With the start of the new European Champions Cup campaign just around the corner, we preview the hopes of the Irish provinces as well as some of the leading contenders.
Last season’s champions are the team to beat as is reflected by their parsimonious odds. Stuart Lancaster’s charges will feel confident of repeating their back-to-back successes of 2011 and 2012 given their relatively straightforward group. None of their fellow pool members (Wasps, Toulouse and Bath) reached the knockout stages last time out and it is hard to see anything other than Leinster topping the pool- perhaps even with a game to spare.
Last Season: Winners
Reasons to be cheerful: Undoubtedly the best team in Europe, Leinster look primed for another home quarter-final. A top-two seeding would all but guarantee a home semi-final and given the strength of their pool Leinster will fancy their chances of achieving this. The depth in talent is strong yet again and this young squad look set to match if not exceed the level of performance attained last year. Hard to find a weakness anywhere on the pitch.
Reasons to be fearful: The loss of captain Isa Nacewa will be mainly felt in the dressing-room as opposed to on the pitch but, nonetheless his absence will be felt. The fitness of talisman Jonathan Sexton is also crucial to a repeat triumph; his unavailability would weaken the side considerably. Their last three knockout exits have come in France, so, failure to secure a home quarter or semi-final could be detrimental to their hopes. And due to the vagaries of the EPCR ranking system, it is all but impossible for the third and fourth ranked teams from the pool stages to get a home semi-final.
Player to watch: Jordan Larmour- will look to nail down a starting place with more dazzling displays.
Prediction: Champions (1st in pool)
Being pitted against Top 14 champions, Castres and English Premiership runners-up, Exeter Chiefs means The Red Army have drawn one of the tougher pools. However, the French side have a dismal European record, preferring to concentrate on domestic affairs. The Chiefs will be a stern test but with the lowest-ranked English side Gloucester completing the pool, Munster can reasonably expect to clinch one of the three best runners-up places at worst.
Last Season: Semi-finals
Reasons to be cheerful: No matter their form in the Celtic League, Munster are renowned for raising their game for European matches. A perfect home record at their Limerick citadel, Thomond Park is crucial to their progression prospects and history is on their side in this regard. The arrivals of Tadhg Beirne and Joey Carbery bolster the starting XV even allowing for the departure of Simon Zebo.
Reasons to be fearful: A first round date at Sandy Park looks daunting and a defeat could put Munster on the back foot. And if the capricious and vastly talented Castres team click into gear with a thumping win over Gloucester on day one, it may reverse their usually lukewarm attitude to European campaigns. An injury to Conor Murray would be devastating to their aspirations.
Player to watch: Joey Carbery- will finally get a decent crack at flyhalf on the European stage.
Prediction: Quarter-Finals (2nd in pool)
Having squeaked into this year’s competition by virtue of an end-of season play-off, the 1999 champions have surely reached their lowest ebb that now, surely, the only way is up. With the arrival of Dan McFarland from Scotland, Ulster look to have finally selected a Head Coach who can bring them close to their rightful place of challenging for knockout places again. That said, Ulster have been handed arguably the toughest pool of all with last year’s runners-up, Racing 92; Pro 14 finalists Scarlets and two-time champions Leicester Tigers completing the quartet.
Last Season: Pool stage (3rd)
Reasons to be cheerful: With the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding saga and the constant scrutiny surrounding former coach Les Kiss now put to bed, Ulster look to be in as good a place as they have been in years. The additions of Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy will strengthen the forwards department while the arrival of Billy Burns at outhalf will provide better continuity given the number of short-term candidates last season. Opening with arguably their easiest game, Leicester at Ravenhill could allow them to quickly erase memories of last season’s turbulence.
Reasons to be fearful: The primary concern will be negotiating a path out of this devilishly difficult pool. Given the nadir at which the province currently finds itself, this looks set to be a rebuilding season for McFarland and advancing will prove a step much too far. Charles Piutau is a significant loss and Jacob Stockdale aside, its hard to see where the flair in the backline will come from. A failure to reach the knockout stages in the last four attempts does not inspire much confidence also.
Player to watch: Jacob Stockdale- Six Nations Player of the Tournament.
Prediction: Pool stage (3rd)
Best of the rest
Saracens and Montpellier look set to provide the biggest threat to the champions retaining their crown. However, three-time champions Toulon are more than capable of thwarting Leinster again having twice beaten them in the knockout stages in recent years. Free-flowing Wasps are dark horses and could surprise by appearing in the final for the first time since their 2007 triumph
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer