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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Dan Sheridan/INPHO
# The Lowdown
Champions Cup: Why Leinster aren't Racing certainties as Munster have nothing to lose
The42′s rugby writers separate the contenders from the pretenders as European rugby’s showpiece event returns for another year.

THE CHAMPIONS CUP returns this weekend almost as an afterthought. Maybe if Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac not been sacked then we’d probably have spent more of the week looking ahead than back, figuring out where things will go right rather than analysing how it all went wrong.

More than that, though, there is a definite sense that a much-loved competition has lost some of its shine and that is partly because of a newish structure that rewards failure.

Under the old format eight teams (out of 24 entrants) got through the pool stages; now just eight out of 24 get eliminated. So mediocrity goes unpunished. No matter how hard you try, you can’t sell that to the public.

What you can sell, however, are fixtures like Racing/Leinster and Munster/Toulouse, the stand-out games from this opening weekend, even if those ties aren’t must-wins.

The fact remains that no game is in rounds 1 or 2, sometimes even in round 3. That’s one of the flaws of this restructure, where teams have qualified for the round of 16 on the back of a solitary pool stage win.

So can we get excited ahead of this – the 28th edition of club rugby’s greatest tournament? Helping us answer those questions are The42’s resident rugby correspondents, Murray Kinsella and Ciaran Kennedy.

20222023-heineken-champions-cup-launch Billy Stickland / INPHO This year's cast line up for European glory. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

CK: I love the competition but my one gripe with it is the pool set-up (there are two pools of 12, eight sides qualifying from each one). That is hard to grasp for some people.

MK: Still get a buzz when the opening weekend comes around, though. Leinster/Racing – what a way to start.

GD: Leinster are short-price favourites which is understandable when you look at the fact they were seconds away from winning it last season, were semi-finalists the year before, quarter-finalists in 2020, finalists in 2019. They’ve been consistent but seem to be judged on what they’ve failed to do, namely win it outright for a fifth time.

MK: To be fair, they judge themselves on silverware. I know some of the French clubs have big resources but so do Leinster when you look at the number of central contracted players they have; the expectation for them to win more trophies since 2018 has been fair. Last season they produced some stunning rugby in Europe – the Toulouse performance was just exceptional and even in the final, they were so close to winning. The challenge for Leinster is to right a few wrongs but the difficulty is the competition has got better. The South Africans are coming; Saracens are returning.

GD: Who is your tip then?

MK: I’m going to go for Saracens. Back at the top table after two years away, they were excellent last season and have a 100 per cent record in the Premiership this term, having broadened out their attack. The one doubt I have is probably their tighthead. Everywhere else, there is quality. They have so many options in their backline. Backrow is really strong but probably the one nagging concern they would have around the scrum but Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are top class.

GD: Who is your money on, Ciaran? 

CK: Year after year, I fancy Leinster and year after year, I get it wrong.

GD: So I take it you are going to Leinster, so?

CK: They look the best placed; they’re in the better of the two pools, everything is set up for them. If they get home advantage in the knockouts, there is a feeling there could be destiny there with it being a Dublin final and a farewell show for Johnny Sexton.

But more often than not, fairytale endings don’t happen in sport. So, for the sake of being a bit different, I’m going for Toulouse. Brilliant squad; they’ve started the Top14 well. La Rochelle, Racing, Saracens, they’re all well placed.

MK: Leinster are going to have to be at their best.

GD: They were last weekend (when they won with 14-men against Ulster). Those personal performances from Andrew Porter and Garry Ringrose were world class but the biggest feeling come out of that game was that this told us more about Ulster than it did about Leinster.

garry-ringrose-scores-a-try Billy Stickland / INPHO Garry Ringrose scored twice last weekend. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Again, they blew a lead against a big team, just like they did in last season’s URC semi-final (ahead versus the Stormers entering the 80th minute, defeated in stoppage time); just like they did in last season’s Champions Cup (leading 14-man Toulouse by 13 points at one point, going out on aggregate by a point); just like they did in the 2021 Challenge Cup semis (versus Leicester) and the 2019 Champions Cup quarters against Leinster (the Jacob Stockdale touchdown day).

Is there any point in talking them up again when there is precious little evidence they can be trusted to take big scalp after big scalp?

