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Can Ireland's provinces still compete at the top end of the Champions Cup?

After a six-year gap, French clubs have finally figured out what it takes to win in Europe – but one good signing would enable Leinster to come back at them next year.

Image: Manuel Blondeau/INPHO

IT IS THE most interest Ireland has had in a French affair since Emmanuel Macron fell for his teacher.

For starters, there’s our obsession with La Rog-helle and Ronan O’Gara; secondly, for the sentimentalists there’s Toulouse, dashing and brilliant, just like the originals.

Old-timers remember the first time we set eyes on them way back when we even had hair, when the country was at the start of the Celtic Tiger, when pints were only a few quid and international match tickets weren’t much dearer. Trouble was that involved watching Ireland play.

But Toulouse – Toulouse were different. They had Class with a capital C. They had Thomas Castaignede, who could have passed for an extra in The Seven Dwarfs but who instead passed the ball with the kind of grace you’d expect from a Cardinal offering communion.

They’d Emile Ntamack whose feet moved faster than rumour at the bingo. There was Christophe Deylaud and Jérôme Cazalbou, as creative as a journalist’s expense form. Now meet their heirs, another Ntamack, different in style to his father, equally as brilliant. Then there’s Antoine Dupont. If La Rochelle have a plan to stop him, it better involve a gun because you can’t expect any human to do the job unarmed.

emile-ntamack Catch me if you can: Emile Ntamack in his prime. Source: INPHO

Round these parts no one really cares if they do win that battle, nor does it matter to us if it is La Rochelle rather than Toulouse who win Saturday’s Champions Cup final. It’s the spectacle we’re tuning in for, the chance to see Europe’s best. More than that, though, we’re also seeking to get a glimpse into the future. Is this the start of a dynasty? Are they too good for our lot? Is 2021 year zero? Will the Top14 monopolise Europe the way the Dubs have the All-Ireland?

Everyone seems to be saying yes. Just to be awkward then, we’re going to argue otherwise.

Leinster – fading star or rising force?

We need to talk about Johnny. He’s captain of Ireland and Leinster but in that order.

It may surprise you to know that injury-plagued Sexton has played 14 games of rugby this season; just as surprising is the fact that he has delivered 401 minutes in a green shirt and just 215 minutes in a blue one.

Yes, Leinster have proven they can be an effective team without him. But with him, they are a juggernaut at Pro14 level and a different proposition when it comes to Europe’s biggest tests. At 35, his legs are slower than they used to be and at 35 the number of concussions on his record is a worry.

The man is more than just a survivor, though. He’s a leader, a champion, a former world player of the year. You don’t win that award unless you’ve got magic in your fingertips.

And magic is what you need to win a Champions Cup. Without him, Leinster were good enough to beat Exeter this year but a good bit shy of the standards set by La Rochelle. That’s becoming a recurring theme for the province on the biggest European days. On home soil, they’re practically unbeatable – Saracens the only team to win a knock-out game against them in Dublin over the last decade.

It’s a different story when they cross the channel, though. La Rochelle this year; Clermont in the 2017 semi-final in Lyon; Toulon in the 2014 quarters and 2015 semis; each defeat played out under a blazing French sun.

There is a way around this, a point Stuart Lancaster made last week, when he reminded us of Leinster’s pool stage record across the last five years. Twenty-six games played, 23 won, one drawn, two lost.

That has sent them to five consecutive quarter-finals, something no other team has matched in the same timeframe. More to the point, a home quarter-final often leads to a home victory, 24 out of the 32 last-eight games ending up this way between 2012 and 2019.

Then Covid struck.

Lockdown led to supporters getting shut out of stadiums and the percentage of quarter-final away wins rose to 50 per cent.

When the fans are allowed back in, though, what can we expect? Remember Toulouse lost 32-12 to Leinster in the 2019 semis, Scarlets going down by a similar score at the same stage of the 2018 competition after Saracens were defeated 30-19 in that year’s quarter-finals. Each game was in Dublin in front of a raucous Leinster support.

Getting drawn at home in the quarters and semis is key and the fact Leinster will enter next year’s competition in the top bracket of seeds should lead to a winnable pool. After that, it gets trickier and that’s where Lancaster, Leo Cullen and Guy Easterby come in. The trio need to shop well this summer and find an overseas player who can replicate the roles Will Skelton and Tawera Kerr-Barlow played for La Rochelle in their victory over Leinster last month.

will-skelton-is-tackled-by-rhys-ruddock-and-josh-van-der-flier La Rochelle's Skelton is what Leinster need. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

While scrum-half Luke McGrath is vitally important for the club – especially in terms of his captaincy credentials when Sexton is away – Kerr-Barlow and Dupont are a level above. That’s the type of marquee signing Leinster need right now. If not at No9 then it has to be in the pack, another Skelton or Sean O’Brien, a tough lad who isn’t afraid to nick the school bully’s lunch money.  

Sure, that won’t come cheap but there’ll be a bigger price to pay if they ignore the problem. Invest now, they’ll reap the returns next season.

Munster – on the right road or in a cul de sac?

