European mountain top may not be as distant as many believe

Eight years have elapsed since Munster toppled the mighty Toulouse to be crowned champions of Europe on an emotional evening in Cardiff.

European mountain top may not be as distant as many believe

Much has changed across the European rugby landscape since that captivating 16-13 victory at the Millennium Stadium and many within the game wonder if Munster will ever experience those dizzy heights again.

After last Saturday’s disappointing defeat at the hands of Leinster, those glory days appear further away than ever.

If, as a Reds supporter, you’re feeling slightly deflated as Munster launch another European odyssey in Paris on Sunday against a Racing 92 side embracing one of the province’s most favoured sons in their coaching dugout, just check out where Munster’s 2006 Heineken Cup final opponents are playing this weekend.

Beating Biarritz after years of pain and anguish to finally land the Heineken Cup will always conjure special memories for all Irish supporters blessed to be in Cardiff that day. Biarritz agonisingly lost another final four years later by a two-point margin against arch rivals Toulouse before winning the Challenge Cup two years later. This weekend, as Munster prepare to stifle the challenge of the reigning Top 14 champions, Biarritz entertain Carcassonnaise in the French Pro D2 - their second division. They currently sit in 14th position and are in serious trouble on a number of fronts.

By comparison, Munster are in rude health.

For only the fourth time in the history of the competition, all four Irish provinces embark on a journey in Europe’s premier tournament. Connacht kept the Irish flag flying in the knockout phase of the Challenge Cup last season before going down by a point in an epic, 65 point, battle to Grenoble at the quarter-final stage. The fact that Leinster, Munster and Ulster all failed to progress from their respective pools for the first time since 1998 gave credence to the view that it is becoming impossible to compete with the seriously monied French and English clubs.

Coupled with the disappointment of failing to progress to a first World Cup semi-final, the naysayers lined up to come calling at Irish rugby’s door for the first time in well over a decade. Justified? I didn’t think so at the time and I still don’t.

There were a number of mitigating circumstances operating against the Irish cause in Europe 12 months ago. There was the physical and emotional fallout after that quarter-final defeat to Argentina. In Leinster’s defence, they had 20 players on World Cup duty and had no time, with a new coaching team on board, to gain cohesion. Meanwhile Munster were without both Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell for their campaign.

The slate has been wiped clean on that front now and a clearer message should emerge as to where the Irish sides sit in comparison to their French and English counterparts over the next few months.

Since last year’s disappointments, Munster and Leinster have both added considerable experience to their coaching ticket while Ulster have signed two quality internationals in All Black Charles Piutau and Springbok Marcell Coetzee. Unfortunately the South African remains out of action until January.

So will we see an Irish side seriously challenge the likes of Racing 92, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, holders Saracens, Bath or Leicester for ultimate glory? Probably not but, apart from some notable exceptions, the gap is not as wide as many believe. Saracens have a superb squad and deserved their domestic and European double last season but, with so many players now elevated to Eddie Jones’s England squad, they will soon begin to feel the pinch.

Toulon are nowhere near the trailblazing side that won three European titles in a row while, I’m sure even Ronan O’Gara would accept that, Racing 92 still have progress to make before dominating the European scene.

Despite that disappointing start to the season, the presence of Zebre in Connacht’s pool offers them a real chance of progressing in one of the three best runners-up slots. That is the one anomaly left in the tournament now and, with the Italians firmly rooted to the bottom of the PRO12 table once again, they really should be competing in the Challenge Cup.

Connacht’s magnificent showing in a brilliantly entertaining victory over Ulster in Galway last Friday night could not have been better timed.

For Munster, Leinster and Ulster the challenge to make the quarter-finals is huge but not insurmountable. Realistically however, of that trio, Munster face the biggest battle.

The quality of their attacking game and the lack of any real creativity against Leinster once again highlighted a serious problem. Teams are finding Munster easy to defend against.

In typical French fashion, new Top 14 champions Racing 92 have conquered all-comers at home at the Stade Yevs-Du-Manoir but have failed to win any of their four away games this season. Perhaps Munster might have been better served by starting their campaign in Limerick.

With a familiar foe in Glasgow at home in round two, if Munster could return to Thomond Park with a minimum of a losing bonus point from Paris, then a win over Gregor Townsend side would set them up nicely for the back to back games against Leicester Tigers in December. However that appears a big ask.

Leinster will be more competitive this season, of that I have no doubt. Johnny Sexton has started the campaign in good form and with a Lions tour to aim for next June and plenty of competition not only for that slot but also for his Irish shirt from the ever improving Paddy Jackson, I think Sexton will rise to the challenge.

Leinster have the making of a really competitive starting pack and an impactful bench and that is always a great starting point in Europe.

A home game against Castres, who are just about the most difficult of the French sides to get a handle on, offers Leinster a great opportunity to set down an early marker. With an away contest against an immensely physical Montpellier side to come the following week, Leo Cullen’s men need a positive start.

The great unknown surrounding Leinster prior to last weekend was the state of their attacking game but they answered those questions with a really positive showing. The newly constructed midfield pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose looks full of promise after a brilliant debut outing and was infinitely more potent than anything Munster brought to the table.

Ulster have looked the most consistent of the Irish teams this season without playing anywhere near their best. They face a tricky assignment, away to Bordeaux-Begles on Sunday, with Jackson’s likely head to head with Ian Madigan an interesting sideshow. They have a very poor record on the road in France over the years but with Clermont Auvergne also in their pool, they need to address that failing if they are to see quarter-final action come April.

The Champions Cup may be coming in slightly under the radar next weekend but all the provinces will need to hit the ground running to have any chance of redressing last season’s disappointing shortcomings across the board.

Some are better positioned than others to make that happen.

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