Gerry Thornley previews the European Champions Cup
New era in Europe may see Irish provinces lose out to super rich French and English sides
No less than having the offices in Dublin, there’s little doubt that five Irish Heineken Cup wins in a seven-year period (2006 to 2012) did not go down well in the upper echelons of England and French club rugby, and one of the spin-offs of the Anglo-French European coup was to assert their dual pre-eminence. Might is right and all that.
It could well be that the redesigned European Champions Cup will be seen to achieve that purpose as well, but if so this will be largely coincidental. Such Irish dominance could never last forever, all the more so with the greater wealth in privately backed English and French clubs.
In truth, the era had already come to an end. Whether this new era will solely belong to Toulon, the French, an Anglo/French duopoly or a three-way split still involving the Irish remains to be seen (it’s hard to see the other Celts sitting at the top table any time soon).
In any event, trimming the tournament down from 24 to 20 teams has assuredly made the pools tougher – Munster’s group alongside Clermont, Saracens and Sale being an obvious case in point. Ironically, it is the Sharks who look out of their depth.
With all past achievements airbrushed from history in the brave new dawn, the new seeding system has seen three of last season’s semi-finalists (and the season before) being pitted against each other. It would not be unlike, say, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Chelsea being permed together in the same Champions League pool.
Whereas six pool winners and the two best runners-up advanced to the last eight before, henceforth five pool winners will be joined by the three best runners-up, which might make every single bonus point, or indeed try, even more critical in determining the quarter-finalists come round six.
Leinster have the best draw of the Irish, and have enough quality to progress, but it’s hard to forecast them winning it in a post-Sexton, Nacewa and now Cullen and O’Driscoll era. Ulster look best-equipped of the Irish to progress but have the mighty Toulon in their way, while Northampton and Saracens look the strongest English contenders.
Indeed, if it is hard to confidently forecast a winner from the Munster/Clermont group, the other semi-finalists from the last two seasons, namely eventual winners Toulon, have been inserted as strong 5 to 2 chances to become the first team to conquer Europe three years in a row.
Ironically, in the season when the knock-out stages have been compressed into a six-week window after the Six Nations, Toulon have had more French call-ups this November than ever before. They are rightly favourites, but a contender such as Clermont could easily emerge from the pack to usurp them.
GERRY THORNLEY’S GUIDE TO THE POOLS
Pedigree: Winners in 2006 and ’08, and serial qualifiers from the pool stages (15 times in the last 16 seasons).
Form: Patchy. Stormed the capital two weeks ago for first time since 2008 for confidence-boosting win over Leinster after a trying start for Anthony Foley and co. They then backed it up by beating the Scarlets.
Prospects: Injuries to new signing Tyler Bleyendall and Keith Earls leave them short of creativity and finishing, and they remain dependant on key figures, but Europe does something for their psyche. Opener in Sale looks a must-win.
Pedigree: Semi-finalists in last three seasons and beaten finalists two years ago, Clermont are the best team never to have won the Cup.
Form: Beaten 51-21 in Bordeaux two weeks ago, they lead the Top 14 with a seventh win in nine coming at the expense of La Rochelle.
Prospects: The Stade Michelin has been stormed; Frank Azema has succeeded Vern Cotter; they’ll have baggage in their opener against Saracens and Morgan Parra is sidelined for the first two games.
Pedigree: Not great. Have managed just one quarter-final, back in 2005-’06, in seven previous attempts.
Form: Not great. Only wins at home to bottom-placed London Welsh and Wasps, and director of rugby Steve Diamond declined to air his thoughts publicly after the 43-10 defeat at Northampton last Saturday.
Prospects: Surprise qualifiers and on their return to Cup they run into three of last season’s semi-finalists, so prospects not great either then.
Pedigree: Quarter-finalists, semi-finalists and beaten finalists in the last three seasons.
Form: Averaged almost 40 points in their opening four wins, and responded to Bath defeat by beating Gloucester to stand second in the Premiership.
Prospects: Lost home and away to Toulouse last season, and semi-final was their first win in four attempts over Clermont. They should start with win over latter to give them something of a free shot at Thomond on Friday week. Dangerous.
