inconsistencies of the Top 14 sides can sometimes leave these fixtures flat.

More often than not, the Premiership teams are competitive and currently it is the English league that is in possession of the Champions Cup.

Saracens are not in an Irish pool this season, so clashes against the current kingpins (assuming they arrest their recent form dip) will have to wait.

However, Exeter are the English champions, current table-toppers and Leinster's main rival for Pool 3, Leicester are in contention on both fronts and top a tight Pool 4 while 'Quins are in a similar situation to the Tigers in their domestic competition but are in dire straits in Europe.

These pre-Christmas games will define the pool stages.

"It always is massive, like a mini-competition within the pool," Peter O'Mahony said this week.

"They are very unique. Outside of international rugby you rarely play someone back to back like this. It's always an interesting one, the history we have with Leicester.

"We have had a couple of incredible games with this, a lot of history. I wouldn't expect anything other than a huge test this weekend.

"They are the only club to have come to Thomond Park and won twice. They won't have any fear of coming to Thomond Park at the weekend. We have got to do our homework on them, we have got to get ourselves right for it."

Irish provinces have had the upper hand in their battles with English clubs over the course of the tournament's history.

Since the Premiership teams rejoined the Heineken Cup after a hiatus in 1999, the provinces have enjoyed a 59.56pc win-rate.

However, the margins have narrowed in recent seasons and while they have edged the fixtures since the tournament was reduced in size in 2014 - the win-rate is at just 50pc.

The worst year in modern European history for the Irish sides, 2015/'16, was marked by big results in English clubs' favour. Wasps did the double over Leinster, Tigers beat Munster home and away and Sarries did similarly to Munster.

Last season, the Irish teams reduced the balance. Leinster did the double over Northampton, Munster hammered Leicester at home and got a bonus point away, Ulster beat Exeter at home and lost heavily at Sandy Park while Connacht lost away to Wasps and beat them at home.

Leinster went on to beat the Coventry-based side in the quarter-final, while Munster succumbed to Sarries at the Aviva Stadium semi-final.

Both teams got a fresh taste of the latter stages having missed out on the knockouts the previous season and they each have designs on going further this year.

The next two weeks will do much to define their future direction and whether they can make it to Bilbao in May.

Leinster appear to be the best placed to end a five-season wait for the title, but Exeter will be a tough nut to crack after following up a big win over Glasgow with an impressive victory in Montpellier.

For Munster, there will be familiarity and contempt as Matt O'Connor has already stoked the flames saying the Thomond Park side "don't have a monopoly" on hate.

While Ulster need to take advantage of 'Quins' failings to resurrect their hopes of making it to the last eight.

Unlike the Brexit talks, it's all reasonably straightforward but the stakes are high for those involved.

For the Irish provinces, it's a season-defining fortnight.

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