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Irish provinces face tricky paths to glory as European competitions return

Securing home advantage could pay off for Leinster, while Munster, Ulster and Connacht all face daunting away assignments

They’re back, after their customary Six Nations interruption, and with a vengeance too. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup pool stages, which finished in January more than 10 weeks ago, were a relative improvement on the previous post-pandemic years, but the upcoming two knock-out rounds represent a sudden shift in tempo. This will be a season-defining week or two for many teams.

Four pools of six were certainly more spectator friendly than two pools of 12. That said, 48 matches to eliminate just eight teams took away much of the jeopardy, drama and excitement of yore, when only the pool winners and best runners-up advanced to the knock-out stages.

Nonetheless, the jostling for position among the qualifiers for next weekend’s Round of 16 matches, which roll into the quarter-finals a week later, is again likely to prove very significant. Recall that last season each of the 14 knock-out ties in the Round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals were won by the home sides, which makes La Rochelle’s comeback win in the final over Leinster all the more commendable. It’s only one year, but pretty much every point in the pool stages counted, as it invariably does.

Leinster and La Rochelle got that last season, securing the top two seedings and thus ensuring they would have home ties all the way through to the final. That now applies to the five-time winners Toulouse and four-time winners Leinster this season.

Toulouse started off like an express train and had their first bonus point by the 38th minute of their opening 52-7 win over Cardiff. Thumping victories away to Harlequins and Ulster were backed up by a 31-19 win over Bath that ensured a maximum 20-point haul and a number one seeding.

In ensuing home ties potentially all the way through to the final, Toulouse have also avoided the possibility of a fourth semi-final against Leinster at the Aviva in six seasons. Instead, Leinster and Toulouse are seeded to meet for the first time ever in a final.

Leinster began with that statement 16-9 win away to La Rochelle, followed by victories over Sale, Stade Français and Leicester, when, almost by force of will, Caelan Doris’s 85th-minute try in Welford Road ensured a third successive bonus point and a number two seeding.

The net effect is that Toulouse host Racing next Sunday with the carrot of a home quarter-final a week later against the winners of the Exeter-Bath tie. Leinster, for their part, host Leicester again at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday night, having also beaten the Tigers at the quarter-final stage in the last two seasons.

The 17,000-plus turnout last Friday at the RDS and the sheer vibrancy of Leinster’s 47-14 win over the Bulls amounted to a fine advertisement for the URC. The Bulls arrived with the intent of bullying Leinster, but the home side didn’t yield an inch before their overall quality and bench impact told.

It also showed that within the Leinster environment a change can evidently be as good as a rest, and what a masterful juggler of resources Leo Cullen remains.

Admittedly Leinster’s casualty list is mounting, and the midfield cupboard is looking a little bare, although Jamie Osborne and Liam Turner had fine games against the Bulls. That there are still only 30,000 or so tickets sold for next Saturday’s game has to be put in the context of the Easter holidays and surfeit of rugby lately.

A major flaw of the quarter-finals being foisted on the competition within a week by the Top 14 and Premiership club bosses is that those marquee ties have so little scope for marketing and promoting. However, were Leinster to advance they would host the winners of the Stormers-La Rochelle tie in Cape Town next Saturday afternoon and if the upshot were another grudge rematch with Ronan O’Gara’s back-to-back champions, such a box office quarter-final would not be a hard sell.

La Rochelle are having a so-so season, sitting fifth in the Top 14 with 10 wins and 10 defeats, and with just one away win, but all their victories have all come with bonus points. They’re a big-game team and were a little unlucky to lose their pool match in Cape Town by 21-20. It should be a cracking tie, as should Bordeaux-Bègles (whose French players are also looking rejuvenated) at home to Saracens.

Were Leinster to reach the semi-finals, they would entertain one of Northampton, Munster, Bulls or Lyon at Croke Park, but Munster have given themselves an altogether tougher route to a Cork re-enactment of the 2009 semi-final at GAA headquarters.

This is the consequence of drawing at home to Bayonne and losing at home to Northampton. On Sunday, Munster meet Northampton again, but in Franklin’s Gardens, and as well as winning their Champions Cup pool, the Saints top the Premiership. They have won 14 of their last 16 matches, including eight in a row at home.

You wouldn’t rule out a Munster win on Sunday but even if they do prevail, their reward would probably be an exacting trek to the high veld to face the Bulls, presuming the South Africans overcome Lyon at Loftus Versfeld next Saturday.

Similarly tough away routes lurk for the even more maddeningly inconsistent Ulster and Connacht on foot of their demotion to the Challenge Cup Round of 16. Each side had one outstanding home win in the pool stages, but have so far lost more matches than they’ve won this season.

If Ulster beat Montpellier away on Sunday, they’d most likely face a quarter-final in Clermont a week later. If Connacht win in Pau on Sunday, they’d probably be away to Benetton again.

After winning their opening game of the season, Montpellier had a disastrous run of eight defeats in a row and although they had a revival under Bernard Laporte and Patrice Colazzo when then winning seven out of next nine, in the last two weeks they’ve lost 54-7 in Toulon and 12-10 at home to Stade Français.

They sit 13th domestically, whereas Pau lie one place and three points outside the top six, and have won 10 out of 12 at their Stade du Hameau this season. And as we know, the French clubs don’t like losing at home.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com

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