Irish rugby will look to move past their latest World Cup disappointment when the Heineken Champions Cup kicks off this weekend, but the memories of a European horror show four years ago still linger.
As a battered and bruised Ireland team returned from the 2015 World Cup following another quarter-final defeat, the malaise crept back into the provinces as they struggled in Europe. For the first time since 1997/98, no Irish team qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.
Will history repeat itself this time around?
Here, we take a look at how the four Irish provinces are shaping up ahead of the return of the Champions Cup, and whether or not they are better equipped to deal with an Irish Rugby World Cup hangover compared to this time four years ago.
There is often a hint of something about to happen in Connacht. Optimism was high heading into the first inter-provincial derby of the season last week, but Connacht were truly abysmal against Leinster on Friday. Any comments about how their defence held up in the second half don’t hide the fact that they were completely ripped apart in the opening half hour. It goes without saying that they will not survive in Europe unless they tighten up that defence.
Four years ago they were able to deal with the World Cup in a positive way. They only lost two players to the Ireland World Cup squad – the same number as this year – and so while others were dealing with the absence of key men Connacht were able to build some momentum and embark on an impressive winning run that set them up nicely for the second half of the season. They went on to win the Pro12, securing a first trophy in their 131-year history.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 11, 2019
They also won their Challenge Cup pool before a one point defeat to Grenoble in the quarter-finals. This year’s Champions Cup will prove a much sterner challenge, as they return to the competition for the first time since the 2016/17 season. Connacht’s progress regressed under Pat Lam’s successor, Kieran Keane, but Andy Friend has managed to steady the ship since his arrival last year, encouraging the same type of open, attacking game which Lam preached.
There were a number of positives in Friend’s first season in charge, but they need to step things up a level again. With a number of frontline players currently injured – there are questions surrounding Finlay Bealham, Sean O’Brien, Quinn Roux, Gavin Thorbury and Ultan Dillane – qualifying from a pool that includes Gloucester, Montpellier and Toulouse looks an onerous task.
While 2015/16 could have felt like the end of an era for Leinster, it in fact became the start of a new golden period of success. Having contributed a total of 17 players to Ireland’s 2015 World Cup squad, it was perhaps no surprise that they looked sluggish in Europe that year.
It was also Leo Cullen’s first season as Leinster head coach, and the early indications were that he was struggling to get to grips with his new role. Having been forced to wait to work with nearly all of his first choice XV, Leinster only won one game in a pool stage that saw them play Wasps, Toulon and Bath. It is almost hard to imagine now, but that campaign saw Leinster thrashed 33-6 and 51-10 home and away by Wasps. It was clear that something needed to change, or Leinster were in danger of getting left behind.
Stuart Lancaster was brought in as a senior coach the following season, and Cullen began to place more emphasis on bringing through players from the Leinster Academy, while also encouraging a more open, unstructured attacking game. The results have been stunning and saw Leinster return to Europe’s top table as they won a fourth European Cup in 2018, before last season’s final defeat to Saracens. After that game, Cullen conceded that his team simply couldn’t live with Saracens physicality, and that is an issue for which there is no quick fix. We saw the same thing happen to Ireland against England in the Six Nations New Zealand at the World Cup. As good as Leinster are in defence and attack, they don’t have the sheer brute strength of some of the other top European teams.
As always, their biggest attribute remains the number of high quality players they continue to produce. 21-year-old hooker Ronan Kelleher, who scored two tries against Connacht last Friday, has really stood out in the early stages of the Guinness Pro14, and will push for inclusion in the European starting XV.
Even if they choose to ease their internationals back into action, Leinster will qualify from a group that contains Benetton, Lyon and Northampton Saints, and will be there or thereabouts come the business end of the season. A vastly different outfit to the one that crashed and burned four years ago.
Johann van Graan’s side are perhaps facing the most difficult task of all the Irish provinces, having been pitted alongside Ospreys, Racing and Saracens in Pool 4 this year.
Four years ago, they failed to make it beyond a pool stage that saw them play Leicester Tigers, Stade Francais and Benetton Treviso, with the province only winning three games from six. Chief among their problems that year was a lack of cutting edge in attack. Anthony Foley’s team only scored 15 tries in their six pool games, and eight of those came in the two outings against Treviso. Improvements were made under Rassie Erasmus and current coach Johann van Graan, but the attacking side of the game has remained an issue for Munster, particularly in the knock-out stages of the competition.
Former Australia fly-half Stephen Larkham has been brought in as senior coach and has outlines his aim to add more line-breaks to Munster’s game, but the continued absence of Joey Carbery serves as a major blow to their creativity, while a hamstring injury to JJ Hanrahan means they are set to begin their European campaign with only one fit senior out-half, Tyler Bleyendaal.
They are a better team than they were four years ago, even if they have struggled to replace Simon Zebo’s tries, but they need to get off to a strong start if they are to qualify from the ‘Group of Death.’ They also need players like Conor Murray and Keith Earls to rediscover the form that deserted them in Japan.
The province haven’t reached a Champions Cup final since 2008, losing six semi-finals since. It is difficult to see them bettering that this season.
It’s more or less the same old story with Ulster. The promise is there, but the province have failed to live up to the billing far too often.
They actually enjoyed a decent European campaign in 2015/16, and finished second in their pool but failed to qualify for the knock-out stages after suffering home and away defeats to eventual champions Saracens. At the time, there was a sense that Ulster were getting closer to the level they needed to be at. Four years on, not much has changed, which is a problem in itself. At some stage, Ulster need to back up all the talk of progress and take that next step.
Last year they saved their best performances for Europe and pushed Leinster close in a thrilling quarter-final. They need to at least match that this year, but they face a number of challenges to do so.
The absence of Rory Best’s leadership will require others to step up. There is also plenty of promising homegrown talent, not least versatile back Robert Baloucoune, but head coach Dan McFarland will be concerned by the lack of impact his internationals made on their return to action against Munster this weekend. His senior men need to set the platform for the younger players to shine.
Inconsistincy is their biggest enemy, and in a pool that will see them play Clermont, Bath and Harelquins, they can’t afford any slip-ups.
Don’t be surprised if it all comes to nothing, again.
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