It’s Champions Cup Time!

So the Pro12’s first #BIGWEEKEND brought us a set of derbies that seemed to fall into one of two categories: closely fought battle (Connact vs Ulster and Scarlets vs Dragons) or largely one sided (Ospreys vs Blues and Leinster vs Munster). The first #LARGEENDOFTHEWEEK was positioned as the lead-in to the first two rounds of the European Champions Cup, and after watching the two Irish derbies at the weekend I actually thought that all four provinces came away in a – relatively – good place. Let me explain while I preview their first round matches.

Connacht (Pool 2: Toulouse, Wasps, Zebre)

So the Connacht of last season have finally finished their pre-season, just in time to beat the ever-living snot out of Ulster in front of a raucous Sportsground crowd (which included yours truly). I won’t go into the technical details of how they won (I’ll leave that to the excellent Murray Kinsella over at The42.ie), but in general, you could see that Lam’s men  essentially played keep-away on attack, while working extremely hard at the breakdown on defence to win the ball back. As became their hallmark last season, they generally refused to kick the ball unless absolutely necessary, and made Ulster defend for vast portions of the game. Combined with their exceptional handling and support lines, Ulster were by and large chasing shadows for the game.

Coupled with their win over Edinburgh last week, the Westerners now have momentum going into their home clash with Toulouse and will be full of confidence. Coupled with their excellent social media campaign calling back to their huge win over the European Royalty:

The French side have generally been a shadow of their former selves in the last few years, and they have lost Louis Picamoles to Northampton Saints. However, they’re only sitting one win off the pace in the Top 14 and they’ll always have a huge pack to try and shove around.

Connacht added a couple more casualties to their roster in the win over Ulster, but their forte has been to make the best use of their squad and to recruit intelligently, so I think they’ll be able to edge this battle. If they can throw the ball around like they did against Ulster and run Toulouse off the park, they’ll have a great chance.

Ulster (Pool 5: Bordeaux-Bègles, Clermont Auvergne, Exeter Chiefs)

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Yer man seemed to enjoy Europe last season for Wasps, hopefully he does it again for Ulster

Obviously Ulster will be disappointed to have lost the game on Friday, and I would actually say that they were lucky enough to earn the losing bonus point that they managed to grind out when they were able to catch Connacht cold at the beginning of the second half to score a couple of tries to keep in touch.

By and large though, I saw a lot of good things from Ulster, despite the horror-show they had in defence and there should only be a couple of tweaks that need to happen as they travel to Bordeaux.

Firstly, that defence. Joe Bakarat has talked about how Ulster missed 28 tackles, 9 of which were in the first 90 seconds in the lead-up to Cian Kelleher’s first try. Obviously, you can’t do that against any team, especially with the prospect of Ian Madigan running hard and looking for holes in the Ulster defence for Bordeux.

Secondly, on attack, Ulster made some good ground, but then spoiled it by letting ball carriers get isolated and allowing Connacht to get in over the ball for turnovers and penalties. At a professional level that sort of thing is just unacceptable, you can be sure that it’s an area that Les Kiss & company will have been taking a look at this week.

While the loss of Louis Ludik and Darren Cave this week will have been a blow, Ulster will be hopefully be welcoming back some players from injury, including Charles Piutau – who seemed to enjoy himself in Europe last season for Wasps – and Andrew Trimble, who will hopefully be making his seasonal debut. Likewise, Ruan Pienaar will likely be returning to action this week and Ulster have stated that they’re hopeful that Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall will be good to go this weekend as well.

Leinster (Pool 4: Castres, Montpellier, Northampton Saints)

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Leinster will be looking for more happy memories against Castres on Saturday

The boys in blue seemed relatively comfortable against Munster, but weren’t totally convincing either. They had a couple of gilt-edge chances that went wanting, most notably Garry Ringrose’s knock-on with the ball and line at his mercy. However, they got the win against the Auld Enemy, and now sit level with Ulster at the summit of the league.

While last season’s European campaign was nothing short of disastrous, they did recover somewhat to reach the Pro12 final. A lot was made of Leo Cullen’s inexperience in his first season as head coach, and he’s made strides to build his experience and give himself some support with the visit of Graham Henry in preseason and the recruitment of Stuart Lancaster into the backroom staff. Adding to this the quality in the Leinster squad, and the fact that their pool is a lot easier than last season, you’d expect them to go a long way.

Hosting Castres at the RDS on Saturday, Leinster have an interesting challenge first up. While they don’t have any pedigree in Europe, Castres have been known to upset teams in the past, especially in early rounds when they still have something to play for. The last time they visited Dublin in January 2015, they were already well out of the competition and Leinster ripped them to shreds. Considering as well that Castres are sitting down in 11th in the Top 14, while relegation isn’t an immediate danger for them right now, Europe might not be their highest priority, especially in an away game.

Munster (Pool 1: Glasgow, Leicester Tigers, Racing 92)

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Sure he’s coaching against his old side, but doesn’t he wear a suit well as a pundit?

To the Brave and Faithful, anything is possible. Munster fans will be hoping that classic refrain is the case when they travel to the Top 14 champions on Sunday. They took a bit of a beating to Leinster, only managing to score from a maul and a late consolation effort.

A lot of the problems for Rassie Erasmus’ men were self inflicted, especially in the handling and decision-making departments. Three Red Kings and The42.ie both have great articles going into more detail on this, but by and large Munster were the architects of their own downfall.

However, Munster have had a decent season so far, and while they’ll obviously be disappointed to not be going into a trip to face a team coached by one of their former players (you may have heard of him) with the momentum of a win, I don’t think they have any huge changes that need to be made just yet. That doesn’t mean I think they can win against the squad of Galacticos that Racing have assembled – not least reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, World Cup winning former All Black Daniel Carter – it’ll be a huge challenge, one which Erasmus is aware of in being happy to name Munster the bottom team of the group.

However, Munster systematically aren’t in the doldrums, and they’re a good enough side to know how to play smart rugby. Having Peter O’Mahony back with 80 minutes under his belt will be a huge plus, and if they can get their midfield firing more positively than it did against Leinster, they might be able to cause a problem or two. That said, a losing bonus point will be about as much as they could hope for in Paris.

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