Despite varying degrees of success last term, this season provides new tests for the Irish provinces, writes Conor Farrell.
Ever since Munster’s epic victory over Toulouse in Cardiff in last season’s decider, rugby fans have been counting down the days until 10th October when the Northern Hemisphere’s premier club competition begins for another year.
The opening game sees Munster take on Montauban and, on the back of last year’s success, they will be booming with confidence. Add to this that the game is the first time European rugby comes to the newly re-opened and re-developed Thomond Park fortress, and the odds are stacked firmly in the Red Army’s favour, despite losing coach Declan Kidney who left to take on the national job.
Joining Munster and Montauban in Pool 1 are Sale Sharks and Clermont Auvergne. Three such resourceful, talented and experienced teams in one group could make for some extraordinary matches, which rings true with the eagerly anticipated clash between Sale and Munster in the second round. The hype and furore in the wake of the clashes between the two in 2006 have been reflected by the fact that the Edgeley Park meeting has been sold-out for well over a month.
The Sale team this year is looking gargantuan with behemoths in the pack with prop Andrew Sheridan and Scottish captain Jason White standing at 6 ft 4 and 6ft 5 respectively.
In addition to their might up front, the Manchester side’s back line could read as a potential British Lions selection with Dwayne Peel, Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto and the exceptional Mathew Tait joined by All Black, Luke McAllister.
Leinster will need to put to bed the question marks over their determination and drive that annually hamper their dreams of emulating Munster’s success
Were that not enough, the icon of French rugby, ‘The Caveman’ Sebastien Chabal will be hoping to make a large impact after being dominated by Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and, surprisingly, Peter Stringer in the side’s previous meeting.
Though not an exceptional player, Chabal acts as a talisman and inspiration to those around him, and controlling him is key to any side looking to upset the Sharks’ rhythm.
Although Sale look slightly more impressive on paper, Munster’s pack is more experienced and will be more than a match for their opposition.
Beyond that, it is up to the backline to win their one-on-one battles with their opposite numbers. Should the champions manage this, they will have every chance of coming away from Lancashire having secured at least four points.
Leinster will then play Edinburgh in the opening match of Pool 2 on the 11th October. One would have said this would be a tightly contested game if they had not seen the Magners League clash between these two teams last month, which saw Edinburgh on the wrong side of a devastating 52 to 6 defeat.
Despite this, it was a Murrayfield defeat against this opposition that undid Leinster last season, and they will be aware of the Scots’ ability to spring a surprise.
Subsequently, Leinster will face off against Wasps and Castres. At this time, it does not seem Castres should pose a threat to the energetic, well-prepared Leinster squad. However, Wasps are a formidable hurdle that Leinster will have to overcome to get to the next round. The injury to new recruit, Isa Nacewa, makes this all the more difficult and it was clear from a comparison of the creativity of the Leinster backs against Edinburgh to the Munster game last week, that outhalf, Jonny Sexton, does not inspire the same flare amongst his outside backs as the missing Nacewa.
The larger challenge does seem to stand in front of Munster with both Clermont Auvernge and Sale Sharks standing in their way in what will clearly be the most competitive group despite Munster entering the competition as top seeds.
Leinster may have it slightly easier with only one team with strong Heineken Cup pedigree, London Wasps, but in order to progress Leinster will need to put to bed the question marks over their determination and drive that annually hamper their dreams of emulating Munster.
Irish rugby fans will also hope to see Ulster competing more consistently this time out with Stade Francais, Harlequins and Llanelli Scarlets standing in their way in Pool 4. Though this is not an impossible group for Matt Williams to negotiate an escape from, it will take higher standard of rugby than what we have come to expect from Ulster for some time now, with their Heineken Cup victory in 1999 seeming a long time ago.
The influx of Southern Hemisphere players to Heineken Cup teams continues, arguably, increasing the quality of the competition annually.
Munster have plundered the Antipodes successfully, with their devastating centre pairing of Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki combining with All Black legend, Doug Howlett, on the wing to give Munster the added dimension that guided them to glory last time out.
Leinster have also benefited greatly with players like Nacewa, Chris Whitaker, Felipé Contepomi, CJ Van de Linde and Rocky Elsom defecting from the Super 14. This strengthening has many fans believing this could finally prove to be Brian O’Driscoll’s and indeed, Leinster’s year to move out from the shadow of Munster and assert themselves on the continental stage at long last.