The European club championships have now closed down until the new year. Rounds 3 & 4, played over the weekends of 9th and the 16th December, saw all 4 Irish provinces win for the 2nd weekend in a row.
Leinster, Munster and Ulster (listed in alphabetical order) are all now well placed in their groups to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup, with Connacht likewise well placed in the Challenge Cup.
Since the European Cup started in 1995, Ulster once, Munster twice and Leinster three times have all won Europe’s premier club competition, a statistic which even allowing for the smaller number of countries who play rugby is a remarkable success story – and especially so when compared to both Scotland and Wales whose clubs have won precisely zero.
When the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions Cup in 2014(formerly the Heineken Cup), it was not widely welcomed in Ireland as it was generally believed that the privately funded English and French clubs would prosper at the expense of the Irish provinces because of the revised format.
And with no Irish win since 2012, it has seemed like that: but this year it may just be different.
Leinster at 3/1 are now favourites to win the Champions Cup, in part because the current champions Saracens (minus a few key players) have gone off the boil and the form of the French clubs remains in line with the favoured cliché for their national team – unpredictable.
Unfortunately for Ulster, they share the same group as La Rochelle the latest French heavyweights to join the race for the cup and whose attacking play has lit up the competition. With previous winners Wasps also in the group, Ulster (at 40/1) may have to settle for 2nd place in their group and miss out on a home Quarter Final.
Munster at 8/1, appear to have rediscovered their traditional forward game and mixed it with a wide game which makes them a good outside bet to go all the way.
What is perhaps most heartening about Irish provincial rugby is their ability to mix excellent imports (like the recently departed Ruan Pienaar) with outstanding local talent.
Arguably the pick of the home Irish crop is Jacob Stockdale, whose early season form for Ulster saw him brought into the Irish team with tries against South Africa and Argentina.
He looks a certain starter for Ireland in the 6 Nations which begins in February and is sandwiched between the final group stages of Champions & Challenge Cups in January and the knock out stages in April.
Over the Christmas and New year the provinces resume local hostilities with Ulster playing Connacht and Munster and Leinster playing Munster and Connacht – with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all in contention for a playoff place in the Pro 14 (up from 12 teams last year as the PRO 12,with the inclusion of 2 South African teams).
The Champions & Challenge Cup finals will be held in Bilbao in May and when European competition resumes in January for the final rounds of the group stages, there will hopefully be no additional injuries to be factored in – as all 4 Irish teams fight to get to Spain when they return from PRO 14 action.
With the Irish National team ranked 4rd in the world and having recently beaten the three teams above them – and with the vast majority of Irish players plying their trade on home (provincial) turf, there is every reason to be optimistic about Europe – at least in rugby.
Prediction: Champions Cup: Leinster Winners; Munster Semi Final; Ulster Quarter Final.
Challenge Cup: Connacht, Final.