MK: They absolutely crumbled last weekend. Obviously Leinster’s quality is a big part of that. There is a lot of chat about why Ulster don’t have more players in the Ireland team and the answer is, they don’t go and get deep into these competitions. We know Leinster players can go and win finals. We don’t know that about Ulster. In fact the evidence suggests they won’t. That’s their point to prove this season. There is no doubt the talent, quality, potential is there. But they have to do their talking in big play-off games.

CK: What I do like about Ulster is that no matter how much heartache they suffer, they always bounce back. Year on year they are getting better, making good signings. But last week was so demoralising. They have to get something out of the two games against Sale because La Rochelle – home and away – is going to be difficult. I see a disappointing season for them.

GD: Let’s talk about Munster. They’ve won their last three but at the start of this season they were naff.

CK: They are so hard to read because they blow hot and cold so often. One thing about them, they turn up for this competition so often. You can see them turning up with something special on Sunday (against Toulouse) and if they get a result there, that’ll set them up. The problem for Munster is they are in the more difficult pool, so if they do get out of it, they’re likely to have difficult away games in the knock-outs. Every now and then they can pull off a big result but when doing so is based on overperforming, it’s hard to do that consistently.

MK: Weirdly it doesn’t feel like Europe is as important as it normally is for Munster because they have a season to save in the URC, a project to start building and it almost feels like Europe is a free shot. Toulouse this weekend is such a difficult opening fixture and if you lose that, you are on the back foot. But at the same time they are definitely good enough to beat Northampton home and away. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they got through to the round of 16.

conor-murray-after-the-game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Munster were dejected after losing last year to Toulouse. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

GD: If Connacht are going to win anything this season, it’s the Challenge Cup. Yet it looks like they are going to rest and rotate their internationals for the pool stages (when they play Newcastle and Brive twice each) which tells you were their priorities are this season. You suspect they’ll only really go at this competition if they find themselves playing knock-out rugby.

MK: They should be eyeing a run in the Challenge Cup and give the fans something to rally behind. Newcastle and Brive aren’t the strongest teams. It would be unbelievable to finish off the Andy Friend era with some silverware. They aren’t among the favourites for the competition but they certainly should be getting into knock-out rugby.

CK: There was a time when Connacht wouldn’t have been able to afford to rest players in this manner. They are building a bit of a squad now. They have the players who can negotiate the group stage and I don’t think that would have been possible a few years ago. They have depth now. Balancing getting into next year’s Champions Cup via the URC while doing well in this year’s Challenge Cup is tricky. They look well placed to do it, though.

GD: One other thing, the South Africans have been overlooked by the bookies which is hilarious really because these Bulls/Sharks and Stormers sides contain 19 Springboks who toured Europe in November. Put them in a green shirt and they command automatic respect but dress them up in club colours and so many in European rugby just don’t value them. And frankly that’s nuts.

MK: I definitely sense a feeling from France that they may be underestimated. There are groans and moans that they have to travel south of the equator to play these South African sides and it reminded me of the South Africans coming into the URC initially when there were grumbles. We can see now their arrival has been a massive success for the URC and once fans see titanic battles between French and South African teams, they will be fully behind it. There is a potential shock for some big sides. I can’t see Stormers, Bulls or Sharks lifting the trophy, but they will upset the applecart.

CK: It is a more exciting competition with the South Africans in it. Straight from the off, it looks like a more difficult competition to win. People often talk about the motivation levels of French sides but they’ve contributed three of the four semi-finalists in the last two seasons. Now you have this fascinating addition of three South African teams. I can’t wait to watch those French/South African match-ups, Stormers/Clermont, Bulls/Exeter, Bulls/Saracens. That contrast in style is what makes the Champions Cup so exciting.

GD: Still a draw so.

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CK: Always.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks. It starts tonight.

THIS WEEKEND’S FIXTURES

Tonight: London Irish v Montpellier 8pm

Tomorrow: Sharks v Harlequins 1pm

Racing 92 v Leinster 1pm

Clermont Auvergne v Stormers 3.15pm

Gloucester v Bordeaux Begles 3.15pm

Bulls v Lyon 5.30pm

La Rochelle v Northampton 5.30pm

Castres v Exeter 8pm

Sunday: Sale v Ulster 1pm

Munster v Toulouse 3.15pm

Saracens v Edinburgh 3.15pm

Ospreys v Leicester 5.30pm

Challenge Cup

Connacht v Newcastle 5.30pm

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