Sara­cens loom­ing as main threat

Le­in­ster are wor­thy favourites to re­tain their ti­tle but English gi­ants are look­ing omi­nous

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY CHAMPIONS CUP - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

To re­peat, or not to re­peat, that is the huge chal­lenge fac­ing Le­in­ster as they seek to add to that hard-earned fourth star above their crests and so be­come the first five-time win­ners of the Heineken Cham­pi­ons Cup. His­tory has shown us that more of­ten than not cham­pi­ons do not re­tain the tro­phy. In­deed, un­til Le­in­ster them­selves in the 2011-12 sea­son, in the first 15 years of the Heineken Cup only Le­ices­ter man­aged the feat in 2000-01 and 2001-02.

How­ever, af­ter six dif­fer­ent one-off win­ners in the first six years, a trend then started to emerge. Fol­low­ing Le­ices­ter, Toulouse won two in three years and but for Cle­ment Poitre­naud’s mem­o­rable brain freeze for Rob How­ley’s match-win­ning try in the 2004 fi­nal at Twick­en­ham, Guy Noves’ vin­tage group might have had a hat-trick.

Around this time a vin­tage Wasps were win­ning two in four years and who knows but con­ceiv­ably Mun­ster could have won three in a row in­stead of two in three years had they not fallen short in the 2007 quar­ter-fi­nals away to the Scar­lets. They were then on course to re­tain the tro­phy un­til am­bushed by Le­in­ster in the 2009 semi-fi­nals.

Le­in­ster would go on to win three Heineken Cups in four years, only com­ing up short in the 2010 semi-fi­nals when the luck of the draw pit­ted them away to Toulouse and they were with­out Johnny Sex­ton, but for which they might con­ceiv­ably have won four in a row.

Then Toulon did emerge to win three in a row, be­fore Sara­cens won back-to-back tro­phies. The last cup win­ners not to win at least two in a row were Toulouse in 2010.

So, in other words, we have en­tered a pe­riod of true hege­monies, whether by a soli­tary club or an elite few.

Maybe there­fore, with the proven older guard of Sex­ton, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien and Rob Kear­ney sup­ple­mented by mid-twen­tysome­thing high achiev­ers like Jack McGrath, Tadhg Fur­long, Rob­bie Hen­shaw and Garry Rin­grose, along with a bril­liant new crop headed by James Ryan and Jor­dan Lar­mour, Le­in­ster have the to blend to em­u­late the class of 2011 and 2012.

If not, then at the very least they have the mix to dine at the top table of Euro­pean rugby for the next while, and if they don’t re­tain their ti­tle, then his­tory shows us that their big­gest threat may come from their pre­de­ces­sors as cham­pi­ons.

And noth­ing about Sara­cens’ free-scor­ing start to their lat­est cam­paign un­der Mark McCall re­motely sug­gests Maro Itoje, Owen Far­rell and the Sar­ries’ other main men in their peak are re­motely sated, while Alex Goode and Liam Williams are fly­ing. In five bonus-point wins this sea­son they’ve scored 28 tries.

Rugby aris­toc­racy

So it is that Le­in­ster are 15/8 favourites, with Sara­cens sec­ond favourites at 3/1. By con­trast, for­mer Euro­pean pow­ers such as four-time win­ners Toulouse and two-time cham­pi­ons Le­ices­ter can be backed at 50/1.

As ever, there’s a de­gree of fa­mil­iar­ity given such a repet­i­tive cast list. Save for Toulouse in­stead of Toulon, Le­in­ster have an ex­act re­peat of their group from three sea­sons ago, with the Premier­ship pair of Wasps and Bath again in op­po­si­tion. Given the progress to dou­ble semi-fi­nal­ists and then dou­ble win­ners in the two years since, it’s hard to credit that Le­in­ster won only one of their six pool games that sea­son.

With 11 Heineken Cups be­tween these four pre­vi­ous cham­pi­ons, Pool A is akin to Euro­pean rugby aris­toc­racy, and the key for Le­in­ster may way well be those piv­otal back-to-back clashes with the equally gilded Toulouse in De­cem­ber.

That’s of­ten the way. Hav­ing the bet­ter of the head-to-head duel with Cler­mont in De­cem­ber 2010 was crit­i­cal to Le­in­ster top­ping their pool en route to win­ning the cup, but like­wise it was the back to back de­feats in De­cem­ber 2012 to Cler­mont which ef­fec­tively ended their three-in-a-row am­bi­tions at the group stages. And last sea­son’s dou­ble over Ex­eter shaped their cam­paign.

Fit­tingly, Le­in­ster kick off the com­pe­ti­tion against Wasps next Fri­day night, and if Sara­cens, along with Ex­eter, are a sig­nif­i­cant cut above the rest in the English Premier­ship, Wasps do look best of the rest.

