DONAL LENIHAN: Irish provinces flying high but daunting tests loom on horizon

The Champions Cup may be heading into a brief period of hibernation but not even the prospect of one of the most competitive Six Nations championships for some time will dampen the enthusiasm for the tournament’s return in April, writes Donal Lenihan.

The Champions Cup may be heading into a brief period of hibernation but not even the prospect of one of the most competitive Six Nations championships for some time will dampen the enthusiasm for the tournament’s return in April.

Of course it helps to have an active interest in proceedings and the presence of Munster and Leinster, with home quarter-finals to look forward to, makes it all the more special. Connacht too have kept up their end of the bargain with a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup.

Once again Ulster are left on the outside looking in, but have nobody to blame but themselves. Their failure to turn up at the Ricoh Arena last Sunday, with destiny in their own hands, marked the only blemish on an otherwise memorable weekend for the Irish in Europe. There will be a lot of soul-searching required in Ravenhill over the next few weeks.

Aviva Premiership champions and current league leaders Exeter Chiefs, runaway Guinness Pro14 Conference A pace-setters Glasgow Warriors, and French Top 14 leaders Montpellier: in terms of challenging Champions Cup pools, they don’t come much more difficult than the opposition Leinster found themselves grouped within this season’s tournament.

Yet Leo Cullen’s men emerged with a clean sweep of six wins, with some really impressive victories on the road, especially at Sandy Park and the Altrad Stadium, to emerge as top seeds and clear favourites for this season’s tournament.

To date, they’ve had to do things the hard way, and the fact that they are now paired with, back-to-back reigning champions Saracens suggests nothing is about to change on that front anytime soon.

Some reward for finishing top seed. That is going to be some contest.

Irish provinces flying high but daunting tests loom on horizon

After a period of very strong representation from the Premiership clubs in the knockout phase since the tournament was revamped back in 2014, the fact that Saracens provide the only English presence, and that by the skin of their teeth in eighth place, has resulted in much comment from across the water.

National coach Eddie Jones faces into the Six Nations with a host of front-line players out of action due to untimely injuries. He promotes a ‘no excuses’ culture and approaches his plight with a positive spin.

Pity elements within the English media don’t espouse the same values.

Some within their ranks put the success of the Irish in Europe solely down to the player welfare system in this country and the ability of the provinces to rest key players at opportune times. No relegation in the domestic league, blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before.

Given the intensely physical demands of the modern game, is player rotation not a reality with all the top clubs across Europe? Isn’t that the reason why they carry such deep squads?

The reality is that, because of international commitments, Munster and Leinster won’t be in a position to field their first choice team as a collective again until their respective quarter-finals in April. That’s 10 weeks without a game together. Between them the two Irish quarter-finalists provide 18 players to Joe Schmidt’s squad.

To be fair, Saracens find themselves in a similar position, with so many of their players involved with England. There is no doubt either that having six players, excluding Billy Vunipola who cried off due to injury, away on Lions duty last summer has also been a major factor in their mid-season slump. They have ridden that storm however, and will be as formidable as ever when they arrive in Dublin.

The big fear for Leinster, despite the immense depth to their squad, is injury to one of their two key players in Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong. The same applies to Conor Murray and CJ Stander for Munster, while Ian Keatley’s form of late also makes him equally indispensable. The reality of rugby nowadays, with its increasing levels of physicality, is that no side will ever have the luxury of having all of their front-line players available to them at the same time.

Conor Murray
Conor Murray

Leinster is in a good place at present with players of real promise emerging every season. While the extraordinary exploits of Jordon Larmour have attracted all the recent headlines, another young potential Lion of the future has also beavered away and made a huge impact.

Second row James Ryan is quietly going about his business. He contributes solidly on the tight-head side of the scrum — it helps when you can tuck in behind Furlong — makes meaningful carries, is ultra reliable on his own lineout and comfortable in traffic when it comes to making the decision whether to pass, carry, or run a dummy line. He has shown enough for Schmidt to entrust him with more minutes in the upcoming Six Nations.

Munster may not have as many players involved with Schmidt over the next eight weeks but it is still imperative that Johann van Graan maps out how best to cater for the inevitable disruptions with his players torn between two different camps over that period. That’s where Niall O’Donovan’s experience as manager will be crucial.

Munster have a far better mix to their game at present with the traditional strengths at the setpiece and the breakdown being supplemented with some quality attacking rugby. That variety and ability to adapt on the run was badly needed and will prove invaluable.

On the evidence of their showing against Scarlets last Saturday, Toulon may not have as many stellar names as when they won three European titles in a row, between 2013 and 2015, but in All Blacks centurion Ma’a Nonu, French captain Guilhem Guirado, Springbok Duane Vermeulen, Argentina’s Facundo Isa and new rising French out-half star Anthony Belleau, Toulon retain a core of talented and hardworking individuals capable of testing Munster to the full, even in Thomond Park. Another brilliant game awaits.

Ma’a Nonu
Ma’a Nonu

Of the remaining teams left standing, Scarlets represent the dark horse. If there is a rugby equivalent to the “total football” espoused by the Dutch national team in the 1970s and more recently by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, then Scarlets are custodians.

I watched their last two Champions Cup games, away to Bath at the Rec and home to Toulon at Parc y Scarlets. They are a joy to watch. In broken play, all their players, including the front five, are very comfortable in possession. Their ability to keep the ball alive and identify space is superb.

Chief amongst those is new Munster signing Tadhg Beirne — nominated yesterday in a shortlist for European player of the year — who produced another all-action display in the loose against Toulon while conceding nothing in his primary duties in the tight. His work rate is phenomenal. Their quarter-final clash with La Rochelle, who also look to keep the ball alive at all times, promises to be another cracker.

A word too for Connacht who have re-discovered their mojo in the Challenge Cup after a difficult start to the season in the Guinness Pro14. Not only have they secured that home quarter-final but did so by remaining unbeaten in their pool. The tournament offers them a back door into the Champions Cup next season and they should now focus all their energy on winning it.

Lifting the Guinness Pro12 title against all the odds in 2016 should eliminate any inferiority complex. In addition, the fact that their match-day squad against Oyonnax last Saturday featured 10 internationals — nine Irish and Fijian back rower Naulia Dawai — must serve to convince them that they have the players to go all the way.

With the Challenge Cup decider also set for Bilbao on the eve of the Champions Cup final, northern Spain might yet be facing an Irish invasion.


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