Connacht are probably the team that has benefitted most from the recent Irish success in the Heineken Cup and will undoubtedly have gained from their time in the competition last year, when they were eliminated at the group stage. They will go into the campaign fully prepared for another crack at Europe’s elite, and determined to prove that they belong at the top table of European rugby.
With the signing of Scottish former international player Dan Parks, coach Eric Elwood is clearly going to favour a set piece and territory dominated game. This is probably sensible given the conditions that most sides will experience when they come to visit Connacht at The Sportsground.
Parks will bring control and composure to Connacht’s game. Having said that, his desire to kick rather than run or pass the ball will mean that Connacht will struggle to chase the game should they fall behind in the latter stages of matches. Another new signing, this time from Ulster, is flanker Willie Faloon. Faloon will bring the experience of a Heineken Cup final as well as his ability to be a nuisance at ruck time.
Connacht’s squad shows plenty of experience from last year’s Heineken Cup campaign with captain Gavin Duffy; Mike McCarthy, Frank Murphy, Brett Wilkinson and Fetu’u Vainikolo remaining to lead the side into this season. Young guns such as Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O’Halleran will add flair and pace to any ball that gets beyond Parks at out-half.
Their early season form has been mixed, with home defeats to the Blues and Scarlets sandwiching a bonus-point win against Pool 3 rivals Zebre, the Italian minnows that replaced Aironi in both the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup.
The game against the Scarlets was a particular disappointment as they were leading 8-0 at half-time, and about to start the second half with the wind. The Scarlets went on to win, with a four-try bonus point. It is this type of inconsistency that Connacht must strive to avoid if they are to stand any chance of progression from their pool this year.
They are also joined in Pool 3 by Biarritz and Harlequins. The absolute minimum against Zebre will be ten points over the two matches, if they are to stand any chance of progressing. Biarritz are not known as great travellers, and Connacht may fancy their chances of an upset in this game, especially if they can keep Dimitri Yachvili, the heartbeat of Biarritz’s team, quiet for the full eighty minutes in Galway.
Harlequins, coached by the excellent Conor O’Shea, will not underestimate Connacht again, following their famous defeat in Galway last year with qualification for the knockout stages on the line. Expect them to be fired up for that clash this year, and for Connacht to have to be at their best to get anything from either game.
Realistically, it is difficult to see Connacht winning more than just the two matches against Zebre, but they should gain from another year in Europe’s best club competition, which will hopefully allow them to keep their best players in the West for the future.
Prediction: Third in Pool 3.
By Matthew Morrow
Ulster, more than any other team, will begin their Heineken Cup campaign with a new sense of perspective following the tragic death of young centre Nevin Spence in a farming accident. The achievements of the previous season were thrown into sharp relief by this terrible event, and Ulster will attempt to make this season at fitting tribute to Nevin by trying to at least match last year’s efforts.
On paper, their squad is stronger than last year with the additions of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson and the return to fitness of Jared Payne, who only played three games before a knee injury ended his season last October. Payne has already looked like he’s recovered fully with an excellent try-scoring display against Munster.
The younger players in the squad, such as Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy, will improve again this year. Jackson, in particular, looks to have put his miserable Heineken Cup final experience behind him, and is playing with more authority and confidence.
Ulster still have the core of last year’s team intact, with key players like Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Ruan Pienaar all contracted to Ravenhill for at least another two seasons. Of these players, it is Pienaar who holds the key to Ulster’s success this season, with his match-winning display against Munster in Thomond Park highlighting his importance to this side.
New boss Mark Anscombe will be praying that Pienaar returns from the Rugby Championship unscathed and ready to launch himself into another Heineken Cup effort. Anscombe himself comes into his first season already under pressure, as he looks to emulate Brian McLaughlin who had a very successful three years at Ravenhill, culminating in the run to Twickenham in May.
So far, Ulster are unbeaten this season, with a dogged win in Swansea against the Ospreys followed by a superb result against Munster in what was probably the game of the season so far. This year, Ulster appear to have adopted a ‘heads up’ type of rugby, which should suit the likes of Pienaar, Jackson and Marshall, who all like to play on instinct rather than conform to a set of pre-match tactics.
In terms of their group, Ulster has it easier than last year with Northampton Saints, Castres and Glasgow joining them in Pool 4. Ulster will fancy their chances of going through the group stages as the top seed in their pool as Northampton are not the power they once were following the loss of Chris Ashton, Roger Wilson and James Downey.
The 2011 finalists will still provide Ulster’s toughest test, especially at Franklins Gardens. Glasgow and Castres shouldn’t provide too much resistance at Ravenhill, but will undoubtedly be tough opposition on the road. The game in France, in particular, will be a real test. The type of game teams like Munster and Leinster in the past have won on their way to becoming European champions.
