Champions Cup sparkle can dispel World Cup hangover

Irish provinces capable of a clean sweep this weekend as European campaign gets underway

 Anthony Foley’s side should pick up a bonus point against Treviso. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Anthony Foley’s side should pick up a bonus point against Treviso. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The Champions Cup opening salvo proves there’s always a new mountain to climb even if the provinces are still paying that heavy World Cup toll.

Let’s start and finish, as the weekend will, with the visit of Wasps to a yet-to-be-sold-out RDS. On Friday evening only 16,500, including season tickets, had been sold for the Sunday lunchtime kick-off.

No Rob Kearney at fullback as his hamstring gave in during last Friday’s narrow victory over the Scarlets. On came Ben Te’o, the only successfully converted centre from the South Sydney Rabbitohs, but the rugby league powerhouse that Leo Cullen has built the Leinster attack around this season pulled up with a glute strain.

Revered

This seemed like the opportune time for Blackrock College’s latest wunderkind, Garry Ringrose, to take the revered 13 jersey but Cullen goes with the tried and trusted Fergus McFadden instead.

The rising Ringrose is benched, beside Ian Madigan, with new captain Isa Nacewa an ideal fit at fullback.  

Maybe the thinking is to avoid exposing the talented 20-year-old to the blurring images of Elliot Daly, Christian Wade, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau.

“Just for this game I thought Ferg brings a real experience,” Cullen explained. “He’s been playing really well for us on the wing and just brings a toughness into the centre.

“Ferg is very robust defensively and depending on the conditions we [may] need that strong carry that Ferg can give us.

“He’s played at Test level in the centre as well.” 

In McFadden they trust then.

And there’s the always inspiring sight of Johnny Sexton in Leinster blue for those only waking from their World Cup slumber.  

The entire Leinster pack was eventually called up by Ireland last month but with Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip keeping tabs on former Wallaby turnover master George Smith, this Dublin 4 gathering will expect nothing short of four points. Five would be perfect with looming trips to Bath and Toulon.

Despite the intimidating pool, expectations refuse to dip inside Cullen’s camp. Four years ago a similarly Leinster-heavy Ireland stumbled at a World Cup quarter-final only for many of these same men to return home and re-conquer Europe’s highest peak.

Times may have changed but Cullen’s ambition remains undimmed. 

“We weren’t that far off the summit last year,” said the 37-year-old head coach. “We lost in extra time to the eventual winners . . . I don’t think we are a million miles off the summit. But we are in a very, very tough pool so it is important we look at Wasps before a six-day turnaround [away to] Bath.”   

And what of Munster? Next week’s journey to Paris to play Top 14 champions Stade Francais will cause Anthony Foley far more problems than Benetton Treviso this evening.

Absentee

But so much has changed down Thomond Park way. Peter O’Mahony’s loss is damaging but he’s hardly an unforeseen absentee. That “game of his life”, as Schmidt described his performance against France, denied everyone this brilliant blindside for the season.  

The CJ Stander klaxon was sounded with this one-time future Springbok newly promoted to Munster captain as he hones in on an Ireland debut come the Six Nations.  

Mark Chisholm and Donnacha Ryan are endeavouring to fill the other gaping void. With Felix Jones, yet another established leader, forced to retire, Andrew Conway goes to fullback, as Simon Zebo and Keith Earls should take flight outside another nomadic All Black in Francis Saili.  

Such razor-sharp combinations will almost certainly yield a bonus point.   

Despite the World Cup stripping Ulster of Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and, most damaging of all, Iain Henderson, new director of rugby Les Kiss can be buoyed by Oyonnax sacking their head coach Olivier Azam.

Beware the chaotic French at home but, all things considered, there’s no reason why all four provinces can’t complete a neat clean sweep. That includes Connacht escaping a Siberian winter with limbs intact.

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