For the first time since the advent of European rugby, I don’t think an Irish province has much hope of winning the Champions Cup.
It saddens me to say that, but when you look at the pools each team has been drawn in, the financial might of the French and English teams, and the fact that Toulon are now chasing four titles in a row, logic tells us we have slim hopes of adding to our haul of six titles.
I would go so far as to say I’d be surprised if more than one of the Irish provinces got out of their groups. I might sound overly pessimistic with that declaration, but the new Champions Cup is a far tougher tournament to win than the Heineken Cup was.
With just 20 teams in the competition, a lot of the fringe teams have been cut loose into the Challenge Cup. It is full of teams where you’d have fancied getting a result away from home in times gone by. Their absence has resulted in no easy games – home or away – and as a consequence the larger, more talented squads of the French and English teams are the ones to beat.
Each year I played in the competition it seemed to get stronger. The quality of player you faced definitely increased since the French teams all began to show an interest in winning it. Since I’ve stopped playing that pattern has continued.
We always managed to work our way into the competition by winning our home games and then picking up results on the road, but nowadays it’s much tougher. Just look at Ulster last year. They lost away to Leicester and at home to Toulon in their first two games and the competition was over for them.
I remember back in 2005-’06 we went over to Manchester and were beaten by Sale Sharks in our first game. We went on to win the competition for the first time later that season, but we backed that loss up with a big win over Castres. In the Champions Cup, losing that first game has teams on the back foot immediately.
Last season no team won six pool games out of six, and I’d be stunned if it happened this year either. Even for Toulon – who could go on and win the next two or three Champions Cups – it would be very tough to pick up away wins in Leinster, Wasps and Bath. The first team to win all six of their pool games in this competition will be some outfit.
Munster have probably caught a bit of a break this season by drawing the only Italian club in the competition, but even then, I don’t think Treviso are the walkover they used to be in the early days. Munster will have to play well to pick up a bonus point at home today and nowadays in a fixture like that, five points is an absolute must.
As well as Treviso, Munster have a couple of really strong sides in their pool in Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais. French champions Stade haven’t gotten off to the best of starts in the Top 14 with three wins from their first eight games, but with their internationals back now, we’ll see a better effort from them in the coming weeks I’m sure.
Leicester have done pretty well so far with three wins from their four Premiership games, and despite having their squad swelled by the arrival of six Super 15 stars, including Jean de Villiers, they are not quite the force they once were in their pomp. They are still a team that can cause Munster big problems though.
I expect all of the three ‘big’ teams in Munster’s group to take points from each other, a pattern that I think we’ll see right across the board. It is that likely run of results that makes the games against Treviso all the more important. The team that tops the pool will have to take two bonus-point wins from games against the Italians. If another team can do likewise, then they’ll have a great chance of picking up one of the three best runner-up slots and get into the quarter-finals that way.
If things go according to plan and our provinces get through to the last eight, they are likely to be met by one of the group-winning superpowers there.
Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse will all be powerful this year. Racing 92 will be a threat with Dan Carter on board if they can get their heads right, while the English teams like Saracens and Northampton as strong as ever. Glasgow could be dark horses from the Pro12.
Apart from facing tougher teams more often, the big problem from a Munster point of view is they are going into this tournament with a very inexperienced squad. Without injured players in key positions and not having Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Damien Varley and Felix Jones to call on anymore, Anthony Foley has turned to a lot of players that are unproven at this level.
Jack O’Donoghue is a hugely talented footballer, but today is his European debut; alongside him in the back-row Dave O’Callaghan is bang in form, but has only made three European starts; the second-row partnership of Donnacha Ryan and Mark Chisholm has only played 29 minutes together; and we’ll surely see first competition appearances for Rory Scannell and Lucas Amorosino off the bench.
With that apparent dearth in experience, it was a smart move by Foley to bring Tomás O’Leary back to the province. When he is injury-free he is as good as anyone around, and he has looked pretty sharp in his few outings to date.
Along with Denis Hurley, he is now the only survivor of the 2008 winning side and his know-how and leadership qualities are priceless around this young squad. I must admit I have concerns about how Munster will go this season in the Champions Cup, but, nevertheless, I do like the look of the team – it has huge potential.
I am particularly happy to see Keith Earls back on the wing, where I think he is most dangerous. Himself and Francis Saili are very similar players and having Hurley in midfield solidifies the defensive set-up and gives Munster someone to carry the ball across the gain-line.
Certainly this is a big season for Ian Keatley. He has stepped up to the mark in recent weeks to kick some real pressure kicks which has won games for Munster, but he needs to reproduce that form on the bigger stage more consistently.
There is no doubt that he has all of the skills required to be a top out-half, but believing in himself and believing that he can deliver in the Champions Cup would be a huge step for him.
But the key man for Munster now is CJ Stander. His performances have been of high quality for the last few seasons, but this season he has taken them to another level altogether. Without so many leaders through injury and retirement, his ability to lead by example is priceless. If Munster have any hope of qualifying, he’ll need to play out of his skin in every game.
Munster will win today. I expect them to pick up a bonus point and put in a convincing performance, but like the other provinces, bigger tests will follow in the next few weeks.