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Irish provinces aiming for high places as European season kicks-off

Connacht are back in with the big boys for the return of the Heineken Champions Cup.

GLOUCESTER VERSUS TOULOUSE in Kingsholm on a Friday night kicks it all off, and most supporters will welcome the return of the Heineken Champions Cup with genuine glee.

None more so than Irish rugby fans, whose national team had a deeply disappointing World Cup, losing to hosts Japan in the pool stages and then thoroughly underperforming in their quarter-final hammering at the hands of New Zealand.

The ramifications of another World Cup failure will, and should, continue for some time to come but the European season kicking off for Connacht, Ulster, Munster and Leinster this weekend provides a chance for some people to begin moving on.

michael-bent-sean-obrien-devin-toner-and-johnny-sexton-dejected-after-the-game Leinster were beaten finalists in last season's competition. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The Pro14 season is six games old already and has provided plenty of food for thought and fine form from Irish players, but there is no doubting that the provincial season takes a major step up this weekend.

The Heineken Champions Cup has often been a happy hunting ground for the Irish provinces and there are reasons for optimism again in 2019/20.

Last year’s beaten finalists, Leinster, have been installed as favourites in many quarters and it’s not difficult to understand why.

With their Ireland internationals away at the World Cup, the next tier of Leinster players had the chance to impress in the opening rounds of the Pro14 and virtually all of them took those opportunities in resoundingly impressive fashion.

21-year-old hooker Rónan Kelleher will be rewarded with a start against Benetton on Saturday, while 21-year-old number eight Caelan Doris gets a chance to do the same in the middle of the back row.

Sean Cronin and Jack Conan, the incumbents in those positions, have returned from the World Cup injured, but other Leinster men have settled back in from their trip to Japan happily.

Flanker Rhys Ruddock will be keen to show his qualities after a frustrating time in Japan, while Andrew Porter’s barnstorming performance against Connacht last weekend has earned him another start this weekend at the RDS. 

With the likes of Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose now also ready to be reintegrated and, presumably, desperate to get over any World Cup hangovers, Leinster look to be in decent nick.

Beginning their Pool 1 campaign at home to Benetton should allow them to make a convincing start to the European season, before a trip to Lyon next weekend and then back-to-back meetings with Northampton Saints in December.

caelan-doris-is-tackled-by-giovanni-licata Caelan Doris has started the season superbly. Federico Matteucci / INPHO Federico Matteucci / INPHO / INPHO

Lyon and the Saints are intriguing propositions. The French club are five points clear at the peak of the Top 14 under head coach Pierre Mignoni and have startling firepower in the shape of Josua Tuisova, Noa Nakaitaci, Demba Bamba, and many others.

They didn’t have any interest in Europe last season, losing all six of their pool games, but their trip to Northampton this Sunday will tell us more of their ambitions in 2019/20.

Saints enjoyed a revival under Kiwi boss Chris Boyd last season and play an invigorating style of rugby, with emerging stars like Rory Hutchinson and Lewis Ludlam thriving alongside more experienced leaders like Dan Biggar, Cobus Reinach, and Teimana Harrison.

Whether Lyon and Northampton fully invest themselves in this competition remains to be seen but they are likely to provide a few thrills. Nonetheless, the expectation is that Leinster will top the pool and secure a home quarter-final. 

Munster’s Pool 4 appeared to be the ‘Group of Death’ when the draw was first made – and still looks it on paper – but Johann van Graan’s men may now be eyeing up an opportunity in the coming months.

Racing 92 have had a difficult start to the Top 14 season with just three wins in nine games and some poor performances to go along with the tough run of results.

Second row Leone Nakarawa’s delayed return from the World Cup and Ben Tameifuna coming back 20kg overweight haven’t been helpful as Racing look to settle into their season, although they do have obvious quality throughout their squad.

Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan will hope to feature against their former team in Thomond Park in round two, while the likes of Finn Russell, Camille Chat, Maxime Machenaud, and Virimi Vakatawa can be real stars on their day.

The enigmatic Teddy Thomas scored a hat-trick in last weekend’s Parisian derby win over Stade Français, a victory that Racing – whose attack coach is former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast – will hope kick-starts improved form.

andrew-conway-celebrates-his-try-with-teammates Munster's Andrew Conway is in superb form. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Their clash with Saracens at Paris La Défense Arena on Sunday will be telling, from both sides of the coin.

