No margin for error for Ulster and Munster
By Phil Rice
The revised format for the European Champions Cup has been roundly criticised by the rugby community in recent times.
The reformatting was instigated during the Covid crisis in order to reduce the number of qualifying games for the knock-out stages.
It was widely expected that the original format would be restored once the pandemic subsided, however, it has been persisted with for at least the current season.
In many people’s eyes this has reduced the attraction of the competition and there are strong calls for the re-instatement of the traditional qualifying pool format.
Under the current structure if you lose two of the four qualifying matches you are under serious pressure to make the knock-out stages.
Ulster find themselves in just that position having lost heavily away to high-flying Sale Sharks, and then being beaten at home by holders La Rochelle.
After a strong start to the season Ulster’s form has been patchy of late.
They travelled to Sale with high hopes of success but were beaten in every phase of the game, and morale appeared to suffer as a result.
Against La Rochelle they began where they’d left off against Sale, falling behind early and only recovering somewhat after the result was effectively beyond doubt.
Back in United Rugby Championship action over the Christmas period, a narrow win over Connacht was followed by a one-point defeat to an under-strength Munster side.
This result prompted coach Dan McFarland to publicly question the motivation of his Ulster players.
Last weekend’s 31-29 defeat at Treviso is not the ideal preparation for Saturday’s return meeting with La Rochelle at their French home fortress.
In addition, international tight-head prop Marty Moore suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Munster game, and his presence will be sorely missed against the French team’s powerful pack.
Defeat will end Ulster’s involvement in the competition for another year and probably spark further debate as to the attitude and commitment of some of the players.
That should provide the team with sufficient motivation to give a committed display, but Ronan O’Gara’s side have an exceptional record in Europe in recent years and it would be a major surprise if Ulster prevail.
Munster have also been inconsistent this season with encouraging performances followed by unexpected defeats.
They lost their opening European game, at home to French giants Toulouse, but bounced back to record an encouraging victory away to Northampton Saints.
On Sunday they face Saints again, this time at Thomond Park, and victory is essential for Graham Rowntree’s team as they then face a formidable task away to Toulouse.
With qualification for next season’s Champions Cup determined by URC league position, it is currently far from certain that Munster will finish in the top eight.
It is unthinkable that Munster might miss out on being at Europe’s top table in 2023/24.
They will be anxious to remind their supporters of their European exploits over the years with a barnstorming performance on home soil.
Last week it was announced that promising fly-half Ben Healy will leave Munster for Edinburgh next season.
He qualifies for Scotland through his grandparents and clearly feels he has better chances of playing international rugby by committing his future to the Scottish side.
As if to underline what Munster will be missing, he scored a last minute try and conversion to help his side to victory over Ulster by one point during the festive period.
Favourites for this season’s Champions Cup Leinster face the challenge of Gloucester at Kingsholm on Saturday.
The two teams met at the RDS before Christmas when the West Country side decided to field a second string XV and were roundly beaten 57-0.
They received severe criticism for undermining the fixture by their actions and they will be anxious to recover face by putting in a strong performance this time.
Leinster will miss captain Johnny Sexton, who suffered a facial injury in their match against Connacht over Christmas.
While the injury is unlikely to prevent him from playing against Wales in Ireland’s Six Nations opener in February, he is not expected to see action before that game.
Leinster have scored 99 points in their two Champions Cup matches to date and will be strong favourites on Saturday, but Gloucester have a proud record at Kingsholm and will be keen to impress after their experience at the RDS.
Owen Farrell kicked a last-minute penalty for Premiership leaders Saracens to narrowly defeat Gloucester last weekend, so Leinster cannot afford to take the Cherry and Whites lightly.
Connacht have a 100 per cent win record in the Challenge Cup to date and will be expected to beat French side Brive at The Sportsground on Saturday evening.