Wednesday 11 December 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Saracens tale of woe opens door for Leinster's drive for five'

26 October 2019; Carlo Canna of Zebre in action against Cian Kelleher of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 4 match between Zebre and Leinster at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma, Italy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
26 October 2019; Carlo Canna of Zebre in action against Cian Kelleher of Leinster during the Guinness PRO14 Round 4 match between Zebre and Leinster at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma, Italy. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton poses for a portrait at the RDS ahead of his return to action for Leinster this afternoon in their Champions Cup clash against Benetton. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Plink, plink, fizz. European rugby won't wash that World Cup hangover away in one, swift gulp but it will help dull that lingering, grubby feeling of regret that's been hanging over Irish rugby in the last month.

The biggest event in the rugby world is just over, but the bizarre structure of the season sees the show go on.

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Four years ago, Ireland endured its worst European season in the wake of the defeat to Argentina but there is no need to fear a repeat performance.

Back then, Leo Cullen had just taken over at Leinster whose next generation had yet to push through, while Munster were struggling under Anthony Foley and Les Kiss only became Ulster coach after the World Cup. Connacht were the only team to make the last eight in Pat Lam's third season and that was in the Challenge Cup.

This time around, Leinster are justifiably being touted as contenders for the throne and Munster and Ulster will fancy their chances of getting out of their pools. Connacht are back at the top table, but they face a tough task to emerge from a difficult draw.

Although the provinces have been tipping away with the PRO14, most casual fans have had full focus on the World Cup and may just be tuning back into club rugby this weekend.

And there's plenty of talking points to get into as the Champions Cup gets up and running again.

1 - Leinster: justified favourites?

Saracens' issues have seen a movement in the market and last year's beaten finalists have been installed as the pre-tournament favourites by the bookies.

That's despite the fact they've only signed one player since the end of last season, Cian Kelleher, while they're welcoming a large contingent of players who endured a disappointing World Cup.

Still, the structures put in place by Leo Cullen in his four seasons to date mean the men in blue can thrive once again this season and the draw they've been handed is a help.

Starting with the returning Benetton at the RDS today, the four-time winners will target a clean sweep to put themselves in pole position to emerge from the pool stage as the top seeds for the knockout rounds.

They have injuries, but their production line keeps delivering gems and Joe Tomane appears to have rediscovered his lost form.

Now able to pick James Lowe, Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park in the same 23, they are well set to begin their drive for five.

Saracens, Clermont and Toulouse look best set to stop them, but Cullen and Co are justified market leaders.

2 - The Saracens conundrum

Docked 35 Premiership points and fined £5m for salary cap breaches, the champions have plenty on their plate right now.

Throw in the reality that so many of their players went to the last weekend of the World Cup and Mark McCall must consider where his priorities lie.

He hasn't picked any of his England starters for the opening round trip to Racing 92, but two weeks out from the final that makes some sense. He could probably rest them and still get what he needs out of the Ospreys game next week.

League survival is the main aim for the Londoners, but their squad is packed full of winners who will see Europe as their only way of getting a trophy this season.

They'll want to defend their title and it seems highly unlikely that, by the time they play Munster back-to-back, the likes of Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell won't be back in the team.

Having lost the World Cup final in Yokohama, they might struggle or we might see a backlash.

If they find a common cause in the Champions Cup, they can win it.

3 - Munster's limitations remain

The masters of the pool stages, the men in red got a tough draw against Sarries and Racing but will count on their experience to negotiate their way through to the last eight.

Over the past three seasons, however, their problems have come when the track hardens in knockout rugby and, while Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree bring fresh ideas, they are dealing with the same set of players.

Indeed, Alby Mathewson's impending exit will weaken their bench and increase the reliance on Conor Murray who is still searching for his best form.

No team relies on their contingent of senior men like Munster but every season makes it a little harder for Peter O'Mahony, Murray, Keith Earls, CJ Stander and Dave Kilcoyne to end the long wait for silverware.

With RG Snyman and Damian de Allende to arrive next summer and a strong academy contingent on the way, the future looks bright but the clock is ticking for the leadership group.

They need Joey Carbery fit and Larkham can hopefully help the inside backs to unlock the potential in the wide channels where Andrew Conway looks electric.

A favourable draw would help if they can negotiate a tough pool, but they still look a little short of the top teams when it comes to the business end until their Springboks arrive.

4 - The year of the French?

An entire World Cup cycle has passed without a French winner of the top prize and that club, Toulon, didn't qualify this season.

Toulouse, however, are a resurgent force having won the Top 14 and reached a European semi-final last season, while Clermont tasted continental success at last with their Challenge Cup victory.

Both teams are firmly in contention this time around.

The men from the Auvergne have a favourable draw and remain a force despite their brief sabbatical in the second-tier tournament, while the four-time winners Toulouse have a good age profile and the right attacking mindset to build on last season's success.

Lyon are currently top of the league and that seems like their focus, while Montpellier have a patchy record in this tournament.

In contrast, Racing 92 have been a consistent force at this level and can spring into the competition with a big win over an understrength Saracens tomorrow. They have struggled in the Top 14, but have the quality to contend.

5 - Return of Crusader O'Gara

Which brings us to the most interesting of Ireland's coaching Wild Geese.

La Rochelle tore up trees on debut in this tournament two seasons ago and got to the Challenge Cup final last season.

With Jono Gibbes running the organisation and Ronan O'Gara installed as head coach, they'll be worth watching closely.

The former Munster out-half cut his teeth at Racing before heading to finishing school under the renowned Scott Robertson at the Crusaders and he's got a talented squad to work with here.

Coaching in France offers its own challenges and interest in Europe can be fleeting, but the men from the Atlantic coast have a strong squad and if they can start well against Exeter are dark horses.

Watching O'Gara put his stamp on things will be fascinating.

6 - Life after Best for Ulster

Rory Best is off with the Barbarians as Ulster open their campaign in Bath and the influential ex-captain leaves a big void.

Iain Henderson is the new skipper and he has plenty to prove after a disappointing World Cup campaign.

Leading his home province in an increasingly cosmopolitan squad is a big job for the softly-spoken lock, but he can't just copy Best and must put his own imprint on the role.

He's not the only Ulster man in need of redemption after Japan; Jacob Stockdale has lost his form and Ulster need him to find it quickly.

Dan McFarland recruited well over the summer and, with Marcell Coetzee fit and John Cooney shining, they've got a chance of making the last eight once again.

7 - Connacht's dubious reward

Andy Friend's men worked hard to get back into the top competition, but their draw is tough and they're pretty depleted considering they didn't have many at the World Cup.

With the squad stretched it's going to be a tough ask against Montpellier, Toulouse and Gloucester; if they win their home games they'll be happy.

Predicted last eight: Leinster, Northampton, La Rochelle, Exeter, Clermont, Saracens, Munster, Toulouse.

Winners: Clermont

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