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Dublin: 0 °C Saturday 18 January, 2020
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Champions Cup Power Rankings: Where Irish sides really stand

The system is flawed and Johann van Graan’s side need to be cut a little slack. The pool of death has killed Munster’s European dreams.

Munster have suffered in the pool of death.
Munster have suffered in the pool of death.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

At about three in the morning, the old man at the bar looked up from his Jameson and put down his cigarette. That was when we knew we were in trouble.

He was a man of few words – but a fair few whiskies. And after listening to us spout on about how journalists had the power to determine which sides made the US college football playoffs, he didn’t mince his words.

“The only thing you lot are experts on,” he said, “is filing your expenses. Most creative writing I’ve ever read.”  

A couple of decades on, old Gerry is still doing his bit for the Jameson trade, and would be pleased to know we are still as opinionated as ever.

But that’s not the point here. Although technically they are still in the competition, Munster are as good as out of this year’s Champions Cup. But they shouldn’t be.

Irrespective of their capacity to make life hard for themselves, the undeniable fact is they have been unfairly penalised by the lottery of the draw.

It simply makes no sense that Gloucester have lost three times in this campaign and yet still have a shot at the quarters, whereas Munster have put it up to Saracens and Racing but don’t have fate in their own hands.

And it brings us back to that 3am conversation all those years ago with the old man and his whisky. What if journalists had the power to rank the best teams in Europe? Put it this way, we’d have three Irish teams heading for the quarters.

1: Leinster

There isn’t a better team in Europe right now, borne out by their 15 wins from 15, an average of 28.2 points per game and the fact they still look like they can go up another gear.

In the Top 14 and English Premiership, Lyon and Northampton each sit in second place, having won 16 of their 21 domestic games. And yet Leinster took them for an aggregate tally of 148 points.

Everything about them is slick; their off-field structures and onfield “comfort in chaos”. How good will they be when Johnny Sexton and James Ryan come back? Will a returning Jack Conan even make it into the side? They’ve depth and they’ve experience of winning, one of just three sides to lift this trophy since 2010.

Bear in mind, one of the other three champions, Toulon, aren’t even at the show this year. The embroiders better start thinking about stitching another star onto that blue shirt.

 

isa-nacewa-and-jordi-murphy-lift-the-european-rugby-champions-cup-trophy Isa Nacewa and Jordi Murphy lifting the 2018 Champions Cup. On current form, Leinster are likely to win a fifth title. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

2: Saracens

Only their mothers could love them but even though Saracens are hard to like, they are even harder to beat. That said, should Racing defeat them this Sunday, then they will be out of the competition.

And yet you can’t see it happening.  Allianz Park may resemble one of those out-of-town outlet stores, but nonetheless Saracens have made it into a fortress, where their ability to constantly apply pressure has broken one team after another, year after year.

At some point, you wonder how the salary cap saga will impact them; the loss of Liam Williams and Calum Clark, perhaps a few others, will certainly decrease their options and could also hurt morale.

Still, even though an away quarter-final is practically certain, you can’t ignore the fact they know how to win, which was what happened on Saturday, when Rhys Carré was dismissed just four minutes into the game. Lesser teams would have cracked. Saracens just never do.

3: Racing 92

Twice runners-up in the past four years, they’ve stars everywhere, Virimi Vakatawa in the centre, Teddy Thomas on the wing, this fella called Zebo at full-back.

The telling stat from the campaign to date is the number of clean breaks (65) they have made. Plus they have made more metres (2,048) and beaten more defenders (130). Still, there’s no statistic to measure nerve. Saracens and Leinster have shown theirs on the biggest day. Racing have still to do that.

 

teddy-thomas-celebrates-his-try Teddy Thomas is a key threat in the Racing attack. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

4: Toulouse

Maxime Medard; Yoann Huget; Antoine Dupont; Romain Ntamack. There’s four reasons why they’ll be hard to stop. Here’s a fifth – the Stade Ernest-Wallon, venue for their quarter-final. Hard to see how they won’t make the semis.

5: Clermont Auvergne

 Would we be looking at them in the same way had Stuart McCloskey exploited the first-minute overlap of Saturday’s match, or if John Cooney had opted to take the points and build on Ulster’s early lead?

