Donal Lenihan: Leinster look the part but 2020 could be year of the French

Donal Lenihan: Leinster look the part but 2020 could be year of the French
Leinster’s Devin Toner during training at UCD. Leinster are the only side mathematically qualified to make the Champions Cup quarter-finals at this stage, it is almost certain that they will be joined in the last eight by Exeter Chiefs, Clermont, Ulster, Toulouse, Northampton — if they are still interested in making the cut — and two from Racing 92, Munster, and Saracens with the Irish province as the outsiders. Picture: Ryan Byrne

The Champions Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle for professional club rugby in Europe. Teams chase qualification for the 20 slots on offer through the final placing in their domestic leagues. More credence was added to this process when the automatic places which were ring-fenced for teams from all six participating countries were removed from the PRO14 last season.

If an Italian side wanted a presence at the top table, they had to earn it by qualifying as one of the best seven sides in the league.

Benetton became the first Italian side to do just that by virtue of their domestic performances and, unlike a number of clubs from France and England, have attracted many admirers for their performances in Europe this season.

Beating French Top 14 league leaders Lyon 25-22 last weekend and running Gallagher Premiership leaders Northampton Saints to within three points in their Round Two game in Treviso is proof positive of that.

The Gallagher Premiership supply seven teams to the Champions Cup and the race to cement those places every year is hotly contested. Yet of the 28 Champions Cup games played over the opening four rounds of action, the English clubs have been embarrassingly uncompetitive, winning only 10 matches.

A 35.7% return from the best English club rugby has to offer is doing this season’s competition a disservice. Don’t forget that the English and French clubs, on the back of a massive push from their multimillionaire benefactors, were the ones that brought European rugby to the brink of extinction five years ago and demanded changes to the competition.

To be fair, reducing the number of teams from 24 to 20 did raise the level of competition for a time, even if the balance of the pools is still a bit lopsided with three best runners-up advancing from the five pools.

Rumour has it that the English want to reduce the tournament even further to 16 teams when the next review takes place in two years’ time which will make it even more elite. That’s all well and good, as long as everyone turns up to play in every game.

There will always be a degree of imbalance in the pools as Munster are discovering this season with two other genuine contenders in Saracens, despite their domestic challenges, and Racing 92 capable of winning the tournament outright. It’s a bit crazy that Northampton could concede 14 tries and 93 points in two games against Leinster but are still likely to qualify for the knockout phase as one of the three best runners-up.

Meanwhile Munster, Saracens, and Racing 92 are knocking lumps out of each other.

Right now, I rank Leinster,Toulouse, Racing, and Clermont as the leading contenders for ultimate honours. Once Mark McCall decides to field his strongest side and not mix and match as he did in the back-to-back games against Munster, Saracens will fall into that category too.

Exeter Chiefs, Munster, and Ulster are in a tier slightly behind that quintet, with the rest well off the pace for European glory.

The tournament is being seriously undermined at the moment by the ever-increasing trend of clubs fielding vastly understrength teams from as early as the second round. Saracens did it from the outset in their game against Racing 92 for well documented reasons but their depth is such that they could afford to field 35 different players and still beat Munster on points accumulated from their back-to-back games.

Northampton did it in on their second weekend and needed a penalty at the death to rescue a win over Benetton in Treviso.

How disappointed did the Leinster attendance of over 40,000 who turned up at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday feel when a severely understrength Saints’ team was announced on Friday? Leinster had a four-try bonus point in the bag by the 35th minute, in a contest that already looked dead and buried after Garry Ringrose scored a brace of tries to put them 14-0 up after six minutes.

While a number of fans were more than happy to treat a colourful day out at the Aviva as part of their Christmas festivities, others looked forward to a genuine contest when they bought their tickets well in advance of the fixture.

Clermont Auvergne fared even better than Leinster against an equally hapless Bath side, registering their four-try bonus point as early as the 20th minute in a game they went on to win 52- 26. Ulster’s excellent 10-34 win over Harlequins at the Stoop on Friday night was another result that doesn’t reflect well on the club game in England.

While far from perfect, the French clubs, specifically Clermont, Racing, and Toulouse, have gone all out to make the quarter-finals even if Clermont’s selection for the game against Ulster in Belfast, when they left their experienced half-back pairing of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez on the bench, appeared to signal their intent in advance. Ulster made the most of the opportunity.

The overall return from the 24 games played by the French clubs is appreciably better than their English counterparts at 56.25% with 13 wins and a draw.

That, however, compares poorly with an incredible 78% return from the Irish provinces with 12 wins and a draw from 16 games.

While Leinster are the only side mathematically qualified at this stage, it is almost certain that they will be joined in the last eight by Exeter Chiefs, Clermont, Ulster, Toulouse, Northampton — if they are still interested in making the cut — and two from Racing 92, Munster, and Saracens with the Irish province as the outsiders at this stage.

One of the top two seeds heading into the quarter-finals could well find that the reward for their consistency over the course of the pool stage is a clash with the holders Saracens. At least they will have the bonus of a home tie. Leinster found themselves in that position in the 2018 quarter-final and proved too strong at the Aviva Stadium, winning 30-19.

With the Champions Cup final scheduled for Marseille next May, Clermont, Toulouse, and Racing will go all out to cement a home quarter-final. With the semi-final venues now allocated to the highest-ranked sides from the pool stages, there is a huge incentive for all potential qualifiers to accumulate as many points as possible over the remaining two rounds.

There is a strong possibility that one of the big French clubs may not have to leave the country at any stage from the quarter-final onwards and that will have a big impact on their approach. While Leinster are rightly installed as favourites, Toulouse have re-engaged with this tournament big time and having made the semi-final last season, will look to go one step further in 2020.

Clermont have an amazing array of talent and scoring power available to them and will be very dangerous, especially if they don’t have to leave France while Racing, as Leinster discovered in the 2018 final in Bilbao, are capable of making life very difficult for all comers. There’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge in this tournament yet.

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