A word of cau­tion too. Le­in­ster have won 26 of 29 Euro­pean matches at the RDS, but the three ex­cep­tions were all on the open­ing week­end and all against English op­po­si­tion; Bath in 2005 by 22-19 (in the first Euro­pean game at the RDS), Lon­don Ir­ish in 2010 by 12-9 (when Le­in­ster were the reign­ing cham­pi­ons) and Wasps them­selves by a thump­ing 33-6 three sea­sons ago.

Mun­ster will also be re­new­ing the most re­peated ri­valry in the his­tory of the com­pe­ti­tion with French cham­pi­ons Cas­tres, whom they have en­coun­tered a dozen times in the tour­na­ment’s 23-year his­tory. They lead the head-to-head 9-3.

The more likely threat to Mun­ster’s hopes of pro­gress­ing will surely come from Ex­eter Chiefs. Rob Bax­ter’s well-oiled ma­chine have hit the ground run­ning with five high-scor­ing wins and four bonus points.

Sam Sim­monds’ cru­elly timed ACL in­jury is li­able to side­line him for the sea­son, but the Chiefs re­main suf­fo­cat­ingly good in the op­po­si­tion 22, whether with their un­re­lent­ing mauls or mul­ti­ple phases of close-in driv­ing. They took down Mont­pel­lier home and away last sea­son ei­ther side of suf­fer­ing that fate against Le­in­ster, and must surely be eye­ing up Europe this sea­son.

Plas­tic sur­faces

Mun­ster’s opener is a first-ever meet­ing with Ex­eter and at the Chiefs’ Sandy Park fortress, which of course, could mean it could come down to a tra­di­tional An­glo-Ir­ish show­down in Thomond Park in the en­velop­ing teatime gloom on the fi­nal Sat­ur­day against Ex­eter in Lim­er­ick.

That will be 15 years and a day since the so-called Mir­a­cle Match, when Mun­ster beat Gloucester 33-6, and ex­actly by the req­ui­site four tries and 27 points, to ad­vance to the quar­ter-fi­nals; mem­o­ries which are likely to be re­vived by their round two meet­ing at Thomond Park this day fort­night.

The only new­com­ers in the com­pe­ti­tion are Lyon, who are un­likely to freshen up mat­ters the way La Rochelle did in the pool stages last sea­son be­fore fad­ing away, not least as Lyon’s draw has pit­ted them against three teams all of whom play on plas­tic sur­faces.

In con­trast to the An­glo threat led by Sara­cens, Ex­eter and per­haps Wasps, France’s best team so far this sea­son – and quite con­ceiv­ably for the rest of it – are Cler­mont, who are miss­ing from this sea­son’s Euro­pean A-list cast for the first time since 2006-07. Quelle do­mage.

Nonethe­less, they have a strong hand in Mont­pel­lier, Toulon and Rac­ing 92, who are in Ul­ster’s pool with Scar­lets and Le­ices­ter. Re­freshed and re­build­ing, Ul­ster’s most winnable game in a tough group and there­fore a must-win game is their first one at home to Le­ices­ter next Sat­ur­day.

In round two, Ul­ster head to Rac­ing’s state-of-the-art, cin­e­matic, syn­thetic, in­door La Défense Arena, where the motto is at­tack, at­tack, at­tack. To that end, Finn Rus­sell and a trimmed down Si­mon Zebo have been given li­cence to thrill, and the duo are al­ready strik­ing up quite a 10/15 un­der­stand­ing.

Rus­sell has plenty of de­trac­tors (as, no doubt, does Zebo) who main­tain that the free-run­ning, creative out­half is too high-risk, and not enough of a game man­ager, to help de­liver sil­ver­ware. But few teams come back as hun­gry or as mo­ti­vated as the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s beaten fi­nal­ists, and that was Rac­ing’s sec­ond los­ing fi­nal in three years.

Rac­ing also have an ex­pen­sively as­sem­bled ar­se­nal of weapons up front and through­out their team, with cen­tre Vir­imi Vakatawa on fire. At 14/1, they seem the most gen­er­ously priced club.

Ex­eter, Mont­pel­lier, Toulon and, yes, Mun­ster are oth­ers in the mix. Pedi­gree counts in this com­pe­ti­tion. Teams have to earn their crests. And through­out its var­i­ous guises, the best team in the com­pe­ti­tion has a cu­ri­ous habit of win­ning the Heineken Cup, which is not al­ways the case in the mod­ern-day, play-off for­mat.

So it is that Le­in­ster are wor­thy favourites to re­peat their suc­cess, al­beit Sara­cens loom as the most omi­nous threat.

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