Saturday 21 April 2018

Plenty of obstacles blocking Leinster's glory trail

Clermont players celebrate at the final whistle after beating Leinster in last year's Champions Cup semi-final Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Clermont players celebrate at the final whistle after beating Leinster in last year's Champions Cup semi-final Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Are we guilty of over-hyping Leinster?

After all, their last trophy came under Matt O'Connor in 2014 and they've been in just one final since - losing heavily to Connacht in the 2016 Guinness PRO12 showpiece -and they have yet to get back to a Champions Cup finale since they won the competition six seasons ago.

In that time, Toulon have won three titles and Saracens two. Clermont have reached a hat-trick of finals. The best Leinster have managed were last-four appearances in 2015 and 2017.

Yet the bookmakers are convinced - pricing the three-time winners as 9/4 favourites to emerge victorious in Bilbao on May 12.

Only they and Clermont have 100pc records in the pool stages and unsurprisingly, the top two on the favourites' list are in the most comfortable position of any pool leaders going into the decisive rounds five and six.

Christmas confirmed what many already suspected about Leinster's supremacy on the Irish scene and their formidable strength in depth that is key to securing a place in the latter rounds of tournaments.

But when they get there, do they have what it takes to secure a fourth star for their blue shirts?

The field remains a competitive one and after a shaky period the current king-pins are now showing signs that they mean business.

A Leinster v Saracens final would be something to behold, something the Irish side would relish dearly, but there are plenty of hoops to jump through before we get to the San Mames Stadium.

The calibre of opposition is one thing to take into account, but so too is the location of where the knockouts take place.

Topping the pool would ensure a home quarter-final, while finishing higher up the seedings can make a home semi-final more likely. If Leinster can stay in Dublin until the final, then their chance of success increases.

The next two weeks will whittle the list of competitors down to eight, but already we can see who Leinster's rivals will be for the trophy.

Clermont Auvergne

The most consistently strong club side in Europe, Clermont have contributed so much to this tournament without ever actually winning it.

Perennial bridesmaids they may be, but they can never be discounted and their recent record of reaching finals suggests they remain a danger.

Les Jaunards ultimately accounted for Leinster in Lyon last season and their back-to-back wins over Saracens before Christmas suggest they can mount another challenge.

However, Frank Azema's team have been struck by an injury crisis that would rock any roster and last weekend the absentees were sorely felt as Racing 92 beat them 58-6 in Paris.

They are down at half-back, centre and have lost their star winger Alivereti Raka who has done his cruciate and will miss the rest of the season.

Despite their issues, they should still negotiate their way to the last eight and by then some of their big hitters should have returned.

A team to avoid.

Saracens

The odds on a three-in-a-row have drifted to 4/1 but the return of Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola to the team on Sunday saw a marked improvement in the champions' effort.

They haven't gone away you know. A pre-Christmas dip turned heads across the continent as the best of the rest saw weakness at the head of the pack.

In particular, the 46-14 hammering at home to Clermont sent shock-waves through the tournament but wins over Ospreys and Northampton Saints should be enough to get Mark McCall's team into the knockout stages.

And even if they have to travel, they'll back themselves.

For one pool winner, the joy at securing a home quarter-final could quickly be soured by the news that it is Sarries who are coming to town.

At their best they boast a mean defence, a dominant set-piece combined with a well-drilled, slick attack and some of the biggest big-game players in Europe.

Their campaign comes down to this weekend's visit to Swansea, a game they'd back themselves to win, and if they play the way they did against Wasps on Sunday they should have no issues beating the PRO14 strugglers.

If they can negotiate their way out of their sticky spot then they'll be the team nobody will want to meet in April.

La Rochelle

The newcomers ran aground at the Ricoh Arena before Christmas, but they remain a major threat in this season's competition.

A place in the last eight is not yet guaranteed for the entertaining Top 14 side who were irresistible in the first three rounds but struggled against Wasps.

If they can beat Ulster away on Saturday the men from the west coast of France will have at least one foot in the last eight and if they can secure a home quarter-final they'll be a fearsome prospect.

The theory is that they may struggle when the knockouts get going because they've never been in that realm before, but they have enough quality and international experience to negotiate their way through and will be a threat.

Munster

They didn't have a very happy Christmas, but Munster's European form has been strong and if they can keep their internationals fit after the Six Nations then they will back themselves against any of their fellow contenders.

Johann van Graan's men can qualify for the last eight with a win in Paris this weekend, but even a bonus-point loss could be enough if they can overcome Castres at Thomond Park on Sunday week.

Semi-finalists last season, the Reds came up short against Sarries at the Aviva Stadium.

They'll have been quietly soaking up all of the hype surrounding Leinster and would relish a crack at them on the biggest stage.

The eastern province have had the better of the battles in the PRO14 this season, but they'd fancy a knockout 80 minutes.

Who wouldn't want to see it happen?

Best of the rest

There are big names in the chasing pack, but the likes of Bath, Toulon, Montpellier, Wasps, Ulster and Racing 92 have work to do to get into a position from where they can launch a bid for the title.

Toulon are not the force they were two years ago, but they have enough quality to take out a big gun and are a possible quarter-final opponent for Leinster.

All the others look fallible and would have to find real form if they are to threaten the big guns.

Irish Independent

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