Leinster face battle to survive in group of death

When the EPCR changed the format of Europe’s blue riband event four years ago, this was exactly what they wanted to see — and what many teams feared.

Youngsters Jayden and Casey Moore-Connors with Leinster's Josh van der Flier, Adam Byrne, and Noel Reid.

Leinster were semi-finalists in last season’s competition, but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that the three-time champions will even get out of their pool this time around, with Montpellier, Exeter, and Glasgow Warriors providing serious opposition.

Leo Cullen’s side were second seeds when the draw was made, but it’s hard to imagine a tougher pool, with the obvious caveat that they didn’t draw reigning champions Saracens from tier one.

But Exeter are there as Aviva Premiership champions, and they defeated Mark McCall’s men in dramatic style to earn that honour.

The English side are not European heavyweights — they won just two pool games in three of their four seasons in the competition — and will be without Lions winger Jack Nowell for their first four Pool games at least, thanks to a broken cheekbone.

But Rob Baxter’s men are not going to be soft touches and the noises coming out of Sandy Park are that they are determined to finally make an impact in Europe after overcoming their mental frailty on domestic duty. Baxter believes they have learned from last season’s disappointment, and can make it to the knockout stages for only the second time ever.

Glasgow were drawn from tier four, having come sixth in last season’s PRO12, but Leinster know they will be facing a team that’s more potent than their recent CV suggests.

The Scots made it to the knockout stages last year losing out to eventual champions Saracens, but have improved over the close season when Dave Rennie arrived from New Zealand, with a strong winning attitude in his baggage, and Calum Gibbins, the hugely impressive flanker, for company.

They’ve won six from six in the PRO14, earning four try bonus points along the way, and will be a threat to all three teams in their Champions Cup pool.

That includes Montpellier, the big spending French side who have become everyone’s ‘dark horse’ for the coming season.

It’s often said teams have to lose in Europe before they win, and Montpellier have won just 12 of their 31 games in continental competition since their first appearance in 2011.

Only once have they made it to the knockout stage, in 2013, and even then they only made it to the quarter-final stage.

But, like Glasgow, last summer changed a lot of things at the Altrad Stadium, with Vern Cotter signing up as head coach, where he has been given plenty of backing.

Louis Picamoles, one of the best No. 8s in the Premiership last year, has moved back to France, Ruan Pienaar was given a hefty package to help him over the disappointment of leaving Ulster, while All Black out-half Aaron Cruden will attempt to show why he’s so much more than Beauden Barrett’s understudy.

Then there’s the likes of Nemani Nadolo, Timosi Nagusa, and the Du Plessis boys for Cotter to get his hands on. The squad depth may not yet be at a level to compete with Saracens or Toulon, but if the former Clermont boss keeps his big hitters fit, they could go all the way.

Leinster know they have no room for slip ups this season, and in such a pool, defeat at home tomorrow to the French side would be catastrophic.

Scott Fardy is the only summer addition available to Leo Cullen, with winger James Lowe not yet arrived, and there’s still doubt over the fitness of Seán O’Brien, with Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, and Garry Ringrose also absent.

It’s hard to know from their opening six games just where Leinster are and what they’re capable of this season, but tomorrow could be quite an indicator. For them — and for the rest of Europe.


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