How the Irish provinces can progress in the champions cup

How the Irish provinces can progress in the champions cup
Pool 1

Next match – Lyon v Connacht, Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Saturday 1pm

There is a sorry look to the table from a Connacht point of view with just one try bonus point from two games and comfortably at the bottom of the placings. Shipping a large opening score in defeat in France when Union Bordeaux-Begles won 41-5, Connacht couldn’t stem the flow when they met Saracens in round two and finished 55-36 down. This week’s assignment away to second-placed Lyon on Saturday is a tough one for coach Pete Wilkins to somehow turn the pool in Connacht’s favour. The win over Munster on New Year’s Day was a chink of light in terrible conditions but that was offset by the image of Irish winger Mack Hansen requiring oxygen as he left the pitch at the end of the match following a clean out at the breakdown. Centre Cathal Forde and scrumhalf Caolin Blade (HIA) also left the field injured.

Lyon have been struggling in the Top 14 and are third from the bottom of the table having finished third in last year’s competition. They have former Ireland outhalf Paddy Jackson in their ranks after he moved there when London Irish were suspended from the Premiership because of financial difficulties. It depends now on what kind of team the French side put out and whether they take the competition seriously or concentrate resources on climbing up the domestic table. Either way, Connacht will have it tough but a win would breathe some life into this cup campaign.

Pool 2

Next match – Ulster v Stade Toulousain, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday 8pm

European matches don’t come much bigger. The French side are top the table with two wins from their first two games against Cardiff (52-7) and Harlequins (19-47) and lead from Bath on points difference. Ulster are still alive thanks to recovering from a 37-14 defeat by Bath to win 31-15 against Racing 92 in mid-December. There is little doubt the recent win over Leinster in the RDS will give Ulster the kind of boost they need. Beating one European giant away and facing another at home with a week’s break from rugby in between cannot but be the best preparation Ulster could have asked for. Billy Burns’ form at outhalf that unlocked the Leinster defence and Nick Timoney’s loose field play won the day in Dublin and gave coach Dan McFarland reason to believe in his team, especially as Ulster eked out the win on slim possession.

Neutral fans at least will hope former World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont will lead Toulouse. Dupont will aim for Sevens in this year’s Olympic Games but the French scrumhalf got France’s World Cup disappointment out of the system, when he spearheaded a ruthless Toulouse performance in their game against Harlequins, suggesting the five-time winners are strong contenders for a sixth Champions Cup title. Toulouse also fancy making it three from three against third-placed Ulster, having won their last two fixtures in Belfast, the scorelines 29-22 in 2020 and 30-23 in 2022.

Pool 3

Next match – Toulon v Munster, Stade Felix Mayol, Saturday 3.15pm

Munster are better off than Connacht in Pool 1, but need something fast to stiffen their challenge to be among the 16 teams that qualify for the next phase. At the onset finishing among the top four of six teams in the pool to qualify didn’t seem so onerous. Indeed, Toulon may also have thought that but find themselves at the bottom of the heap, a point behind fifth-placed Munster with Bayonne on the same points (3) and Glasgow Warriors just one ahead on four. Two points separating the bottom four clubs makes for quite the dogfight this weekend. Whoever loses this one will be staring down the barrel of a shock exit.

Munster’s injuries have been well aired and they have had to dig deep, which has exposed them somewhat and they have suffered for that. Another injury to prop Oli Jager, when he was floored by a double tackle from Connacht forwards Joe Joyce and Finlay Bealham, and the injury suffered by Jack O’Donoghue, who was the victim of an illegal cleanout, makes for a troubling voyage to France for a threadbare Munster squad. “Two injuries we didn’t need,” said Graham Rowntree last week.

Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs lead the pool with nine points each with this one a winner takes all kind of game on the Cote d’Azur. The sides have faced each other four times in EPCR’s top tournament and both have two home wins apiece.

Pool 4

Next match – Leinster v Stade Francais, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 5.30pm

Leinster will tool up with their strongest team against a Stade Francais side that may not have their hearts in it. Just one losing bonus point from their opening two defeats in the Champions Cup suggests the French side’s focus might be elsewhere – they are fifth in the Top 14 league table. Leinster, however, may take caution from Bayonne turning up at Thomond Park last month with big names missing before celebrating holding the hosts to a draw.

As Josh van der Flier said recently, Leinster are adapting to Jacques Nienaber’s makeover on how they play and in one aspect of their game are a work in progress. Still, opening wins against last year’s champions La Rochelle and Sale Sharks should put wind in Leinster sails in front of an expected close to full house in Dublin. Fortune may also come in many guises and the recent defeat to Ulster in the United Rugby Championship at the RDS may have been a welcome reminder for Leinster to look after business.

Stade come with a reputation and this season have had some results domestically. They have been able to do it by going back to basics and will arrive in Ireland with a stripped down gameplan. Leinster’s player pool, general form and energy for this competition will have them as favourites. They will be looking for three wins, which would set them up nicely for qualification into the next phase.

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