As reports are released and post mortems continue into Irelands disappointing World Cup campaign, the players are back doing what they love doing, and that’s playing.
In recent weeks the club season has upped the through the gears with the return of the Heineken Champions Cup. Now in it’s 25th year, Europe’s premier rugby club competition has grown in strength year on year, and with it too has Irelands dominance.
As we have now reached the half way point of this year’s Pool stages, I thought we could have a look at how the four Irish sides are shaping up before the second part of the famous December back to back fixtures take place this weekend.
We’ll start in Pool 1 where current Pro 14 Champions Leinster currently hold fort. With four gold stars currently on the famous blue jersey, the boys from South Dublin are again one of the favourites to be contesting this season’s final in Marseille, and after their display in Northampton last Saturday, many believe that Leo Cullen’s could well be the one’s lifting the trophy on May 23rd 2020.
After starting with an expected bonus point win over Benetton in the RDS, they followed this up by grinding out a win away to Lyon. Max Deegan’s first half try helping the light blues to a seven-point win. It was a game that saw the French side dominate possession but Leinster’s defence were more than comfortable with anything thrown at them.
That win set up a big game away to the current league leaders of the English Premiership. Northampton Saints came into the game flying high and, off the back of a big win over Leicester in the East Midlands derby, they really fancied on laying down a marker in the pool and claiming a major scalp. Despite conceding two tries in the opening quarter, the Saints were very still much in the game and held a slender lead as the game approached half time.
Backed by another brilliant display in defence, Leinster showed a real ruthless streak to bag a seven try victory on a 43-16 victory. It was another sign that the D4 outfit are keen to go one step further than last year.
IRISH SPORT TV Prediction: Finalists at least.
Onto Irelands second most successful side and Munster. Their last triumph was back in 2008 but they have been regular semi-finalists. Last season they were well beaten by eventual winners Saracens. Last weekend they avenged that defeat with a 10-3 victory in Thomond Park. Normally this would represent a hugely significant win, but a look at the two team sheets would maybe suggest that this was a missed opportunity to put some delight between the sides as they chase down Racing 92.
Munster will no doubt face a much stronger ‘Wolf Pack’ in London next week, and with a trip to Paris still to come, a win in London next is vital.
IRISH SPORT TV Prediction: With trips to London and Paris to come, it’s an unfamiliar early exit from the competition.
To the West next and Connacht’s return to the Champions Cup. It all started so well as Montpellier became the latest side to leave the Galway Sportsground with their tails between their legs. Spirited displays followed in defeat to Toulouse and Gloucester, but a stretch in playing resources is proving costly, with Kieron Marmion’s absence is really hurting. They do have two home games to play, but with Toulouse taking charge of the Pool 5, qualification is looking very unlikely.
IRISH SPORT TV Prediction: A gallant first round exit.
Up north to the Kingspan Stadium where Ulster are hoping to go one step further than last year. With Marcel Coetzee getting stronger by the game and John Cooney’s form showing no sign of wavering, Dan McFarland’s side have been cruising along nicely in Pool 3. Their January 11th clash away to Clermont looking like a decider to claims top spot in the pool. The only downside to the campaign so far was Clermont picking up a losing bonus point in Belfast. There is also Will Addison’s continued absence but following their last-minute win over Harlequins last Saturday afternoon, the Northern Province may face off against a much-changed Quins next Friday at the Twickenham Stoop. They may also see Ulster record their first bonus point win of this season’s competition.
It’s vital now that Ulster start to pick up some extra points in the closing stages as Clermont will no doubt pick up maximum points when they host Bath. Pool 3 looks like it will provide two sides to the quarter-finals with the winner of the big game on January 11th looking like Pool winners.
IRISH SPORT TV Prediction: A first semi final since 2012 is certainly within their grasp.