Leinster up for Heineken Cup challenge
New coach Matt O’Connor is satisfied his squad have the ability to come out of Pool 1
Leinster players celebrate Nathan Hines’ try in their Heineken Cup final victory over Northampton in 2011. The two sides will meet in Pool 1 in this season’s competition. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton is congratulated by Shane Jennings after going over for a try during Leinster’s 2011 Heineken Cup victory over Northampton. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip makes a break during the 2011 Heineken Cup final victory over Northampton. The two sides will resume hostilities in Pool 1 in this season’s competition. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
An opener against 2012 Rabo League champions Ospreys, a second match against this year’s French champions Castres, and back-to-back fixtures with 2000 champions Northampton will concentrate Leinster minds for four weeks in October and December.
With the first sequence Heineken Cup pool matches announced, good thoughts are already winding back to Leinster’s outrageous comeback win against Northampton in the 2011 final.
But the reality is both sides have changed considerably, Leinster will have no Jonny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan or Nathan Hines, who all started that day in Cardiff, Hines and Sexton scoring all the points.
The English side have attracted Lions pair, winger George North and England prop Alex Corbisiero, along with the influential Samoan former Ospreys scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i. But they’ve lost props Soane Tonga’huia and Brian Mujati to big-spending Racing Metro 92, as well as Paul Doran Jones, Ryan Lamb and Noah Cato.
To new Leinster coach Matt O’Connor, a fiercely competitive Pool 1 may seem like a challenging introduction to his European campaign, but the former Leicester Tigers man sees merit in the match sequence.
“Ospreys, Castres, Northampton, quality teams,” says O’Connor, “it’s about making sure it doesn’t matter whether its game one or game six, we have to get the attitude right if we are going to get out of the group.
“I think Northampton certainly have adjusted their strengths. I don’t necessarily think that, as good a squad as it is, it’s a better squad than last season . . . I imagine it’s somewhere on a par.
“They’ve had significant losses as well, so it’s about as good a squad as they had then (in the final), which was a handful. More threatening out wide, obviously, and George North is one of those and a very, very big one.
“I think the order of the games is probably as good as you could have asked. If you had to sit down and come up with an order I’d be pretty happy with the sequence of those games. Depending on how we go in the league and how we do on the injury front, it’s probably as good as you could ask for,”
Munster, who meet Edinburgh away and Gloucester at home before back-to-back matches against French giants Perpignan, will have to be wary about Edinburgh’s familiarity, Perpignan’s heavy pay load and the history of Gloucester.
“It’s great we have a few Saturday fixtures, especially an early evening Saturday game in Thomond Park for the supporters,” says Munster coach Rob Penney. “Playing Edinburgh so much does present its own challenges and it’s a case of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t and we can’t assume anything based on last year’s results.”
Gloucester travel for a pre-season game to Thomond Park on August 24th but “that’s the way it is,” adds Penney. “There’s a little bit of history there, which always adds a bit of spice to it.”
Only critical if Munster take something from the opening two pool games, the Perpignan chapter obviously brings its own demands.
Beaten by Toulon in last year’s final, they are still deeply wounded and like Monty and Westwood are the best team never to have won this European Major.
“I know it is a six-day turnaround but they have to travel home after the first leg, so it all equates out, to be fair, and we’ll have the same build-up to the game,” says Penney. “The group that caters for that the best will end up being in the best shape for that second back-to-back game.”
Ulster have two big openers, the first at Ravenhill with Premiership heavyweights Leicester and the second in Montpellier before the back-to-backs with Treviso. There and the home game is where they will look to harvest points.
Connacht face Saracens first before a possible scalp visits them in Galway in the shape of Italian side Zebre, winless last year. Back-to-back games against Toulouse, who by this stage are familiar to the Westerners is, Connacht coach Pat Lam admits, “a big challenge.” It’s also a six-day turn around.
“We’ve got Saracens and Toulouse, two massive teams,” says Lam. “But Saracens first up is helpful. Yeah, it’s tough but it’s good for the province. Look at Toulouse, they can pick two sides,” he adds. “Recovery will be vitally important.”