'Now there is a sense that we can compete' - Irish sides confident ahead of another European adventure
LAST season's Champions Cup semi-finalists Leinster and Munster believe they are in a much better position to go one step further as they seek to end the European domination of Saracens and Toulon.
Leo Cullen was the last Irishman to lift the biggest prize in European rugby but since that 2012 success, the competition then resided in either England or France for the next five seasons.
However Cullen, now Leinster coach, believes that his side are in a better place to compete this season after falling short at the semi-final stage last season.
“There was doom and gloom here last season amongst the clubs in the PRO 14 but now there is a sense that we can compete,” said Cullen at the Irish launch of the Champions Cup in Dublin, the 23rd season of European club rugby.
“It's a challenge, an exciting challenge for the group. Montpellier will be a huge challenge in the RDS.”
Captain Isa Nacewa, whose side will also face English champions Exeter Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors, admits that his side required summer of deep introspection after two costly defeats in France undermined their campaign, culminating in a semi-final loss to Clermont.
“We had a good off-season, we took a lot of learnings about what happened last season. We sat down collectively and spoke about where we can improve and how we need to raise our standards.”
Munster captain Peter O'Mahony, whose side also managed to get to the last four before being downed by double champions Saracens, agreed that there is a pep in the step of the PRO 14 clubs this time around as they embark upon the road to Bilbao's San Mamés Stadium.
“It was a bit of a mad season for us last term. There wasn't a huge amount of confidence around the top levels of the Pro14.
“We had to go back to basics, we got new coaches in and we managed to battle through to the semis.
“It was good for the young fellas to realise how far you can go in this competition if you put in the performances. Every year it gets more difficult.
“You look at Leicester, we know how hard it is to win in Welford Road.”
Munster coach Rassie Erasmus – whose side renew rivalry with Ronan O'Gara's Racing 92 and Leicester, as well as Castres - was just pleased that his side avoided another of last season's European rivals, Glasgow.
“I'm just glad we are not playing Glasgow, they smashed us two weeks ago and it seems like we are playing them every second week!”
Erasmus confirmed that the protracted search for his successor continues.
“The process is on its way, it is a slow process. It is well-planned and I'm sure Munster will have a great replacement.”
Ulster are aiming to put three years of Champions Cup heartache behind them as they seek to reach the knock-out stages.
“There is a sense of confidence about the group,” says coach Les Kiss. “We are not looking too far ahead or else this competition can bite you. We are building slowly after changing the coaching team.”
Despite their humbling loss in Zebre at the weekend, captain Rory Best is hoping that a European pool featuring Wasps, La Rochelle and Harlequins can inspire them.
“All the pools are very, very tough. We have La Rochelle in our pool and they topped the Top 14 last season. Wasps were in the epic Premiership final before losing in extra-time.
“It is going to be difficult and it will be about picking up home wins and whatever you can away from home.”
Just 18 months after winning the PRO 14 title guaranteed them Champions Cup status for a third successive season, their slump last season sees them compete in the second tier Challenge Cup.
John Muldoon's side have had a difficult start to the domestic campaign under new coach Kieran Keane but the Portumna captain believes that the allure of European rugby can kick-start their campaign.
“None of us in the pool have started our seasons they way we would have wanted, this is an opportunity to get away from our domestic competition and if we can get a couple of early wins, it might set us up.
“We will look to start well in Oyonnax and then we have Worcester at home.”
Assistant coach Nigel Carolan agreed.
“We are a club in transition and we have struggled to put a stamp on our season thus far but we had a cracking game against Scarlets. It is an opportunity to advance for us.
“We want to re-ignite that form of 18 months ago. We are on that curve and a new competition might re-ignite that.”