Champions Cup Preview – Irish Provinces
Europe is back.
Champions Cup rugby returns this weekend with three of the Irish provinces in action. Munster and Leinster both made the semi-final stage last season, while Ulster were unable to get out of their group.
No doubt all three will be wanting to improve on that this season, especially Kiss’ Ulster. Whether they can or not remains to be seen, but it’s vital they all get off to a winning start in round one.
Ulster vs. Wasps, 13/10/17 Kingspan Stadium 19.45pm
This year’s Champions Cup kicks off in Belfast on Friday night when an in form Ulster side will welcome English Premiership side Wasps to the Kingspan Stadium. Wasps who have been absolutely ravaged by injury, will play just 5 days after their defeat to Saracens, their fourth defeat in a row. Although they are welcoming back Nathan Hughes and fly-half Jimmy Gopperth, there is still an unsettled feel about their squad and their preparation to date has been far from ideal. Ulster who are flying high and who appear relatively unscathed from their opening league fixtures, will be in buoyant mood and expectant of victory this weekend. Ulster’s most recent history in the Champions Cup is not memorable and this competition always appears to be a step too far for the Northern Province. It’s too early to judge whether or not they’ve improved considerably this year but it must be noted that the introduction of Christian Lealifano for Paddy Jackson has not helped their case. In their favour this year is the makeup of their pool where Harlequins along with La Rochelle accompany Wasps as the opposition, making Ulster early but only slight favourites to top their group. Hosting an injury hit Wasps on Friday night is their first real opportunity to live up to that favourites tag and if they are to progress to the knockout stages.
Verdict: Ulster win
Leinster v. Montpellier, 14/10/17 RDS Arena 13.00
An extremely difficult opener for Leinster this weekend, not helped by the absence of Sean O’Brien from the backrow. Montpellier, who are currently second in the Top 14, have assembled a squad of the highest quality and will have set their sights firmly on Domestic and European glory. Ruan Pienaar, Joseph Tomane, Francois Steyn, Jesse Mogg and Aaron Cruden are amongst the star studded list of options available to head coach Vern Cotter. That list of players grows larger and the wealth is evident, as Leo Cullen has already highlighted this week. Looking at the star line-up which Montpellier can put forward, you have to appreciate the quality of Leinster’s opposition on Saturday. What they may lack though is that steeliness and never-say-die attitude which every Irish team manages to exude. This is the ultimate test for Leinster’s young guns. Although it will be tight and Montpellier will have designs on a win, I expect Leinster to have enough in the tank for the win.
Castres Olympique v. Munster, 15/10/17 Stade Pierre Fabre 14.00
Munster travel to the South of France to take on Castres on Sunday. Having played 7 rounds of the Top 14 to date, Castres have only managed two wins. Most noteworthy of those was their win at home to Clermont Auvergne. The form chart would appear to indicate that they don’t travel well and given their poor start to the league campaign, they will see this fixture as a must-win if they are to remain competitive in Europe this year. Munster are a team steeped in history when it comes to the European cup and their ability to elevate their performance levels for European games is well known. At the forefront of their minds will be the question posed by Reggie Corrigan to Peter O’Mahoney last week and what you’d expect is a very typical Munster reply to that. Ahead of the anniversary of their beloved Axel’s passing also, expect nothing less than an emotionally charged Munster getting a victory on the road this weekend.
Verdict: Munster & an on-fire Keith Earls to cross the whitewash at any given moment.