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Irish Euro vision of last eight are shining brighter

By Jonathan Bradley

It was the transfer story that caused raised eyebrows throughout the rugby world this week - was Eben Etzebeth really going to sign for Saracens? Playing with an efficiency that would make the West German football teams of the early 1970s nod in appreciation, the Londoners won the double last season with a formidable lock pairing of Maro Itoje and George Kruis but found a hole in their squad thanks to the recent retirement of Alistair Hargreaves.

The answer, initially at least, was to pursue a former World Player of the Year nominee and one of the best young locks in the world. If ever an example was needed of the rich getting richer when it comes to the Champions Cup.

To say Sarries' overflowing trophy cabinet is the product solely of their spending power would be grossly unfair, of course, but it is no doubt a part of why Bangor's Mark McCall is the man hailing from the four provinces most likely to end the season with European glory.

The understated former Ulster coach has done an incredible job in charge of the Barnet outfit, as his former employers have seen four times in the last four seasons, but his side are at the forefront of what is fast becoming a French and English duopoly of the northern hemisphere's top competition.

Such a situation is naturally bad for business, in a competition that has also been criticised for its schedule and TV deals, but it is up to the provinces to redress the balance.

Ulster came closest to maintaining the Irish charge beyond the winter last season and indeed could have overcome two defeats to Saracens had they managed one more try away in Oyonnax.

Having already captured Charles Piutau for this season, Bryn Cunningham pulled another proverbial rabbit from the hat with his pick-up of Springbok Marcell Coetzee and, while a real shame that neither is fit this weekend, it is a squad that looks much improved.

Injuries have already taken their toll in the back-line but, if Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar stay fit, there is enough fire-power to emerge from a challenging pool.

Leinster are still the favourites to be playing in continental competition come April with Montpellier seemingly the biggest hurdle they will have to overcome.

The derby win over Munster in the Aviva a week ago was an indicator of how they have rounded into form in recent weeks with Johnny Sexton looking as comfortable as he has done since leaving for his Paris sojourn.

Inside him, the addition of Robbie Henshaw, and his new midfield partnership with Garry Ringrose, augurs well for both present and future.

While Montpellier are second in the Top 14, a full-strength Leinster would back themselves to win the arm wrestle with Jake White's men and neither Castres nor Northampton seem in the form to offer insurmountable resistance.

Munster, who have shown flickering signs of resurgence this season, will be sobered by the fairly routine nature of the Leinster loss, a result that was as much down to the visitors' errors than anything inflicted by the victors.

That they are paying the price for last season's under-performance with the most testing of draws - Racing, Glasgow and Leicester - will also likely see focus switch back to the PRO12 sooner rather than later.

Indeed, during these heady days in Galway, the chances are greater of Connacht making the last eight.

Having rediscovered their form with wins over Edinburgh and latterly Ulster, the presence of Zebre in their pool offers the tantalising possibility of 10 expected points.

While the Italians were an abandonment - caused by a rare Parma deluge - away from victory over Pat Lam's men in the PRO12 this season, anyone in the Sportsground last week can attest to the fact that Connacht are not the same team from a month ago.

As Ulster showed last season, Toulouse - the four-time champions and so often viewed as the aristocrats of European rugby - are a poor imitation of their former selves and, behind Wasps, a best runners-up spot is eminently possible.

As such, however, today's visit from the men led by French legend Thierry Dusautoir takes on the weight of a must-win.

Either way, a complete Celtic absence from the sharp end of the competition seems less likely than a year ago.

Competition bosses will surely be hoping that proves to be the case.

European Cup finals

1995-96: Toulouse 21 Cardiff 18 (aet)

1996-97: Brive 28 Leicester 9

1997-98: Bath 19 Brive 18

1998-99: Ulster 21 Colomiers 6

1999-2000: Northampton 9 Munster 8

2000-01: Leicester 34 Stade Francais 30

2001-02: Leicester 15 Munster9

2002-03: Toulouse 22 Perpignan 17

2003-04: Wasps 27 Toulouse 20

2004-05:Toulouse 18 Stade Francais 12

2005-06: Munster 23 Biarritz 19

2006-07: Wasps 25 Leicester 9

2007-08: Munster 16Toulouse 13

2008-09: Leinster 19 Leicester 16

2009-10:Toulouse 21 Biarritz 19

2010-11: Leinster 33 Northampton Saints 22

2011-12: Leinster 42 Ulster 14

2012-13: Toulon 16 Clermont 16

2013-14: Toulon 23 Saracens 6

2014-15: Toulon 24 Clermont 18

2015-16: Saracens 21 Racing 92 9

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