DONAL LENIHAN: Can the Irish provinces finally get back to the European summit?

Jack Conan at Leinster rugby squad training in UCD. Picture: Morgan Treacy

Away wins anywhere in this pool will be extremely hard to come by and will ultimately prove decisive, writes Donal Lenihan

Hard to believe, but it will be six years since an Irish team reached a Heineken/Champions Cup final, by the time the tournament breaks new ground at the San Mames Stadium, in Bilbao, next May.

That all-Irish affair, back in 2012, between the then reigning champions, Leinster, and Ulster, at Twickenham, signalled the end of an amazing period of Irish dominance.

That Munster and Leinster shared five Heineken Cup wins between them over a period of seven years forced English and French club owners to change.

They wanted an end to what they perceived as the Irish influence of Dublin-based organisers, ERC — despite the excellent job they had done in developing the tournament from humble beginnings in 1995. Hence the birth of the Swiss-based EPCR, who took over the running of a revamped competition, and reduced it from 24 teams to 20, in 2014. The new broom promised much, but, to date, has failed to deliver on a number of off-field commitments, including vastly improved returns from television rights and sponsorship.

At least the rugby side continues to flourish. The fact that qualification from the Guinness PRO14, for next year’s Champions Cup, will be based entirely on a top-seven finish at the end of this season should remove the one lasting anomaly: The pool with an Italian team was almost certain to see two sides advance to the quarter-finals.

Right now, there is genuine quality spread across all five pools. When the draw was made last June Leinster would have been reasonably happy with their lot. Glasgow Warriors are familiar foes, from domestic competition. Leinster annihilated Montpellier 57-3 at the pool stage last season, while shock Aviva Premiership winners, Exeter Chiefs will prove challenging, especially away from home, but not insurmountable.

While we have become used to the composition of the English and, more so, the French club squads being tweaked annually with big-money signings from the southern hemisphere, the alterations at the helm of Montpellier and Glasgow pose a far greater challenge to Leinster’s aspiration of conquering Europe again.

Under former Springbok coach, Jake White, Montpellier were predictable — monstrously physical, but predictable. An impressive combination of bulk and power up-front, extending all the way to the wing with the gargantuan presence of Nemani Nadolo, proved sufficient to beat Leo Cullen’s men at the Altrad Stadium, last October.

Crucially, however, Leinster came away with a losing bonus point.

Since then, Montpellier pulled off a major coup, when the Scottish Rugby Union inexplicably let Vern Cotter go at the end of his contract, despite the patently visible improvements he had brought to the national side.

Glasgow Warriors coach Gregor Townsend had threatened a move to the Aviva Premiership, when Harlequins displayed an active interest in him and, afraid of losing his talents, the SRU offered Townsend the role of national coach, instead.

What they should have done was extend Cotter’s contract to the 2019 World Cup, with Townsend appointed as his assistant, with a view to the former Scottish international taking over from the New Zealander after the tournament in Japan.

In a further twist, Townsend’s departure from the Warriors facilitated the arrival of a proven winner in former Waikato Chiefs Super rugby head coach, Dave Rennie.

He was the favourite to take over as All Blacks head coach, from Steve Hansen, who was originally set to step down after the Lions series. The fact that Hansen agreed to extend his tenure by another two years, to the 2019 World Cup, forced Rennie to look for pastures new.

As a direct result of those coaching upheavals spread around the rugby landscape, Leinster now face a bigger challenge in making it to the knockout phase of this season’s Champions Cup, not to mind winning it.

Therefore, Saturday’s opening game, against Montpellier at the RDS, has already adopted a must-win look about it.

Away wins anywhere in this pool will be extremely hard to come by and will ultimately prove decisive.

If Montpellier were to lose Saturday’s game, Cotter, who has a long and uncomfortable relationship with European competition, from his coaching days at Clermont Auvergne, may concentrate his efforts on the French Top 14.

Montpellier have never won a Bouclier de Brennus and, having invested millions, under Jake White’s ultimately failed regime, to do so, Cotter, reputed to be the highest-paid coach in the game, on €1m per annum, may well chase that dream.

While retaining that massive physical edge, Montpellier now play with more width and attacking flair under Cotter, facilitated, in no small measure, by an exciting new half-back partnership of former Ulster Springbok, Ruan Pienaar, and a New Zealand World Cup-winning out-half in Aaron Cruden. With Glasgow next up, in Scotstoun, in round two, Leinster have to win on Saturday.

By comparison, Munster’s pool looks a bit more forgiving. Having Leicester Tigers for the third season in a row is hardy ideal, nor is the fact that Racing 92 are there again, as a haunting reminder of the shock passing of Anthony Foley, in Paris, last year.

The fact that Leicester won three of the four pool clashes over the last two seasons will hardly have them quaking in their boots at the prospect of facing Munster. A change of management here, too, since last season’s dual encounters, brings another familiar face into the picture, with former Leinster coach, Matt O’Connor, having taken over at Welford Road, from Richard Cockerel.

Opening their campaign away from home, on Sunday, against long-time European rivals, Castres, offers Munster an opportunity to steal a march on their rivals.

Castres have always displayed a lukewarm approach to this tournament: Notoriously difficult to beat at home, but invariably throwing in the towel the minute the wheels of their plane take off for an away assignment, regardless of the destination.

They have had a shocking start to the Top 14, with only two wins from their opening seven games and they lie eleventh in the table. They did, however, deliver a very credible 29-23 win over champions Clermont Auvergne in their most recent home game, 10 days ago, offering a timely reminder that they are hard to shift at the Stade Pierre Fabre.

Munster were far from convincing in their biggest game of the season, against Leinster last weekend.

Injuries to key figures, in Jaco Taute and Jean Kleyn, have left them vulnerable, both defensively and at the set-piece. There is a strong possibility that Kleyn could make it back in time for Sunday’s clash, which would offer a timely boost.

Uncertainty hovers over the key out-half slot, with Tyler Bleyendaal, Ian Keatley, and JJ Hanrahan all seeing game time there over the last two outings, without any claiming outright ownership. Keatley had been the most consistent in the role, but it won’t have helped his confidence to have been replaced just four minutes into the second-half against Leinster. Munster badly need to settle on their combinations at 10, 12, and 13 and build from there.

Having Castres first up away from home isn’t ideal, either, as they are more likely to lose interest as the tournament progresses, which should prove advantageous to both Leicester and Racing. An away win on Sunday remains within Munster’s compass, but the indiscipline that derailed them in Dublin last weekend will have to be addressed.


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