Saracens looming as main threat
Leinster are worthy favourites to retain their title but English giants are looking ominous
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.
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.
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.