Perhaps not, but still the way they coped with Morgan Parra’s sin-binning was impressive, while the danger they pose in attack via Parra, George Moala and Damian Penaud is significant.

That final quarter surge against Ulster offered further proof that good teams know how to win down the stretch. Like everyone else, they’ll be hoping to be at home in the quarters but like everyone else, they will be also be hoping to avoid Saracens.

6: Exeter Chiefs

Brilliant in the Premiership, they’ve still to do anything noteworthy in Europe, which is not to say it can’t happen this year. But you earn your corn through big results. How many of those have Exeter produced in the Champions Cup?

7: Ulster

Their low point is a subject of debate. Rory Best reckoned it was Cardiff, a suitably chastening defeat coming smack bang in the middle of the Belfast rape trial. For others it arrived before then, on December 23, 2017 to be precise, a Connacht-inflicted humiliation.

Jono Gibbes, then their forwards coach, wasn’t even in Galway that day and if anything summed up Ulster in 2017/18, this was it. You just never knew when or if they would turn up – a run of five defeats out of seven between January and March, culminating in a crisis meeting following that 35-17 defeat in the Arms Park.

“Don’t look for excuses, don’t look for someone else to blame,” Best told the squad. “We sort this out ourselves.”

They have. If the team meeting post-Cardiff was when the revival started, the reaction to another Connacht defeat – this one at the Kingspan in 2018 – was when it intensified.

Tom O’Toole, the young tight-head, had been schooled that night, yet when the game was reviewed the following Monday, a protective arm was thrown around him.

Marcell Coetzee spoke up, admitting he hadn’t made an acceptable contribution to the scrum. He wasn’t alone in the confession box. Every player who started contributed to the discussion, each accepting their share of responsibility. The “we’re all in this together” message was clear. A culture of togetherness was developing and it helped they had Dan McFarland in charge to foster it.

john-cooney-scores-a-try-despite-alivereti-raka John Cooney's form has been a key reason for Ulster's revival. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Under McFarland, Ulster’s maul has been revived, their scrum improved — even if it remains an area that needs further development. Other problems remain; a lack of depth, particularly in the pack, and the issue of Billy Burns’s ability to control, never mind change games.

Yet Burns, indeed everyone, is playing for McFarland, who has changed the team’s mentality, installing a never-give-up spirit, evidenced by the critical late surge in Leicester that sent them into the quarter-finals last season and the come-from-behind wins over Bath, Clermont and Harlequins this year.

Certainly they’re good enough to reach the quarters but even though they’ll rattle a few cages, another last-eight exit seems likely.

8: Munster

If this looks like a crisis for Munster now then cast your mind back to the 2015/16 season when they finished sixth in the Pro12, the lowest ranked of the four Irish provinces, their most scathing criticism coming from one of their own players. “The boys work so hard,” Francis Saili said, “but there’s no point in working hard if you’re not going to work smart.”

Nothing was working way back then. They lacked depth, confidence and a reliable No10. This year they have lacked luck – that’s a big difference to 2015/16.

Sure, they haven’t made life easy for themselves – not taking a kickable penalty against Sarries away; not being ruthless enough to deny Saracens a losing bonus point at home; failing to nail that last-minute kick against Racing at Thomond.

But what type of conversation would we be having if they were in any of the other four pools? Only a quirk of the system put Racing in as third seeds. Only sod’s law left Munster in the same pool as them and Saracens. These things matter. They needed things to go their way. Losing Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne sums up their campaign.

9: Northampton Saints

 This is what their director of rugby, Chris Boyd, said after their win over Benetton at the weekend:

That was a disgustingly dreadful performance. I apologise to everyone for that performance. I thought we were terrible. Anyone with any respect for the game would be horrified by that performance from both sides.”

And yet Northampton have a stronger chance than Munster of making the quarters. They’ll make it by virtue of having a better draw, not a better team.

10: Glasgow

They’re not the team they used to be and you have to wonder what effect Dave Rennie’s impending departure is having on them. If they make the quarters, they’ll lose heavily.

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