Rugby Heineken Cup
Leinster chase historic three in a row
By Damian Dolan
Off the pitch the talk going into this season’s Heineken Cup may have been dominated by the contractual wranglings between the ERC, Premiership Rugby, BT and Sky, but on the pitch the question is far simpler. Can anyone stop Leinster stop making it three European titles in a row, and four in the last five years.
The answer is far more complex, but that’s for Leinster’s rivals to fret over, such has been the dominance of Joe Schmidt’s side in this competition. Last May’s victory over Ulster at Twickenham was a supreme performance.
The champions oozed confidence and for all Ulster’s endeavour, their crown was never in serious danger of being knocked from their head. Leinster are at the peak of their powers and the goal this year will be clear – to become the first side to win the Heineken Cup three times in row. That Dublin’s Aviva Stadium will host the 2012/13 final on May 18 will only add to the determination.
Leicester are the only other side to achieve the double, in 2001 and 2002, only to fall to Munster in the quarter-finals the following year in search of the treble. Leinster’s three titles in four years has already eclipsed the dominant eras of Leicester Tigers, Toulouse and Wasps, but the three in a row would set this Leinster team above all others.
There was a time in Ireland when Munster were synonymous with the Heineken Cup, but that mantle has now well and truly passed to Leinster. Together with Munster, though, five of the last seven Heineken Cups have gone to Ireland, with England and France sharing the other two.
That statistic was at the core of the English and French clubs’ threat to pull out of the competition, for the Top 14 and Premiership have relegation and the Pro 12 does not. Leaving Munster, Leinster and the growing European force that is Ulster to target the Heineken Cup free from the threat of relegation.
That aside, no one can question the brilliance of Leinster. Schmidt has built on the foundations laid by Michael Cheika and taken them to a new level. They can be exhilarating or they can get stuck in in the trenches, as the situation demands. That’s what makes them such a formidable foe
The draw could have been kinder to the champions this time around though. Scarlets, Clermount Auvergne and Heineken Cup newboys Exeter Chiefs will make passage through to the last eight a tricky one one in Pool 5, and Clermont will be particularly keen to avenge last year’s 19-15 semi-final defeat to Leinster at the Stade Chaban Delmas – arguably one of Leinster’s greatest ever performances.
Even so, nothing less than a home quarter-final will do for Schmidt, but even if they have to take their chances on the road you still wouldn’t bet against them.
Leinster open against the Chiefs at the RDS, fresh from their victory over English Premiership champions Harlequins, but it’s hard to see anything other than a winning start for the Heineken Cup champions in their quest for that allusive three in a row.
Runners up Ulster just didn’t have the firepower to match Leinster in last season’s final, but their quarter-final victory over Munster at Thomond Park was undoubtedly one of the results and performances of last year’s competition. Having reached the quarter-finals the previous season for the first time since they lifted the Heineken Cup in 1999, reaching the final was another huge step in the right direction for David Humphreys’ side.
Sitting top of the Pro12 table with five wins from five, Ulster will open their Pool 4 Heineken Cup campaign in confident mood against Castres at fortress Ravenhill. Glasgow Warriors are going well in the Pro12, currently third, but this pool should come down to Ulster’s back-to-back matches with in form Northampton Saints in December.
It was Northampton that knocked Ulster out in the quarter-finals in 2010/11. These two games are not to be missed.
Ulster knocked the stuffing out of Munster in their epic quarter-final meeting last year, just when it seemed the two-time champions were beginning to awaken from their slumber. Last season’s Heineken Cup was ultimately a case of two steps forward but one back for Tony McGahan’s side.
Munster have made an indifferent start to the Peo12, but a spirited 30-21 defeat to Leinster should prepare them well for a difficult campaign in Pool 1. Racing Metro, Saracens and last year’s quarter-finalists Edinburgh will test just how well Munster have bounced back from that sobering defeat to Ulster. A trip to Racing Metro first up will tell us much about Munster’s state of mind.
Going well in the Premiership, Saracens will provide the biggest challenge and they have their own quarter-final demons to exorcise, having been humbled at home last year by Clermont Auvergne, 22-3.
After making their debut in last year’s tournament, Connach now know what the Heineken Cup is all about, but it doesn’t get any easier second time around. Almost inevitably they find themselves pooled once again with English champions Harlequins.
They’ll be out to build on the one victory they picked up last year and Pro12 newboys Zebre should offer them that chance, and Connacht have already beaten them this year. Biarritz, however, will challenge Quins for top spot in Pool 3.