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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 19 October, 2017

How far will the provinces go in this season's Champions Cup?

Our rugby writers preview the 2017/18 season with an Irish eye.

Munster reached the semi-finals last year, alongside Leinster.
Munster reached the semi-finals last year, alongside Leinster.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE 2017/18 EUROPEAN Champions Cup gets under way this weekend and the Irish sides will be hoping for a repeat of last year’s success when Leinster and Munster both reached the semi-final stages.

This year, just three of the four provinces will play in Europe’s elite competition — Connacht must settle for a spot in the Challenge Cup — but before a ruck is formed in anger, we asked our rugby experts just how far the Irish sides could go.

Here’s what Sean Farrell and Ryan Bailey had to say:

Leinster

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sean Farrell

Semi-finalists last year, the eastern province are a year further into their development under the twin leadership of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

But that pool is going to be a serious uphill struggle. Leinster have been lumped in with Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs who have long since made a fortress of Sandy Park, Montpellier and Aaron Cruden are capable of being formidable and under Dave Rennie Glasgow Warriors have become even meaner and will throw everything at making their mark in Europe.

Any team who gets out of that will lot will stand a chance of going all the way. Leinster will be without Garry Ringrose (above) and Jamie Heaslip for at least early stages of pool competition and we’ll have to wait until deeper winter before seeing the exciting James Lowe in Leinster blue.

However, with Jonathan Sexton and Sean O’Brien at the peak of their powers and no shortage of international talent everywhere else in the squad, they’ll be hard to stop.

Verdict: semi-finals

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ryan Bailey

Leinster are the province in the best position currently to mount a genuine challenge in the Champions Cup this season, with Leo Cullen’s side — semi-finalists last year — a further 12 months along in their development.

The last four defeat to Clermont still wrangles with many of the senior players at the province and it certainly appears to have sharpened minds and focus ahead of their Pool 3 opener against French heavyweights Montpellier on Saturday.

Now under the tutelage of Vern Cotter, the gargantuan Top 14 outfit have world-class operators in key positions with their 8, 9 and 10 axis of Picamoles, Pienaar and Cruden particularly powerful. Throw Glasgow, an emerging force in recent seasons, and the Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs into the mix and that is one almighty group.

As Stuart Lancaster said earlier in the week, there is no reason why Leinster shouldn’t be in the mix when the business end of the season approaches given the calibre of player in their ranks.

Verdict: Final

Munster

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sean Farrell

Munster look capable of being an even better team than the one who fell at home to Saracens at the second last hurdle last season.

On top of that relentless, energetic gameplan introduced by Rassie Erasmus last year, they are more willing and able to expand their attack off that base, stretching teams with some electric back-line talent rather than the simple ram-raiding of last year.

The problem is, there is just no guarantee as to what impact a coaching replacement will have on the province midway through, not just a season, but in the middle of a pool stage. Johann van Graan will soon be confirmed as a replacement for Erasmus and the outgoing South African insists there will be time taken to ensure a smooth handover.

Even if the transition is seamless though, Pool 4 will continue to present tough challenges like a grudge match December back-to-back against Leicester Tigers, all the star quality that Racing 92 provide (including the prospect of Donnacha Ryan facing his old team in the January clash in Paris) and all that before opening away to the extremely heavy duty Castres.

It’s like the flip-side of Ulster’s situation: Erasmus is on the verge of creating a complete team, but he won’t be around to ensure they flourish.

Verdict: Quarter-finals

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Ryan Bailey

Munster exceeded all expectations last term by advancing to the semi-finals, where they were emphatically dispatched by eventual winners Saracens, but their credentials appear stronger this year to build on that campaign.

Even allowing for the distraction caused by Rassie Erasmus’ long goodbye and the impending appointment of his successor, the southern province have produced some exciting, expansive rugby in the early weeks of the Pro14 season.

Europe is a different beast though, and Pool 4 contains four teams all harbouring realistic ambitions of advancing with Racing 92, Leicester Tigers and an opening weekend trip to Castres meaning Munster face a stiff task.

It’s difficult to predict what effect, if any, the handover of the reigns will have when it does eventually happen and for that reason there remains a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Thomond Park.

Erasmus has been building something promising during his short tenure at Munster and it’s a great shame he will not get to see the job out, but the work he has done should stand the province in good stead regardless of whether he’s in the box or not.

Verdict: Quarter-finals

Ulster

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Sean Farrell

There’s an all new coaching ticket working under Les Kiss at the Kingspan Stadium and initial signs this season were positive until they were ambushed by an impressive and exciting Zebre side.

Ulster should have nothing to fear about their pool as neither Wasps or Harlequins have set the Premiership alight. La Rochelle go into Europe on the back of a win over Racing 92 and are back in fine domestic form after ending last season’s campaign at the summit of the Top14 before losing to Toulon in the semi-finals.

So often though, it can take French teams a bit of time to adjust – or perhaps prioritise – European completion.

With a Friday night home fixture to get the ball rolling and Charles Piutau, Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey in terrific form while John Cooney proves to be an able goal-kicking replacement to Ruan Pienaar, Kiss’ side are more than capable of forcing their way into the knock-out stage. Once there however, home advantage is an absolute must.

Christian Lealiifano will return to Super Rugby after the pool stages and even with him, this Ulster team is not yet fully equipped to compete with the best in Europe.

Verdict: Quarter-finals

Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

Ryan Bailey 

There is a different atmosphere around Kingspan Stadium this season and a lot of that can be attributed to the backroom reshuffle which took place over the summer with Jono Gibbes’ influence already evidenced in the opening weeks of Ulster’s season.

Certainly the early signs have been encouraging and save for that shock defeat to a much-improved Zebre side, we have seen a glimpses of what Les Kiss is trying to do at the northern province; there’s a better shape and fluency to their attack with the hard work over the summer on skills, phase play and the set-piece beginning to bear fruit.

It isn’t a particularly daunting group Ulster are facing into either, with Friday’s first assignment against a wounded Wasps side the perfect opportunity to get their campaign up and running.

Harlequins and La Rochelle will both present their own challenges but Ulster should be confident of advancing to the knock-out stages if they can play to their capabilities and keep their key players fit. How far they can go from there is another question entirely and while positives strides have been made, anything past a quarter-final may just be out of their reach this season.

Verdict: Quarter-finals

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