No more dead rubbers in the groups means everyone is capable of winning
Provinces face stern tests in Champions Cup openers as weaker teams improve
Rory Best put if fairly well at the launch of the European Champions Cup in London last week. Asked about the effect of competing in a competition that last season became leaner and meaner, he said: "When you look through it and everyone goes: 'Oh that Leinster pool's tough.' And the Leinster boys are going: 'Yeah it is, but your group's not that easy either.' And whenever you look across the board there's not one where you'd want to start swapping one of their teams for one of ours because suddenly you do that and it's just as tough. And that's the nature of only having 20 teams in it.
"It's tough, but ultimately I think for the betterment of European rugby you want to be tested every week. Those so-called dead rubbers that people wanted to watch, I think they're a bit of a thing of the past now. Every weekend there's at least four or five massive, crunch games where you go: 'Well there's two teams that could win it, and now they're playing each other in the pool stages'."
He wasn't talking about Ulster's opening game of this campaign, against Oyannax, in Stade Charles Mathon on Saturday. The cliché in modern team sport is that practically every bloody venue on the planet is either (a) a fortress or (b) a difficult place to go. The latter literally is true, but at least when Ulster get there they will have a decent pitch to play on - synthetic - and a not very decent team to play against.
The unstated aim will be to bring five points back to Kingspan for the visit of Saracens the following Friday night, after which Best and Ulster, and their new coach Les Kiss, will know if their route to the knockouts is negotiable.
Munster's start to the tournament is not too taxing either, and if they don't take the maximum at home against Treviso then they will be feeling some heat when they travel to Paris in round two to face Stade. The Top 14 champions are losing their coach Guy Laporte in January. They've struggled domestically this term thanks in part to the absence of key players during the World Cup - Sergio Parisse, Alexandre Flanquart and Rabah Slimani - plus the hangover that followed last season's title success. They are at home to Clermont this afternoon, where defeat would leave them with only two wins from seven starts in the Top 14, and could dilute their interest in the main European event before it starts. Expect a home win.
For Munster, this pool might well be tougher on paper than on grass. The biggest issue for them will be how they fare without Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony. In which case the retirement of Felix Jones, and the speculation about Simon Zebo upping sticks and heading to Toulouse - we understand no offer has been made as yet - is the last thing they want. Moreover it puts a heavier load on the shoulders of Francis Saili to deliver something special every time he plays.
The back-to-back contests with the Tigers in December already are hugely attractive fixtures, but times have changed since this pair held us all spellbound when they met in the pool stages in 2006/'07. Tomás O'Leary will likely be the only survivor in red from those encounters. Leicester, to their credit, are still perennial contenders in the Premiership and went to Exeter yesterday with a 100 per cent record.
Leinster didn't bring quite the same into Friday night's home tie with Scarlets, whose defence has caused trouble for everyone they've come up against. Leinster were no different, but were worth their four-point win. The highlight of their night was getting Johnny Sexton back in blue in the RDS, and the form of wing Cian Kelleher who should have seen more time at this level sooner. He has been overshadowed by the excellence of Garry Ringrose who is still probably sore this morning after what for him was a bruising encounter.
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To his credit, he kept coming back for more. In the post-World Cup debate of rugby needing players with more skill than power however it was sometimes painful watching the skill bit trying to shine through the biff. Expect more of the same when the Champions Cup kicks off.
In the Challenge Cup, Connacht make the trek to Siberia, which will be worth a chapter in a book for someone. Given their outstanding form in the Pro12 - the home win over Treviso on Friday night was their fifth in a row, and the first time they've managed that since 2002 - the hardest part of the Russian expedition will be the journey itself. Genuinely, Krasnoyarsk is a hard place to go. But expect Connacht to head west again with six wins on the trot.
Sunday Indo Sport