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European Rugby – New Era, Same Challenges

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As we covered here earlier this week, not much has changed with this all new European Cup. The name, some scheduling and the number of teams. Most of the regulations and seedings remain the same, venues, locations etc. What remains exactly the same is the importance of this tournament, and what it means to those involved.

First of the provinces in action this weekend we have Munster travelling to take on Sale at the early hours of 1pm Saturday. Early kick off and all the talk it has generated aside, Munster are in need of a good start. They haven’t had the worst start to the season of the provinces, that accolade falls to Leinster, but they are yet to grease all the gears. Flyers like Simon Zebo and Gerhard Van Den Heever have been threatening but are yet to put in the displays in the games they’ve been most needed.

The pack too has been lacking a little ferocity, helpful then that their best outing was only two weeks ago against Leinster. The opposition that faces them probably warrants less concern than normal, with Sale having only two wins to their name in this year’s premiership thus far. I will refrain from jumping on the Danny Cipriani hype train. Jonathan Sexton currently and Felipe Contepomi with Stade Francais can testify that being a top fly half means nothing with the wrong team. Sale will be defending their turf however, and will be acutely aware of Edinburgh and Racing Metro getting the better of Munster on opening day the last two years.

Anthony Foley is a great coach who knows the Heineken Cup intimately. Whatever the strategies may be, he knows the mindset and you can be sure he will do all that is necessary to get Munster there. The rest is in the hands of the squad.

Verdict: Munster

Next up, lest we forget, Connacht begin their European quest up against La Rochelle. No French opposition is “easy”, but there are certainly worse to encounter. It is a pity that Pat Lam can’t put his squad out against the big guns in the Champions Cup but that said, they stand a real chance to grab some silverware in the second tier and how deserved that would be, regardless of the prowess.

Thankfully, the usual situation of Connacht’s lack of depth rearing its head at this point of the season hasn’t materialised with few injury concerns ahead of tomrorrow’s clash. Michael Swift is an absentee for the rest of the month the Westerners could do without, but with Jason Harris-Wright back into the fold and the likes of Jack Carthy, Kieran Marmion and John Muldoon still fit and ready Connacht will not be able to blame any misgivings on squad depth.

Starting in Galway for them is just as important as it is that Munster start away from home. Just as Munster can usually travel and play as though they were home, Connacht are unbeaten in the Sportsground so far and in the past it has generally been the sight of their most emphatic victories. As for the opposition, Pat Lam’s words are probably more apt than most, saying “we will be coming up against guys who are in excess of 120kg across the board” as he could be found saying on connachtrugby.ie earlier this week. Connacht will need a big front up, coming up against French heavyweights as well as some prolific southern hemisphere imports. Do so however and they will happily run ragged through them.

Verdict: Connacht

Ulster will arguably be the most watchable of the four tomorrow when they travel to Welford Road to take on their somewhat arch rivals of Europe, Leicester Tigers. A 41 – 7 absolute hammering of the Tigers in January 2012 kicked it all off, the two sides facing each other again in the pool last year with Ulster running out winners in both fixtures. The Tigers smell blood. But they have been in a slight state of disarray that all kicked off, arguably, around the time of that Ulster drubbing. One win in the Aviva Premiership so far is testament to this, and with the departure of Geordan Murphy last summer, there seems to be a leadership loss greater than they can deal with.

No team including stellar talent like Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns, Pablo Matera and of course now Brad Thorn should be circling the drain so much and quite like Leinster over here, their fan base are holding hope for a reversal of fortune based on little but past glory. It can be done, but maybe not before Ulster can take advantage of their current standing.

Ulster have had more chances than the rest in this tournament, since 2011 they have been enthralling through the pools only to collapse come the knock outs, except of course in 2012 when they were simply just damn unlucky to be up against a record best Leinster in the final. Last year of course the Ulstermen were disgracefully hindered in their Quarter Final with the dodgiest red card ever issued, but of course they showed the type of resolve that generally wins games, coming within two points of Saracens. Most said that was their shot, with John Afoa, Johan Muller and David Humphreys all jumping ship at the end of last season and since then Stephen Ferris indeed has retired. But as Ireland showed with the Grand Slam in 09, new faces and coaches do not mean the lessons of the previous regime are entirely discarded. I would posit that this is Ulster’s last chance before some transitioning, and no better team to grab it.

Verdict: Ulster

And finally on Sunday Leinster open their account against Wasps, a team who they famously last encountered in the Amlin Challenge Cup Quarter Final in 2013, a game forever preserved in this fantastic and hilarious text commentary from TheScore.ie which I urge you to read here. It was an insane game, tries all over the park and probably an awful stick to measure this fixture up against. Both sides seemed to remember everything they ever learned about attack and simultaneously forget everything they knew about defence, highly unlikely to repeat itself.

Leinster are indeed being watched far more closely than usual and for very different reasons. They are showing worrying signs this season, to a degree not seen since 2008 and the huge injury list doesn’t nothing to settle the nerves. Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Martin Moore, Jordi Murphy, Cian Healy; with players of that calibre missing it would be worrying even if Leinster were still at the height of their powers. As it is, they are stuttering through the domestic league with poor consistency and adding to that it doesn’t look like they have anyone to return to the fold and return that balance and leadership. Except Rob Kearney.

He hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed this season, but aside from his performances from a skill set point of view, it would be easy to miss some of the demanding and control Kearney has been showing on the pitch this season. His introduction against Munster nearly looked like it could have got Leinster over the line and indeed brought a spark to the fledgling side. Then of course his commanding performance against Scarlets showed just how happy he can be to take control of a game by doing. More of the same from him on Sunday and Leinster can maybe right the ship, before it’s too late too with a wounded Harlequins only round the corner.

Verdict: Leinster

So yes, clean sweep called. But in fairness, tougher challenges are awaiting all four down the line. For now they can only play what’s in front of them.

Image courtesy of irishtimes.com

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