By Matthew Morrow
A sort of aura surrounds the Munster rugby wherever they go. Despite not having the same quality as previous teams, they seem capable of still competing at the highest level. After winning the competition for the second time four years ago, they have experienced a barren period by their high standards.
Despite this dip in form, Munster will still be feared by some of the lesser teams and respected by all others. Last year’s campaign saw one of the most impressive displays of mental toughness in the history of the competition after O’Gara nailed an 84th minute drop-goal after 41 phases of play to beat Northampton.
In a similar vein to last season, the men from Thomond Park are certainly going through a period of transition, with older heads such as Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell coming to the conclusion of their careers. O’Gara and O’Connell owe nothing to their province, as they have been their saviours down the years on countless occasions, but will certainly not shy away from giving even more.
This Munster team are yearning for some new heroes to lead them to equal former glories. Players like Keith Earls and Conor Murray must step up to the plate this season if the men in red are to contend past the pool stage this year. With a favourable pool, which includes Edinburgh, Saracens and Racing Metro, they have been afforded a break to get off to a good start and gain momentum.
Saracens probably pose the greatest threat to Munster. Their attrition-style forward play has the potential to be complimented by players like Chris Ashton. Edinburgh are ever improving, but Munster should be too strong for them, at least at home, while Racing Metro are yet to show the slightest interest in actually taking the Heineken Cup seriously.
Although, Munster fans and players alike will know that group stage momentum does not always translate to success in the knockout stages. In fact, no team has ever won every single game in the Heineken Cup, with last season’s Leinster team being the first team to go through the tournament undefeated. One wonders if this Munster squad has the right age profile to play late in to the season.
With the Lions squad making the trip down under next summer, it is also a crucial season for the players who feel they have a chance of gaining a seat on the plane to Australia. For this reason alone, Lions hopefuls such as Murray, Earls, O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan must raise their game.
If Munster makes the quarterfinals, as expected, they will believe they can go the whole way. You can’t help but feel as though belief is never going to be an issue for any Munster side. This year, the question marks remain to whether they have the quality to out-manoeuvre the bigger guns.
With an unsettled side and various untried youngsters, new coach Rob Penney will attempt to recapture the form of previous blue-ribbon Munster teams and reinstate Munster as the team to beat in Europe. At the moment, Munster are not even the team to beat in Ireland.
By Seán O’Neill
The giants of the European game over the last few years have undoubtedly been Leinster. With three wins in four years, Leinster are something of a dynasty at the moment. Leinster, like Munster before them, have established themselves as one of the most prestigious teams, not just in Europe, but in the global game.
The void left by the Southern province over the last four years has been emphatically filled by Joe Schmidt’s Leinster. Various factors have contributed to the rise of Leinster Rugby, such as the IRFU’s emphasis on developing younger players.
This practice is clearly evident with Leinster and we can see the evidence on the pitch with World-Class players such as Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien along with a whole host of youngsters with equal potential such as Ian Madigan, Eoin O’Malley and Kevin McLaughlin.
Many lazy slurs were directed at Leinster in the years prior to their first Heinken Cup win in 2009. These included terms such as ‘bottlers’ and ‘ladyboys’ due to the style and skill they clearly possessed, but lacking substance with it mattered. The Boys in Blue were often in the shadow of their rivals from Munster, but soon lay siege to the notion that they were perennial underachievers.
This shift in mind-set has been crucial. The appointment of astute coaches like Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt only serve to enhance the shrewd nature of the powers that be at the club. The season ahead looks like it could to be another positive one for the men from the RDS.
They’ve been installed as favourites to make it three in a row in Europe, and it seems that anything less than lifting the silverware in the final next May will be deemed a failure. The fact that the final will be held at the Aviva Stadium, making it a home final, only adds to the determination to become the most successful European club team ever.
Leinster are joined in Pool 5 by Llanelli Scarlets, new boys Exeter and, for the fifth and sixth times in four years, Leinster will face Clermont Auvergne. The games against Clermont will be key to Leinster’s pool campaign, and neither game will be easy. Pool 5 should be a straight fight between Leinster and Clermont.
The argument that the team has reached its peak and has seen its best days can be put forward, but the scenario of this team taking a backwards step this season seems improbable. The incentive for perfection will be even higher this season after a one point defeat to The Ospreys in the RaboDirect Final after the Heineken Cup final last May.
Key players such as Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip are in their prime and with the various injuries Brian O’Driscoll has accumulated over his career; this could be his final season. If it is, he has a chance to conclude his career in a way befitting of Ireland’s greatest talent of the modern era: as a champion.
By Seán O’Neill