Gerry Thornley: Halcyon days are over for Irish provinces in Europe

Not since the late 1990s have prospects looked so glum – we can but be pleasantly surprised

Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado tackle Rob Kearney of Leinster in last year’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Toulon are second favourites to win their fourth Cup in a row. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado tackle Rob Kearney of Leinster in last year’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Toulon are second favourites to win their fourth Cup in a row. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

For better or for worse, the European Champions Cup is upon us again. The hangover in European rugby still lingers after the World Cup amid general rugby fatigue, but if there is a cure, then what was once fondly known as the Heineken Cup is, ironically, probably the best available.

Of course, the Top 14 and the Premiership each operates in something of a bubble anyway, immune from the fortunes of their national sides and, judging by the World Cup, contributory factors in France and England being the two biggest flops of the tournament.

Not that that will bother too many of their club owners unduly, with Mourad Boudjellal more concerned with Toulon losing four of their first seven games in the Top 14 than France’s tame exit courtesy of what was possibly the most embarrassing result they’ve ever had. So upset is Boudjellal, he has threatened to walk away from the three-in-a-row European Cup winners if they don’t reach the playoffs. Boo-hoo. He has long since become the Mourinho of club rugby but, alas, it’s unlikely to come to that given Toulon beat Montpellier 52-8 last Saturday at the Stade Felix Mayol to begin their post-World Cup recovery.

And, of course, Toulon have led the post-World Cup transfer coups, with Ma’a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen and Quade Cooper among their latest batch of A-list recruits; yet further evidence of the ever-increasing financial clout of those French and English clubs backed by private benefactors. Salary caps anyone?

Second favourites

By contrast, and perhaps as a result of their misleadingly poor start domestically, Toulon are 8/11 favourites to win the proverbial pool of sharks ahead of Bath (3/1) Leinster 10/3 and Wasps 16/1.

Second Captains

Accordingly, Leinster are joint ninth in the betting alongside Bath at 18/1 – assuredly their longest odds since the halcyon days of 2009 to 2012, when they won the old Heineken Cup three times in a four-year spell.

Leinster retain a core of those cup-winning sides, have welcomed back Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, and are already showing signs of rejuvenation as well as a more expansive and entertaining style under Leo Cullen, Girvan Dempsey and co.

Fatigue factor

Ulster, who lost four of their six pool games last season, have a very tough draw too. Saracens are the reigning Premiership champions – although in light of the lack of transparency over claims of the salary cap being broken, at least one leading English rugby correspondent has suggested that title should have an asterisk beside their name – and lead this season’s formative table. They have also reached the semi-finals for the last three seasons, and the final two seasons ago.

Hence, they are 11/10 favourites to win pool one, ahead of Toulouse at 7/4, and the four-time champions are showing clear signs of rejuvenation since Ugo Mola took over from Guy Noves: witness the 52-12 win over Grenoble last Saturday that elevated Toulouse to second place behind Clermont in the Top 14.

Thus, Ulster are third favourites to win pool 1 at an unappealing 11/4, and 33/1 overall. They have even drawn the short straw in facing Cup debutants Oyannax away in their first game, for that makes it a marquee fixture for the newcomers as opposed to when a French side might be disinterested come January.

Located in a valley of the Jura mountains in the Rhones-Alps in eastern France, so regularly did visiting fans (and even teams) get lost in trying to locate the Stade Charles-Mathon that on arrival they would be greeted by chants of Ici, Ici, c’est Oyonnax – it’s here, it’s here, it’s Oyonnax. The chant has been adopted and adapted by most French sides, including most noisily by Clermont’s yellow army, but it originated with Oyonnax.

Best Irish hope

Munster

These things are cyclical anyway, and no less than for the Irish sides, their opponents have tough draws as well.

But despite occupying four of the top five places in the Pro12, instructively last season’s champions Glasgow are 50/1 shots (though should have a decent crack of winning pool three against Northampton, Racing and the Scarlets), with the leading Welsh contenders, the Ospreys, at 150/1 followed by the Scarlets at 200/1. That tells us much.

Not since the late 1990s have prospects looked so glum. We can but be pleasantly surprised.  gthornley@irishtimes.com

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