Mark McCall’s defending champions have been embroiled in scandal in recent times, of course, with their points deduction and huge fine for breaching the Premiership salary cap having caused much discussion, debate, and derision.

It remains to be seen if that issue affects Saracens on the pitch, though they impressed in last weekend’s Premiership win away to Gloucester without their England stars, who will be integrated in the weeks to come.

McCall has indicated that Sarries may need to focus on their Premiership survival if an appeal of that points deduction fails, though they do have great depth in their squad and have shown they can compete on both fronts, most notably with last season’s domestic and European double.

However, those England stars may complicate matters. The World Cup will have taken a huge amount, physically and mentally, from the likes of Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Mako and Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, whose game time over the remainder of this 2019/20 season is now set to be limited.

McCall has a juggling act ahead but those back-to-back December clashes against Munster are extremely appetising and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the resilient Saracens are actually fortified by the criticism of the club after the sanctions against them.

The Ospreys, meanwhile, look to be in very poor shape under Irishman Allen Clarke, with five defeats from their opening six Pro14 games. They’re missing many key players, including their Wales contingent, and look ripe for the beating by Munster at Liberty Stadium on Saturday.

If Munster have quarter-final ambitions, they must start with a strong result away from home on this opening weekend. Beyond that, finally advancing past the semi-finals is the obvious target for this campaign.

Ulster are also out for an opening win on the road as they begin their Pool 3 campaign against Bath at the Rec on Saturday.

dan-mcfarland Dan McFarland's Ulster start away to Bath on Saturday. Frikkie Kapp / INPHO Frikkie Kapp / INPHO / INPHO

Clermont’s return to the Heineken Cup after a season’s absence is hugely welcome – they have an exciting squad and some of the best fans in the world – and they will be targetting top spot in this group.

It’s difficult to predict what impact Harlequins – a little like Bath – will make in Europe this season, with Paul Gustard’s project there still seeming very much like a work in progress. Both English sides are capable of beating Ulster but Dan McFarland’s province have strong knock-out ambitions.

Building on last season’s quarter-final against Leinster, which Ulster probably still feel they should have won, is the clear goal and with new signings like Sam Carter and Jack McGrath motivated to make a big impact, there is no reason they cannot develop again.

McFarland’s approach last season was all about tempo, width, and passing, but Ulster can be more consistent in their application and execution around the set-piece and defence.

With Rory Best now retired, Iain Henderson is the new captain and might even be the only Ulster-born starter in their pack at times, with McFarland keen to see the 27-year-old move onto another level. The same applies to out-half Billy Burns, who has also been handed more leadership responsibility.

In the likes of Marcell Coetzee and the exciting Will Addison, there are quality players dotted throughout this Ulster team, and they can certainly get out of Pool 3.

Connacht, last but certainly not least, have a demanding task in Pool 5 with two French heavyweights drawn alongside them in the shape of Montpellier and Toulouse. Gloucester make up the group and Andy Friend’s side will be hoping for scalps against all three opponents.

Getting out of the group would be an extremely impressive feat, particularly as the western province go into Sunday’s opening against Montpellier in Galway with something of an injury crisis on their hands.

Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion, and Paddy McAllister are amongst those sidelined, although locks Gavin Thornbury and Quinn Roux – both of whom started this season superbly – could be missed most of all against the large Montpellier pack.

jack-carty Jack Carty will enjoy Connacht's return to the top tier. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster had a field day against Connacht’s weak maul defence last weekend in their hammering of Friend’s side at the Sportsground. Connacht simply must avoid anything similar on Sunday and shifting the French side around the pitch at pace looks like their best bet.

There is, however, real excitement about the fact that Connacht are back in the top-tier European competition and players like Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, and Tom Farrell will relish this opportunity to play against the best club players in Europe.

The fact that Connacht were not competing in the Heineken Champions Cup last season may have counted against their players pushing on further with Ireland, but there are no excuses now with new national team head coach Andy Farrell watching on.

Opening their account with a spirit-boosting victory over Montpellier in front of their excellent supporters would set Connacht off on a brilliant foot as they take on the daunting task of competing for a knock-out place.

A poor opening weekend and Friend might be prioritising the Pro14 far earlier than hoped for.

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