At least one, and possibly two, bona fide title contenders will not reach the last eight. Liable to be a near three-way tie, with Clermont vulnerable looking favourites. Saracens to progress, and maybe one of the other heavyweights.
Pool odds: 5/4 Clermont, 8/5 Saracens, 11/4 Munster, 40/1 Sale.
Pedigree: Three time winners in 2009, ’11 and ’12.
Form: Ho-hum. Three wins, three defeats, but only once (at home to the Scarlets) have they cut loose before being outmuscled at the breakdown and on the gainline by Munster. Lacking carriers up front and creativity, with issues at ‘10’.
Prospects: Ravaged by injuries, and denuded of firepower up front, but still plenty of quality. Europe should stir them, and fixtures from a favourable draw may also have fallen kindly.
Pedigree: Ten pool exits in 11 campaigns, the exception coming 13 seasons ago. You wonder why they bother.
Form: Champions of France two years ago, and beaten Top 14 finalists last season, only to lose Antoine Claessen, Brice Dulin and others, while Sitiveni Sivivatu is out until December. Won 51-10 at home to Grenoble a fortnight ago but last Saturday’s 59-7 thrashing in Bordeaux left them one point above the relegation zone.
Prospects: May throw their beret at this campaign sooner than normal.
Pedigree: Four-time quarter-finalists, the most recent being two seasons ago when stormed by Munster.
Form: Also a ho-hum three-from-six record, which is not vintage Quins under Conor O’Shea given they were English champions three seasons ago and two-time semi-finalists since.
Prospects: Should hit the ground running at home to Castres, and then face Wasps, whom they beat 26-23 at home a month ago. Likely to be in better nick come meetings with Leinster, and have offloading game and also dangerous runners in Care, Brown and Yarde.
Pedigree: Champions in 2004 and ’07 when at their zenith, although haven’t reached last eight in three attempts since.
Form: Rousing home win over Bath as they raced into 29-0 lead in week of announcing their controversial move to Coventry, but have lost three times on the road.
Prospects: Unheralded pack and the Varndell-Daly-Wade outside three are as pacey as the Premiership can throw up, so capable of taking a scalp or two.
Two dangerous if non-heavyweight English floaters, both capable of ambushing Leinster if not on their game, but Matt O’Connor’s team ought still to top this group, with Harlequins perhaps advancing too.
Pool odds: 1/2 Leinster, 4/1 Harlequins, 11/2 Wasps, 10/1 Castres.
Pedigree: Champions in 1999, and four quarter-finals in a row, losing the final against Leinster three seasons ago.
Form: After under-powered, 14-man defeat in Zebre, have climbed to third in Pro12 with home double over the Scots – impressing with tactically adept mauling of Glasgow.
Prospects: Pack will be tested by heavyweight Anglo-French duo, and missing Ruan Pienaar for opening two games, but have grizzled forwards and Gilroy, Bowe, Trimble and co give them a cutting edge.
Pedigree: Champions in 2001 and ’02, four-time finalists and have reached knock-out stages 12 times.
Form: After opening with two wins they suffered a record 45-0 rout by Bath when missing 23 players through injury and Argentina’s Rugby Championship commitments, but had 11 of them back when ending a three-game losing run at home to Quins last Friday.
Prospects: Have had nine-day lead-in to Saturday’s revenge mission at home to Ulster, who completed the pool double in the group finale last January.
Pedigree: Muscled their way to the top in recent years, and as defending back-to-back champions are seeking to become the first team to conquer Europe three seasons running.
Form: Without Jonny Wilkinson this season, while Leigh Halfpenny’s debut being delayed until last week’s defeat in Toulouse. They still stand second with six wins out of nine.
Prospects: Have the money and squad to rotate and take whatever injuries hit them, and with negligible Six Nations commitments will be the least bothered by the compression of the knock-out stages.
Pedigree: The best history of the Welsh regions, having been three-time semi-finalists, albeit in 2000, ’02 and most recently ’07, since when they have won only 13 of 42 pool games.
Form: Still capable of some high-scoring fun and games, but routed in the RDS and without a win on the road.
Prospects: May be good for a daring ambush or two, but the bookies suggest only Treviso have more forlorn prospects of advancing.
