World Cup complicates Munster’s tough European schedule
Van Graan’s men draw the short straw while Cullen’s Leinster will be pleased
A view of the draw for Pool Four of the Champions Cup which pits Munster against formidable holders Saracens, Racing and Ospreys. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It’s all very well looking at last season’s performances and projecting them forward by four or five months to see what shape the early phase of the European Champions Cup might take. But one thing seems certain, the Rugby World Cup in Japan will influence the early rounds of next season’s competition.
Given the World Cup final is scheduled for November 2nd with the two losing semi-final teams playing for positions on Friday November 1st, there remains about two weeks for those players to rest and reboot for the first weekend of Heineken Cup on the weekend of November 15th.
From an optimistic Irish point of view of getting past a quarter-final stage for the first time in Japan, an international season that begins against Italy on August 10th and does not let up until November with maybe 10 matches is more than a work load.
England players face a similar outlook with European and Premiership champions Saracens likely to front load Eddie Jones’ squad with players. France too. Toulouse just finished a run to their 20th Bouclier de Brennus beating Clermont in the Top 14 final only days ago.
To that backdrop the first two weekends of Heineken Cup may, by necessity appear to hastily arrive. How the matches will fall for Munster, especially, with Saracens, Racing and Ospreys in their Pool 4 will colour their European season.
Player road worthiness will be a determining factor and already there are social media rumblings about former Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, who has left Montpellier, returning into a short term Ulster role if John Cooney makes the Irish World Cup squad.
Be that as it may Munster, regardless of who is available, are cursing the hands of Bryan Habana and Dimitri Yachvilli for their stinker of a draw, while Leinster coach Leo Cullen, due modesty and respect for his opponents aside, knows that with Lyon, Northampton and Benetton he has won the first available prize of next season’s Heineken Cup, a favourable draw.
Speaking on the first day of pre-season with his Leinster players, Cullen oozed diplomacy about the challenge of Pool 1.
“Ambitious” Lyon have been “very consistent” said Cullen and Leinster have “a history” with Northampton having played them in 2016, while Italian side Benetton, who qualified for the tournament on merit for the first time in their history “have been one of the success stories of the Pro14.”
Speaking on behalf of a club that has won the cup four times in the past 11 years, Cullen’s words lacked the, not so much terror as recognition of the challenge that peppered Munster coach Johann van Graan’s reaction.
“Saracens have just completed the double after winning the Champions Cup and the Premiership and everyone knows how strong they are,” said the South African coach plainly laying it out.
History, is with van Graan. More than any other side, Munster have qualified for the knockout phase with 18 quarter-finals, winning 14 of those. But flanker Peter O’Mahony dolefully pointed out last season that he had become weary of quarter-finals and semi-finals. A career like his needs gilding.
The summer arrival of former Australian outhalf Stephen Larkham and England frontrow Graham Rowntree into his multicultural Munster coaching team should also inject fresh impetus.
Ulster have Clermont and perhaps for that Leinster are doubly pleased that it is not them. Dan McFarland will also plan to meet Harlequins and Bath Rugby. Of the four teams only Ulster and Bath have ever won the trophy albeit it in the distant past of 1998 for the Premiership team and 1999 for Ulster.
“I think the main thing for us and for most other teams in this competition was can you avoid Saracens,” said Ulster operations director Bryn Cunningham burying Munster even deeper in bad karma.
“They are a pretty phenomenal side,” added the former fullback. “We’re happy. Clermont are obviously a top side. We’ve been there a couple of times before. We’ve two English sides in there as well and we’ve had that before.”
But Clermont, by their recent performances alone, put themselves in as pool favourites. Their frustration, however, may be bubbling beneath the surface as they have been to the final three times in seven years.
Beaten in the 2013 and 2015 finals as Toulon cemented their run of three in a row and again by Saracens in 2017, Clermont have been thwarted by super clubs that ghost in and clean up just as they are hitting form. The dynastic hold of Toulon, Leinster and Saracens have ensured only they have won the European Cup in the last nine years.
With Connacht ready to punch above their weight against Toulouse, Gloucester and Montpellier, it could seem as if history has already forgotten December 2013.
Under Pat Lam the province produced the greatest European upset of this or any season with a remarkable 16-14 victory over Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon. Facing the four-time champions, Pat Lam’s side were completely and utterly written off. But the visitors threw the formbook out the window, claiming a staggering win.
Maybe that’s what we expect from Connacht, a big statement on a big stage showing how good they can be. The challenge is to do it consistently.
Toulouse are the top-ranked French side and Gloucester the third best English Premiership side, while Montpellier are rated the sixth-highest Top 14 club. There is something all the coaches have said. There’s no easy pool in the European . . .