Belfast Telegraph

Ulster will lead the charge in defining campaign for Heineken Cup

By Conor George

The demands for a major assault on the Heineken Cup from the Irish clubs have never been more pressing.

The challenge to the future of the competition from the warmongers amongst the top clubs in England and France makes it imperative that Ireland reaffirm their right to be included amongst the best in Europe.

Their record of success established their entitlement to share in a concept to which they committed totally from the beginning. This season, they must illustrate the fact that any competition not involving Irish provinces cannot have international credibility.

If they are to do so, each of the four sides must show the ability to adapt to radically changed circumstances. New coaches in charge of Leinster and Connacht represent a major change at the top, while Ulster and Munster must respond to critical changes in playing personnel.

Connacht and Leinster are the two teams who have undergone the most basic changes in their set-up with new coaches in charge – Pat Lam at Connacht and Matt O'Connor at Leinster.

They, in addition to Rob Penney in Munster and Mark Anscombe in Ulster, will undoubtedly take encouragement from the success of New Zealander Joe Schmidt with Leinster during his three seasons with a return of two Heineken Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and a Pro12 title.

What is more concerning is the challenge that exists to the future of the professional game in this country and in the other Celtic nations and Italy.

The Lions recorded an encouraging series win over Australia in June but, notwithstanding that, the quality of rugby played in the southern hemisphere is routinely adjudged superior to the game in these islands.

That perceived superiority may be exaggerated due to the pre-eminence of New Zealand, but there is no disputing that Ireland and the game in Europe can only be improved by a continuing vibrant Six Nations and, crucially, Heineken Cup.

If the Heineken Cup goes there is a very real possibility, according to the IRFU's Phillip Browne, the international game will eventually go with it.

Mercifully all the rugby unions, with the predictable exception of England's RFU, have in some meaningful way poured cold water on the proposed 'Rugby Champions Cup' as envisaged by the Premiership clubs in England.

There remains, however, concern for the future of the foremost club competition on this side of the world. The apprehension stems from the tug-of-war between the English and French clubs and the unions for control of the major investment in the game from TV companies.

The struggle for control of the purse strings reflects the same battle that is fought on a continuous basis in soccer.

Whatever the outcome of the meetings and on-going mediations, the more immediate challenge for the Irish in this year's competition is qualifying from their pools.

All four teams are in exceedingly tough pools. Leinster have the toughest assignment, which isn't made easier by virtue of having to travel to play Ospreys in their first outing. Following that is the visit of Castres to the RDS.

Both assignments are fraught with danger. Castres are hovering mid-table in the Top 14 but their recent scalping of Racing Metro will surely have infused them with confidence.

Ulster must contend with a Montpellier side who put a whopping 43 points on Clermont last month and also have Leicester Tigers for company in Pool 5.

It is, however, easy to make a case that Ulster will prove the most influential of Ireland's four teams this season, even if it is Leinster who are the Irish bookies' favourites.

First you need only reflect on their experiences of last season. They made the quarter-finals of the competition.

Defeat in the final of the Pro12 last season to Leinster was a huge disappointment, but there were many highlights nonetheless. They topped a highly competitive pool in the Heineken Cup and made a significant breakthrough by winning in France for the first time.

Ulster's form in the early part of this season has not been as impressive as last but they have been operating at less than full strength. When they have their full complement to call on they will be a more formidable side.

The other three teams have all had to prepare by plugging sizeable gaps left by some extraordinarily talented players. Leinster have lost Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa, and Munster their inspirational out-half Ronan O'Gara. Connacht said goodbye to their only Irish international from last season's Six Nations, Mike McCarthy.

The recruitments made by Lam have been impressive but we have yet to see enough evidence that Craig Clarke and Jake Heeven will be able to inspire the team to escape from a group that contains Toulouse and Saracens. All of this supports the view that, if they can find their rhythm, it is Ulster who are likely to set the pace while the others thresh about, absorbing newcomers into their plans while searching for a balanced team.

Belfast Telegraph

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