Johann van Graan has beaten Saracens, Racing, Leinster, Toulon, Exeter and Leicester in his time in Limerick. Between them those clubs have won 13 Champions Cups. On the other hand, the Munster head coach has also lost numerous times to Leinster, to Toulouse in this year’s Champions Cup, to Racing in the 2018 semis, to Sarries at the same stage in 2019 and then to both Racing and Saracens in the 2019/20 pool stage.

In other words, we still don’t know what to make of his Munster side. Every time they appear to be on the right road, beating Leinster, stuffing Ulster, they go and deliver a performance like last Friday’s against Connacht and then talk afterwards about learning from the experience. The old Munster didn’t make such pledges. They just banged on the door so often and so hard that eventually it caved in.

Winning is a skill. Lots of fellas can play. Lots of fellas can negotiate good deals for themselves but only a few know how to seal the deal in a crunch cup final or semi.

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of Munster’s last trophy. The Rainbow Cup offers them an opportunity to end the drought. While Benetton Treviso hold a four-point lead over Munster in the table, it still remains likelier that the Italians will slip up and Munster will slip in to a final.

Win that and the selection policy of the last few weeks will be forgiven. But lose and serious questions will be asked about why departing or retiring players were selected ahead of younger, home-grown kids for a competition with no history and little pedigree.

Offering long-serving players a lap of honour is all well and good but the truth is that long-term, this Rainbow Cup offered a real opportunity to experiment week after week, even if that meant sacrificing results and silverware.

It isn’t that we haven’t seen Ben Healy, Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley, Shane Daly, Thomas Ahern, Roman Salanoa and Jack Crowley this season: it’s just that we wanted to see a lot more of them.

ben-healy Munster fans want to see even more of Healy in action. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The prize for that particular policy is guaranteed. You either build depth or you find out if the kids can’t hack it. You’d rather make that kind of discovery in an end-of-season competition now than the Champions Cup next season.

Ulster and the French renaissance  

It’s easy why people might see this final as the beginning of a trend. That’s the way it has often worked in the past. Toulon had done next to nothing in Europe prior to winning their inaugural Champions Cup in 2013. Two more titles followed in as many years. Saracens then stole their crown, the first of three titles they won in four years.

Go further back. Leinster’s win in ’09 was the first of three in four for them; Munster, Wasps and Leicester – they all backed up one win with a second.

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Now it’s the turn of either Toulouse of La Rochelle. Win this and who knows where it could lead?

“It’s not just the overseas players that has improved the French teams, there’s the quality of the coaching,” said Stuart Lancaster last week.

“They’ve made teams fitter, more organised, and the quality of the French home-grown players has definitely improved. You add in a Kerr-Barlow and a Vito and a Skelton and a couple of South Africans and whatever else, it makes them formidable. But can Leinster do it in the future? Can an Irish province do it? Absolutely we can. But it’s not going to be easy.”

This year has proven that, La Rochelle beating Leinster; Toulouse getting one over Ulster first, then Munster. All in, five of the eight quarter-finalists were French; the Top 14 also providing three of the four semi-finalists and now both finalists.

So how can Ulster compete with that? The truth is they are capable of doing so in the pool stages, when French and English sides often show indifference to the competition before discovering a grá for it in the knock-out stages.

Believe it or not, Ulster have made more quarter-final appearances in the last decade than big-spending Montpellier, Lyon, Stade Francais and Bordeaux put together.

In fact, only seven teams – Leinster and Munster being two of them – have emerged from the group stages more often than Ulster in this period.

The last eight tends to be where the boundary line gets drawn, though. Unless they appear fully loaded, their quality deficit gets shown up, recent inconsistencies explained by the fact that Iain Henderson has played only six games for them this season, Jack McGrath just three. Sam Carter has completed 80 minutes just three times in the  2020/21 campaign; Will Addison has had only one start, while Luke Marshall has been injured since November.

jack-conan-and-harry-byrne-with-iain-henderson Henderson has played just six times for Ulster this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Is a quarter-final beyond them next year? No. Are they likely to go further than that? Also no.

Connacht and the departing stars

One by one they’ve gone, AJ McGinty and Robbie Henshaw in 2016, John Cooney in 2017, Colby Fainga’a, Kyle Godwin and Cian Kelleher in 2020. And now Quinn Roux, off to Toulon. Money talks, a player walks.

You need this context when assessing Connacht. They’re always going to be in rebuild mode, always going to be stretched, squad-wise, when competing on two fronts.

bundee-aki-and-robbie-henshaw-celebrate Henshaw was a big loss after 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We saw that this year. Their form dipped when their schedule intensified, Europe pitting them against Racing and Bristol. They ran both teams close and that threatened to be a theme of their season, especially as six of their eight Pro14 defeats came with losing bonus points attached.

More recently, though, they’ve learned how to win tight games. In Ulster last month, they entered the 80th minute behind, they exited it with a victory, a trick they also played at Benetton in February. Then there was last week’s win in Munster, a triumph of nerve as well as doggedness. Will that kind of thing see them break into Europe’s quarter-final elite? Some day, yes. But that’s as far as we can expect them to get. Even Exeter, last year’s champions, have only ever made it past the quarter-finals once.

There’s heat and then there’s heat and European knock-out rugby is a furnace.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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