Friday 19 January 2018

Provinces ready for war on Europe

Leinster lead Irish charge as world’s most exciting club competition looks to put boardroom battle in its place

Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney will be hoping to steer Leinster to an unprecedented three-in-a-row in Dublin next year
Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney will be hoping to steer Leinster to an unprecedented three-in-a-row in Dublin next year
David Kelly

David Kelly

Europe is preparing for war. It must be time for the Heineken Cup.

Boardroom skirmishes have taken precedence thus far, with round three of what could yet be a protracted, two-year drama behind closed doors taking place in Dublin later this month.

Over the next fortnight, the on-field combat emanating from world rugby's most exciting competition may hopefully stir in each of the warring factions a reminder of exactly what they are squabbling about.

We will see English sides desperately scrambling to reassert their relevance in the European club game, while the French clubs adopt a twin-track approach -- some caring, some not so much.

And the Irish shall, more likely than not, lead a three-pronged assault towards the quarter-finals and the Italians will only trouble those poor folk in the ERC compiling the points difference.

What happens on the field, it seems, mirrors what happens off the field.

England and France, prompted by differing reasons and proffering different remedies, are resentful of the Pro12's hegemony in terms of qualification; effectively, they want less teams, a less drawn-out calendar and more money.

Given this is a 'war' situation, propaganda has ruled and national characteristics have been parodied. Few have conceded that the other's arguments hold some merit.

It is surely unsporting that Edinburgh can sleepwalk through a league campaign, without fear of relegation, knowing that they only have to peak for half-a-dozen matches or so?

The French can't adopt the moral high ground on this topic.

For every Toulouse and Clermont side that passionately loves this competition -- and Clermont's pulses only raced once they had won their national title -- there is a French side that shrugs its shoulders and folds its tent midway through qualification, often horribly skewing the competition.

The French sides that do care -- the aforementioned pair will be joined at the top of the betting by Jonny Wilkinson's star-studded Toulon side -- will compromise Leinster's unprecedented quest for a hat-trick.

Clermont and Leinster clashed in one of the competition's truly epic occasions in Bordeaux last May. Literally an inch separated the sides at the conclusion and Vern Cotter, who resisted the call to return to his native New Zealand, seemingly won't rest until Europe is conquered.

Their renewal will dominate the mid-term headlines as they meet in back-to-back clashes in December. The extra time may give Cotter's old mucker Joe Schmidt a little breathing space in terms of his side's horrific injury profile.

The main factor that could prevent Leinster retaining their title is not having the same bodies available to defend the realm -- that, and the nagging feeling that they won't have a rugged Elsom, Hines or Thorn figure to offer an extra nudge.

Leinster, with Toulouse's four European titles now in their sights, are unbeaten in their last 15 European ties, with the only slight blemish a 16-16 draw with Montpellier last season. Schmidt has lost just one tournament contest in 18 matches in guiding them to their last two titles.

That defeat -- two seasons ago -- was a 20-13 reverse at Clermont.

"Right now, our sole initial target is to get out of the group," said Schmidt, whose side must also overcome Exeter, who will be tricky at Sandy Park, and Scarlets, a tougher outfit than that previously slain with ease by Leinster in Europe. "It is such a competitive pool that I think only one team will qualify for the quarter-finals, so I am not thinking about anything beyond our first match against Exeter Chiefs."

Schmidt's counsel is not an act. Leinster are missing Sean O'Brien's battering- ram abilities to make the holes through which their marauding backs can rampage.

When O'Brien does return in December, Leinster must hope that they still have a backline fit enough to maraud.

On the face of it, Ulster's chances are arguably better than Munster's -- their threat to their southern rivals' status as Ireland's second province could be an irresistible subplot for Irish supporters.

Already the first blow has been landed, following the smash-and-grab in Thomond Park at the quarter-final stage last season. Ulster look even better five months on and not just because of Tommy Bowe's return.

New coach Mark Anscombe has imperceptibly developed a squad mentality in tandem with an unbeaten start to the season. Last season, Ulster's team could be picked on a Monday -- it's not so easy this year, which is healthier.

So, too, with Munster, but for different reasons. Their incoming Kiwi, Rob Penney, has pleaded with anyone who'll listen that the next two weeks won't define his side's season. Try telling that to his boss or the Munster supporters.

Munster's opening brace of European games looks tough on paper, but possibly not as rigorous when examined on grass, offering scope for Penney and Co to maintain their evolution in playing style. Saracens offer little else but grunt and Munster can still grunt with the best of them.

They, like the rest of us, can discount the Scots. And, while we're at it, let's toss out the Welsh and the Italians, too, from seriously contending in any pool.

For Connacht, the fairytale of last season must be supplanted by realistic ambition. They must target at least three wins and find a professional balance between underdog and top dog.

The outcome of the ongoing turf wars may deny them the oxygen of Heineken Cup fare in future years. And so, as the road to Dublin 2013 kicks off, all the better then to just enjoy each moment.

Based on the previous 17 editions of an engrossing competition that has never lost its fizz, the Heineken Cup will runneth over once again.

Irish Independent

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