That Leicester are unprecedented 5/1 third favourites of three former winners says it all. Ulster probably have to beat the Tigers in their lair on Saturday and also Toulon on Saturday week in making Ravenhill rock.
Pool odds: 1/2 Toulon, 13/5 Ulster, 5/1 Leicester, 66/1 Scarlets.
Pedigree: Champions in ’98, but just one semi-final and two quarters (most recently in ’09) from nine subsequent attempts.
Form: Stormed to top of Premiership with three initial wins, including a 45-0 rout of ravaged Tigers, since when bonus point defeats away to Saints and Wasps either side of beating Saracens leave them fourth.
Prospects: In what is liable to be a relatively frisky and prolific pool, they could well accompany Toulouse into the last eight.
Pedigree: Usually good for a high-scoring scalp or two (15 wins in the last seven seasons) but have never reached the quarter-finals in 15 attempts.
Form: Excellent until being outsmarted and outmuscled last week by Ulster, only their second defeat in 16 league matches (the other being in last May’s Pro12 final at the RDS against Leinster).
Prospects: Despite being top seeds in the re-drawn Euro map, they have again drawn something of a short straw in upwardly mobile Bath and the French duo.
Pedigree: Have only participated in last three seasons, with one quarter-final to show for it, with Top 14 usually holding sway.
Form: Have recovered from opening loss at home to Racing to win six of their last eight – including win at Clermont – to stand fourth.
Prospects: Clever, entertaining team under Fabien Galthie but don’t have strength in depth of other French heavyweights and losing Francois Trinh-Duc for three months last week with a broken leg is a hammer blow.
Pedigree: The only club with four stars on their crest, but their star has waned with just two quarter-finals in last three years, losing to Edinburgh and capsizing to Munster.
Form: Without an away win in eight months, a fifth straight defeat for the first time in 36 years last month left Toulouse 11th in the Top 14, but have since beaten Stade and Toulon to jump to eighth.
Prospects: A group they’d have won in their pomp but look like a giant in decline rather than in slumber.
Likely to be a wild and whacky group, and it could be that the bookies have it wrong, with Glasgow and Bath capable of leading the way.
Pool odds: 5/4 Toulouse, 5/2 Montpellier, 11/4 Bath, 6/1 Glasgow.
Pedigree: Have never advanced to last eight in 17 attempts and in last nine years have won four, drawn one and lost 49 of 54 games.
Form: After a summer exodus, their form is the worst in any of the three major leagues bar London Welsh. Have lost all six in Pro12, scoring the least and conceding the most.
Prospects: Opponents will lick their lips in eyeing up bonus-point wins.
Pedigree: Champions in 2000 and finalists three seasons ago, though seemingly haven’t recovered from the trauma of Leinster’s comeback, failing to go beyond pool stage since.
Form: Reigning English champions lead table with five wins out of six, scoring the most tries and conceding the least. Beat Sale 43-10 last week with George North, Dylan Hartley, Kahn Fotuali’I and Calum Clark on the bench.
Prospects: Look to have the baggage, firepower and strength in depth to be contenders.
Pedigree: Proud home record, but under-achievers, with successive quarter-finals in ’08, ’09 and ’10 the summit of the last 11 years.
Form: With the in-form duo of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar running the show at halfback, the Ospreys are the only 100 per cent team in the Pro12 after six matches.
Prospects: They will eye up bonus point wins over Treviso, so ultimately progress will hinge on beating their main rivals at home and taking something from the away games.
RACING METRO 92
Pedigree: Only came to the party late and in four seasons have never reached the last eight, winning seven games out of 24.
Form: Better than seventh place in the Top 14 might indicate, with five of their nine games having been on the road; scoring more freely (if conceding more too). New signings Antoine Claassen, Teddy Thomas and Brice Dulin have settled in well.
Prospects: Owner Jacky Lorenzetti has targeted Europe, with the last eight a minimum target and with Jonny Sexton back this week that could be achievable.
With Treviso seemingly the sole Italian team/whipping boys in the tournament, there appears every chance that Northampton will dip their bread again and be accompanied into the last eight perhaps by a much improved Racing, if they’re of a mind.
Pool odds: 8/11 Northampton, 11/8 Racing Metro, 7/1 Ospreys, 200/1 Treviso.