A new frontier looms on the European club rugby horizon this weekend as the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup return following the Six Nations hiatus.
After a group stage that was quite different to what we had become used to, the last 16 also sees a change in format as the eight ties in the Champions Cup will be played over two legs.
Home advantage tends to play a big role in rugby – especially where the French teams are concerned – and so this new dimension will be interesting to witness. The final whistles in the games this weekend will really only signal half-time in each tie and so strategies and approaches will change accordingly.
From an Irish point of view, the meeting of Connacht and Leinster at the Sportsground on Friday night should get the weekend off to a fine start, especially if the home side can ask enough questions of their vaunted visitors to keep the contest alive heading back to Aviva Stadium seven days later for what could be a very Good Friday.
Leinster showed that they are in strong form with the way they swatted Munster aside at Thomond Park in the United Rugby Championship last Saturday. A 15-point win in Limerick is always welcome but it was the way they absorbed anything that the home side had to throw at them before moving through the gears to run in four tries. Being able to bring on Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong as replacements early in the second half displayed just how deep their squad is and they will obviously go to Galway as favourites this week.
And yet, while Connacht might not match up to Leinster in terms of personnel options, they are never cowed when playing the men in blue and can be relied upon to have a go. That commitment to attacking rugby can backfire sometimes and the two-legged nature of the tie might see it tempered somewhat, which adds to the intrigue.
That the second leg is in the Aviva rather than the RDS is also likely to be as much of an inspiration to Connacht as it is to Leinster. While a foreign side might be exposed to more of a fear factor coming to Lansdowne Road, the short distance for the travelling support and the chance to cause an upset will be a driving force for Andy Friend’s men.
The inter-provincial clash means that there is a guarantee of one Irish side in the quarter-finals and we can’t say with any degree of certainty that there will be two or three present, especially as Munster and Ulster are facing the last two champions.
Coming off the back of the loss at home to Leinster, Munster certainly won’t be relishing a trip to face Exeter Chiefs on Saturday evening. While it was “only” the URC, any defeat at Thomond stings, with Leinster probably the side they would least like to experience that against. While there were brief signs of hope in the first half, Munster couldn’t match Leinster when they upped the ante and it would take a huge improvement to go from that to a position where they could topple the 2019-20 champions.
And yet, we have seen stranger things when it comes to Munster. They don’t have to win on Saturday, but once they are not beaten out of sight then the following week back in Thomond should have the potential to be something positive.
Similarly, Ulster might be going to Toulouse to lose (see what I did there?!) but it need not be fatal ahead of the return encounter in Ravenhill on Easter Saturday night.
The key thing for all of the underdogs is to keep things tight and steady, making sure that whatever chance they have is not lost prematurely.
It’s not so long ago that the end of the Allianz Football and Hurling Leagues was followed by a pause in inter-county action as a round or two of club championships were played off before counties reconvened.
Then, a routine win for a Connacht county in New York would signal the start of the championship and the provinces would meander through to the start of August, when the real stuff would properly begin.
All has changed on that front and Kerry and Waterford and the rest of the winners of the leagues scarcely had time to celebrate as Easter Sunday and the commencement of serious action looms rather close on the horizon.
The league has always held something of a dichotomy in that the counties that have done well are not hugely feted for that but those who finished poorly have more than a few question-marks about them ahead of championship.
If Waterford don’t follow their impressive win over Cork last Saturday with victory against Tipperary in Walsh Park on Sunday week, then the league won’t necessarily have counted for nothing but it will have lost some lustre. Equally, Cork’s poor display will be forgotten if they can conjure victory against All-Ireland champions Limerick but that’s no easy feat.
Football league champions Kerry have some bit of uncertainty in that the venue for their Munster semi-final against Cork is not fully decided – there is a small chance that it might not even go ahead. Whatever happens, there is a huge likelihood that the Kingdom will be in the Munster final but an expected victory there will be like the league – a nice trophy to have but only if Sam Maguire is following down the line.
The more cohesive schedule should mean that league form aligns more closely with championship outcomes – at the very least, it means that the managers with work to do have to try to cram a lot of improvement into a short space of time.