With the World Cup in the All Blacks’ trophy cabinet for the next four years, our attention switches to European Cup action for Ireland’s four provinces.
Ireland’s players return in earnest to club duty this weekend as both European Cup competitions kick off with some intriguing matches for the Irish provinces.
Connacht narrowly missed out on playing in the Champions Cup this year, losing to Gloucester in the play-off match. They will return to Challenge Cup action with a first ever trip to Russia. Very little is known about their opponents Enisei-STM but it would be a major upset if Connacht returned with anything other than an emphatic win.
The Westerners have begun the season very well and are currently leading the Pro12 league after six wins and only one defeat, an outstanding achievement for the team traditionally considered as the Cinderella province. Coach Pat Lam has done a remarkable job with the province and they will be aiming to seriously contend for the Challenge Cup this year.
Leinster have failed to get past the challenge of Champions Toulon in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup for the past two seasons and as luck will have it they are drawn with the French club in their pool this season. Before that they will have to contend with the not inconsiderable task of taking on English Premiership side, Wasps.
These teams also faced each other at the Group stage last season and after a narrow home win, 25-20 for Leinster, the teams played out a dramatic 20- 20 draw at the Ricoh Arena.
Leinster started this season slowly with so many of their stars on Ireland duty, but as their leading players have returned they have recovered their position and after a hard fought victory over early Pro12 leaders, the Scarlets last weekend, they will be confident of pulling off a home victory in their first European match. Leinster are in a very tough group this year.
Essential In addition to Toulon and Wasps they will travel to Bath next week, who they narrowly beat at home in the quarter-finals last season. Winning your home fixtures is essential if you wish to progress in this competition and this week’s match is a mustwin game against Wasps.
Munster face a home match against Treviso this Saturday and will be confident of beginning the post Paul O’Connell era with a win. Leinster beat the Italians 27-3 two weeks ago in the Pro12 and anything other than a bonus point win for Munster will be a major surprise. In addition to O’Connell, they will be without flankers Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell, both recovering from long term injuries received on Ireland duty. Ulster play French side Oyonnax in the lunch-time kick off this Saturday.
The French team will be making their debut in the higher echelon of European rugby. Their form in the Top 14 French league this year has been poor and Ulster will be hoping for a bonus point win. Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne will both be out until after Christmas, but they have no shortage of three-quarter talent, with Craig Gilroy looking particularly sharp in their early season matches.
Iain Henderson, who was such a success with Ireland in the World Cup, is not expected to feature for a few weeks as he also recovers from an injury received in the recent Argentinian defeat. Ulster’s form has been good so far this season and despite injuries to key players should have enough strength in depth to overcome the French team. These early matches are crucial in the Champions Cup.
The three Irish provinces involved are all at home to begin with and they must all record victories this weekend to have any hopes of competing in the knockout stages at the end of the season. After a period of sustained success Munster and Leinster have slipped down the favourites list for the Champions Cup recently with the French clubs pumping huge financial resources into their top sides.
Most of the leading French teams have introduced considerable overseas talent into their squads and while this has provided success at club level, the national team appears to have suffered. There is a balance between having one or two influential overseas players and wholesale importing of players, ala Toulon. The Irish provinces will continue to be competitive, although perhaps not as much as previously but the majority of their players are eligible to play for Ireland and the experience our players are getting from playing these star-studded teams is invaluable to the Irish cause.
The Irish teams ought to enjoy four wins this weekend.