European Rugby Champions Cup – Can the Irish provinces recapture former glories?

Leinster’s back-to-back triumphs of 2011 and 2012, in what was then known as the Heineken Cup, are starting to seem a long time ago.

Since then, we’ve seen Munster beaten twice in the semi-finals and Leinster also pipped at the same stage in 2015, with French opposition prevailing on each occasion.

Last season, of course, our three representatives all failed to even make the quarter-finals, leaving five English and three French sides to battle it out for a place in the last four.

So will the Irish contingent manage to make more of an impression in the coming season?

Connacht will also be flying the flag this year, so we decided to take an in-depth look at who the four provinces will have to overcome in the pool stages in order to keep their dreams of a final appearance at Murrayfield alive.

 

Connacht

 

Connacht’s reward for a superb campaign last term is to find themselves drawn alongside two-time winners Wasps, four-time winners Toulouse and Italian makeweights Zebre in Pool 2.

The English side have been installed as strong favourites to top the pool, with the arrival of big names Danny Cipriani, Kurtley Beale and Kyle Eastmond serving to strengthen what was already a formidable backline featuring the likes of Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Frank Halai.

But taking it as read that Pat Lam’s men will secure two comfortable victories over perennial Pro 12 strugglers Zebre, it is their performances against Toulouse that may well determine whether they can defy the odds and progress to the knockout stages.

The Thierry Dusautoir-led side reached the Top 14 quarter-finals last season, but finished bottom of their Champions Cup pool and that might just give Connacht grounds for optimism.

Traditionally far stronger at home than they are on their travels, the French outfit may not relish their trip to Galway in a game that surely has to be targeted as a must-win for the hosts.

Any side featuring the likes of Leonardo Ghiraldini, Richie Gray, Yoann Maestri, Dusautoir, Toby Flood and Gael Fickou has to be regarded as serious contenders, but they may just have chinks in their armour that a fired-up Connacht side could exploit.

 

Leinster

 

Leo Cullen’s men will have to overcome two French sides in the form of Montpellier and Castres if they are to secure a last eight berth, with Northampton making up a demanding but not outrageously difficult Pool 4.

Montpellier will of course be oozing confidence having enjoyed European Challenge Cup glory and made it to the Top 14 semi-finals last season.

With the wily Jake White at the helm and plenty of other notable South African names in their squad including the du Plessis brothers, Pierre Spies and Francois Steyn, the men from Languedoc-Roussillon will be a force to be reckoned with.

Northampton also boast an impressive, star-studded squad, but they only scraped into the quarters of the Champions Cup last season, pipping Ulster to eighth place and were immediately bundled out by eventual winners Saracens.

Leinster have enjoyed plenty of success against the Saints over the years, notably in the 2011 Heineken Cup final and will regard the English side as dangerous but beatable, especially at the RDS.

Castres, meanwhile, look to be very much the pool underdogs and while their compact and atmospheric Stade Pierre-Antoine home can be a tricky place to visit, it’s hard to see them making much of an impact in the pool.

 

Munster

 

Coach Anthony Foley could have been forgiven for thinking that the rugby gods had truly turned their backs on his Munster side when he saw them drawn with Racing 92, Glasgow and Leicester in Pool 1.

The men in red will have to overcome the reigning Top 14 champions, the 2015 Pro 12 winners and the side that beat them twice in this competition last season if they are to reach the quarters.

And that looks a big ask given the mediocre campaign Foley’s men endured in 2015-16.

Having retained largely the same squad, Munster are going to have to lift their performance levels considerably in order to stand any chance of repeating their 2006 and 2008 triumphs in European rugby’s premier competition.

Dan Carter does, of course, headline Racing’s formidable squad list which also includes free-scoring Argentinean wing Juan Imhoff, former All Blacks star Joe Rokocoko and one of the most dynamic forwards in world rugby, Fiji’s offload king, Leone Nakarawa.

Nakarawa was one of Glasgow’s big-name departures this summer, but the Warriors still have plenty of talent within their ranks, notably Scotland regulars Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss, Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Mark Bennett, plus elusive Italian wing Leonardo Sarto who has arrived from Zebre.

Leicester, meanwhile, boast a similarly impressive number of England internationals, along with top class imports such as JP Pietersen and Matt Toomua.

Munster can at least take some heart from the fact that they beat Glasgow at home in last season’s Pro 12 and it’s never wise to write them off, but it’s no surprise that most bookmakers have them finishing last in the pool.

 

Ulster

 

In contrast to Munster, Ulster may well have been reasonably happy with their draw which will see them take on three sides who, bizarrely, were also pitted together at the same stage of last season’s competition, namely Exeter, Clermont-Auvergne and Bordeaux-Begles.

Clermont have inevitably been installed as the pool favourites having contested two of the last four finals in this competition and secured first place in the Top 14 at the end of the 2015-16 regular season.

Renowned for their adventurous, free-flowing style, the men in yellow can be an absolute joy to watch and the presence of Hosea Gear, Scott Spedding, Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci is sure to draw a capacity crowd to Kingspan Stadium.

And having surprisingly finished bottom of their pool last season, Franck Azema’s men will feel that they have a point to prove.

Bordeaux, meanwhile, appear to pose far less of a threat.

Having finished in seventh place in the Top 14 last season, they only earned a place in the Champions Cup due to the fact that Montpellier, who finished third, were already guaranteed a berth having won the European Challenge Cup.

Coach Raphael Ibanez can call upon the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper and new signing Ian Madigan, but Ulster will definitely fancy their chances of plundering some points from the French outfit.

The same applies to Exeter despite the fact that the Devon side enjoyed a memorable campaign last season, progressing to the Champions Cup knockout stage for the first time and reaching the Aviva Premiership final.

The Chiefs have drafted in three Australian Test caps over the summer in Lachlan Turner, Dave Dennis and Greg Holmes, along with England utility back Ollie Devoto, while Ulstermen Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson remain key members of the squad at Sandy Park.

But although Ulster ultimately missed out on the quarter-finals last season, they did complete the double over both Toulouse and Oyonnax and Les Kiss will be quietly confident that his charges can go at least one step further this time around.

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