RONAN O'GARA: Munster face tough task but can get the job done

The tournament’s name may have changed but the key to European rugby remains to target four wins in the pool stages. Nothing else matters. Munster face a tough ask but possess players who can think for themselves and get the job done, writes Ronana O'Gara.

Pool 1: Champions Boulevard (Clermont Auvergne, Munster, Sale, Saracens)

Three proven European superpowers and a Sale side looking to raise their game... while the name of the competition may change, Munster still know the key to European rugby is to target four wins in the pool stages. Nothing else matters. That’s probably why they would have preferred the away game to Sale to come later in the campaign. A visit to the Allianz Park or the Stade Pierre Antoine now would have been a freebie. Sale away is a game they must win.

To do it they will target Danny Cipriani. He can be rattled and implode as we’ve seen in the past but is also capable of magic moments. Munster will look to limit his influence. People will say it’s further evidence of the change between Anthony Foley and Rob Penney’s style, but it’s not that simple. This is cup rugby and you do what’s right to win.

Two seasons ago we practised all week to play Harlequins in a certain manner but used very little of that in the match. For cup rugby, players must be able to think for themselves and Munster are blessed there. Peter O’Mahony is very mature for his age and will demand different things than Paul O’Connell; however their shared qualities make for a potent forward pack. Clermont started the Top 14 well but went into a lull and then a decline with the loss against Bordeaux. They’re talking themselves up now and want to see the true Clermont. Camille Lopez at out-half is a big addition but it all depends on their mentality.

Ditto Saracens. Reaching the Heineken Cup and Premiership finals but losing both of them could crush them. Strong in the air, they’ve good line speed and back themselves to score. But the big game changer is they play home games on a synthetic surface and put up big points there. In their two Premiership games this season they’ve put 68 points on Sale and Gloucester combined. Expect this group to be tight.

Pool 2: Pool of Doubt (Castres, Harlequins, Leinster, Wasps)

The pool where form’s out the window. Harlequins are hugely inconsistent. People are comparing this Leinster team with the sides of old and it’s dangerous. Castres have no European pedigree and Wasps seem more concerned about their move to Coventry than this competition.

Leinster had an established backline with Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald. Now you have a different 10, 13 and two different wingers. Four out of the seven are gone. Factor in Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy’s injuries and you’ve lost huge ball-carrying options. When those two and Sexton return, that makes an immediate 30%-40% difference. They are going to have to score on teams by wearing them down for now and that’s not their natural game.

The most unheralded person in Irish rugby was Jono Gibbes and he went under the radar to Clermont. His work at the breakdown and with that pack was incredible. Those small margins make the difference and Leinster will miss his influence this season.

You’d still expect them to get out of the group by beating Castres home and away. Rory Kockott is an incredible player but he tries to win games on his own and that is never sustainable. Leinster will probably get a result away to either Harlequins or Wasps. Wasps are a long-term project. Unlike Toulon who are stable and credible, they are trying to build for the future.

Pool 3: Bonus Pool (Leicester, Toulon, Scarlets, Ulster)

On paper a pool where everyone’s playing for the best runner-up spot behind Toulon. Steady on. Home is a fortress for every one of these sides. Scarlets have not lost a Pro 12 game at Parc y Scarlets since December. Ulster’s last home loss was against Leinster in May. Toulon have lost one game in their last 17 at home while Leicester’s record reads one loss in 11.

Every single point will count and with the pressure on to get one of the three runner-up spots there is no guarantee that second place will earn a spot in the quarter-finals here.

Even without Ruan Pienaar, Ulster look solid. There’s a lot of talk about Jared Payne playing 13 for Ireland, but if he wants that role he needs to play there for Ulster. The great thing for me about this side is Andrew Trimble’s blossoming late in his career. I’d say he got sick of listening to people talking about Tommy Bowe and said ‘I’m capable of doing that’. He’s one of the best wingers in European rugby right now and it’s going to be interesting to see how Tommy responds.

Toulon spent 12 months producing it on both fronts. It would be easy to nod your head and think they are on to a great thing but there is no Jonny Wilkinson now. You need a proven winner and goal kicker — his retirement takes 10 points away from them. Before, mentally, other teams thought after an hour in a tight game that Wilkinson wouldn’t miss. The stats didn’t always prove that but the perception was there. Teams were nearly beaten by that alone. While Toulon may look more dangerous with Matt Giteau at 10, it’s early in the season and everyone is excited to watch him perform when the pressure-cooker scenarios arrive.

Leicester’s great team broke up five or six years before Munster’s and they have rebuilt solidly. They demand success and have the European pedigree but their form has been patchy. Bonus points could decide this one.

Pool 4: New money meets old (Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier, Toulouse)

It would be easy to look at this pool and rank according to history. Toulouse have been the royalty of the game at this level for so long you often tend to dismiss form for pedigree with them. But going on form gives you nothing here. They started the Top 14 with four losses but have won their last two games against Toulon and Stade Francais. A good result against Montpellier at the Stade Ernst Wallon and they suddenly have a lot of momentum and became a dangerous side. A loss and who knows?

It would be easy to dismiss Glasgow but don’t ignore their ambition. Home form is impressive with Josh Strauss going well and they have only lost once this season in the Pro 12, away to Ulster. Bath are backed by billionaire Bruce Craig and have built up a nice squad. They play with a lot of intensity and move the ball quickly through an exciting backline. George Ford looks like an exciting 10 and has come back from a disappointing Amlin Cup final. Is he capable of steering this team at the highest level? Time will tell there.

Montpellier have a unique defence, but with Francois Trinh-Duc out for three months with a broken leg their chances of progressing past the pool have been eliminated. For Glasgow, Bath and Toulouse this pool is a wide open so don’t be surprised with the way it pans out.

Pool 5: Italian Connection (Treviso, Northampton, Ospreys, Racing Metro)

We’ll have a fair idea of where we’re heading here by next week. If Racing start well against Northampton, everything will be to play for with Treviso coming up the following week. But if we’re beaten in the first game at home it puts us in a horrible position. The European Champions Cup is a bit of a relief for the coaching staff at Racing. We’ve been immersed in the Top 14 for the past nine games; this is a good distraction. We were third last week before we lost to Stade. That loss knocked us down to seventh.

However, it doesn’t start with a more difficult game than Northampton at home. Their speed and intensity blew us away that day but, hopefully, with the year’s experience, we can adapt and get our game up to speed to compete.

The Ospreys have been a surprise package this year. Everyone expected them to suffer from their lack of signings but they’ve been hugely consistent and efficient so far. Leading the way is Dan Biggar who has turned into a goal kicking machine. You’d be surprised at a subconscious level how hard the forwards will work for you when they know they will be rewarded with three points after three points. They will scrap for everything but they won’t be too bothered about diving on broken ball for an inconsistent kicker.

Treviso? If you look at their history they don’t lose all their home games and have a big budget. This group could come down to the away games in Treviso.

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