Big test ahead for Irish provinces as Champions Cup kicks off
PERHAPS the starkest illustration of the depressing post-boom reality for Irish rugby will present itself in Paris on Sunday.
Munster, the club defined by European competition, and Ronan O’Gara, for so long their talisman, will both be at the Stade Yves-Du-Manoir as the Champions Cup kicks-off.
Sadly, they will be on opposite sides of the battlefield, with O’Gara a key figure in the coaching staff of French champions, Racing Metro.
O’Gara may be the Irish star most likely to enjoy a taste of European glory.
After a cataclysmic 2015/16 campaign, Ireland’s four clubs return to Champions Cup fare with ambitions hugely downgraded from the glory days.
Here are some of the key issues on the eve of another European season.
What are the chances of an Irish winner?
Slimmer than an emaciated supermodel. The golden age of Irish club rugby – five Heineken Cup wins in seven seasons between 2006 and 2012 – is a rapidly disappearing dot in the rear-view mirror.
TV money has poured into England and France, meaning the days of Irish clubs luring the biggest names from Down Under are in the past. The new reality really hit home last season when, for the first time since 1998, no Irish side qualified for the knockout stages.
Surely that won’t happen again?
A look at the bookmakers’ odds are revealing. Three-time former champions Leinster are best priced of the Irish at 22/1. Ulster and Munster are available at 40/1, with Pro 12 champions Connacht a whopping 100/1.
For those who prefer the glass half-full approach, Leicester were 5,000/1 shots to win last season’s Premier League. Miracles do happen.
So, Leinster are Ireland’s best hope?
Maybe. The addition of former England coach Stuart Lancaster to the backroom ticket is a positive move. Rob Henshaw is poised for a belated debut, while much – as ever – will depend on the form and fitness of Jonny Sexton.
They have avoided all the superpowers with what looks a favourable opener against Castres at the RDS next weekend.
Challenge Cup champions Montpellier have made a bright start in the French Top14, while Northampton will look to Wales and Lions wing George North for fireworks.
Will Munster fans be upbeat?
Not after listening to their Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus declare Munster the weakest link in Pool One. The Red Army will have the strange sensation of seeing their legendary out-half Ronan O’Gara in the opposition corner next weekend.
Munster face a daunting trip to Paris on Sunday. Leicester, like Munster, might not be the all-conquering force of old, but like the fourth Pool One side, Glasgow, they remain dangerous. On the plus side, the inspirational Peter O’Mahony, out since the World Cup, returned last week after a year on the sideline.
WEEKEND FIXTURES IN THE IRISH POOLS
MUNSTER, GLASGOW, LEICESTER, RACING
FRIDAY (7.45) GLASGOW V LEICESTER; SUNDAY (3.15) RACING V MUNSTER
CONNACHT, TOULOUSE, WASPS, ZEBRE
SATURDAY (1.0) WASPS V ZEBRE; SATURDAY (5.30) CONNACHT V TOULOUSE
LEINSTER, CASTRES, MONTPELLIER, NORTHAMPTON
SATURDAY (3.15) LEINSTER V CASTRES; SATURDAY (5.30) NORTHAMPTON V MONTPELLIER
ULSTER,CLERMONT, BORDEAUX, EXETER
SUNDAY (1.0) BORDEAUX V ULSTER; SUNDAY (5.30) EXETER V CLERMONT