Provinces ready to jump into the action in Europe

Munster, Leinster and Ulster face English teams in the new-look European Cup

Gerry Thornley previews the weekend's matches and looks to what opportunities the Irish teams have for progressing.

 

New name, new organisers, new format, new TV deals, new trophies ... but essentially it’s still the European Cup. The European Champions Cup may have replaced the Heineken Cup, although ironically the title sponsors of times past are the only commercial partners on board for a cut-price deal. Hopefully however some things won’t change: the rugby will do the talking and the cream will always rise.

One could argue the toss about the Clermont team who produced the best rugby two seasons ago, as opposed to the Toulon side that sucked it up and scored a turnover try before deservedly retaining their title last season. But for all the luck of the draw, in the vast majority of cases the best team usually emerged as champions. And also along the way, this tournament’s unique blend usually provided the high points of the season.

On the pitch the biggest change by far is that the tournament has been compressed into five pools of four as opposed to six pools. With one each from Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales not included, the concentration of quality is greater and so too the competitiveness of the groups.

But while it will be harder to qualify for the last eight from the group stages, the three best runners-up out of five will also advance, as opposed to two from six. In other words, 60 per cent of the runners-up will qualify, instead of 33 per cent. At a stroke therefore, this should reduce the 22/23 point threshold for qualifying considerably, keep more teams in the hunt into the final two rounds in January and ensure that every single bonus point, nay try, could be even more critical than before.

With Munster and Leinster each having two English teams in their groups, there is unsurprisingly a distinct Anglo-Irish feel to the opening weekend.

Furthermore, whether or not the provinces record wins over their three English opponents this weekend could conceivably determine how far or otherwise the trio advance,as the way the fixtures have fallen has increased the need to hit the ground running.

Leinster’s first Life After Brian campaign for 16 seasons hasn’t been helped by an injury list which shows little sign of abating. On top of losing Marty Moore for three months earlier this week with a shoulder injury, their first-choice tight-head Mike Ross has been ruled out due to “a minor groin injury picked up during the week”, as has Rob Kearney whose back problems have resurfaced.

Michael Bent has been preferred to Tadhg Furlong at tight-head while Ian Madigan has again been pressed into service at full-back. As expected, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Dominic Ryan return up front for their home game on Sunday against Wasps (BT Sport), while Eoin Reddan and Jimmy Gopperth renew their half-back pairing. There is also an encouraging return to the bench and possible seasonal re-appearance for Luke Fitzgerald. As expected this game has come too soon for rugby league signing Ben Te’o.

Munster are first up against Sale in the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford at 1pm today (Sky Sports) in a reprise of their opener en route to their first Heineken Cup triumph in 2005-06. With the heavyweight duo of Clermont and Saracens to come, Munster may not have the leeway to lose their opening match this time around.

In all Anthony Foley makes seven changes, restoring a fit-again Duncan Casey for his European start at hooker as well as Stephen Archer and Paul O’Connell to his tight five. Ian Keatley, Denis Hurley, Andrew Conway and Felix Jones also return. Thus Foley and co have preferred David Kilcoyne at loose-head and CJ Stander at number eight ahead of Robin Copeland, who joins another potential debutant, Argentine hooker Eusebio Guinazu, on the bench.

Munster also confirmed that Damien Varley was provisionally scheduled to undergo surgery on his left foot next week and “has been ruled out for the immediate future”.

Later, Ulster begin their campaign where they left off last season, against Leicester in Welford Road (BT Sport). Given the presence of back-to-back champions Toulon, who visit Ravenhill next Saturday, they may well need to repeat their Ruan Pienaar-inspired win of January.

In Pienaar’s continuing absence, Ulster make three changes from the side which out-smarted, out-mauled and out-muscled Glasgow last week. Andrew Trimble has a toe injury and is replaced by Craig Gilroy, who looked to have some of his old swagger back last week. Paddy Jackson returns at outhalf in place of Ian Humphreys, while Lewis Stevenson replaces the suspended Alan O’Connor.

Leicester were missing 23 players when beaten 45-0 by Bath four weeks ago but after last week’s win over Harlequins, the Tigers have been reinforced and welcome back Pumas prop Marcus Ayerza. This one has all the makings of a titanic struggle.

Connacht, along with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Zebre have effectively been re-routed to the Challenge Cup which, disappointingly, will not see the winners qualify for the primary Champions Cup next season. Instead, the 20th qualifying place will feature a three-way play-off across the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12, potentially involving the eight-best finisher in the latter.

Even so, Pat Lam has selected a strong side for the visit of La Rochelle this evening (kick-off 5pm), making five changes up front in rotating his front-row.

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