Leinster will face Northampton Saints, Lyon and Benetton Treviso in the pool stages of the 2019/2020 European Rugby Champions Cup.
Let’s take a look at the implications for what appears to be one of the softest pools that the province has faced for several years.
Both the Saints and Treviso are fairly familiar to us, having had the former in the pool stages several times and the meeting the latter regularly in the domestic league.
Lyon are a slightly unknown to us. We played in the city, better known for its soccer team, in the semi-final a few years ago against Clermont Auvergne. It was a lovely city to visit.
They were demoted from the Top 14 in 2015 but spent only a single season regaining promotion to the top tier. They narrowly the play-offs last season but secured third this year, with Clermont knocking them out 33-13 in the semi-final.
Their European form is not well established, losing all six pool games in this season. It was admittedly a tough group, featuring the champions Saracens, Glasgow and Cardiff. They also finished bottom of their Challenge Cup in the previous year. Leinster should not have anything to fear in these fixtures.
Northampton Saints are not the team that gave us a tough game in the final of the 2011 year. We recovered from sixteen points down at half time to win the game. Two tries from Johnny Sexton early in the second half began the comeback.
The trip to Northampton in the pool stages of the 2013-2014 season was a brilliant display of rugby by Leinster. Brian O’Driscoll’s pass between his legs to let Luke Fitzgerald score in the corner, the pick of the tries.
The Saints turned the result around in the home leg a week later, however, forcing a mistake from Jamie Heaslip while defending their own try line, turning over the ball and racing to score beneath the posts. It was the last play of the game and what should have been a Leinster score to secure the win turned into a loss without even a bonus point; 9-18 to Northampton.
We had them in the again pool stages again during 2016-2017 season. They finished bottom of the pool that season.
The Saints may not be the same team that they were ten years ago, shorn of some of the superstars that were lured away by big pay checks, but they are still founded on a solid basis and will be the toughest place to visit, I think, in the pool stages.
Treviso are Treviso. They have had a decent 2018/2019 domestic season but continue to struggle in Europe. In their last visit to the RDS they earned a 27-27 draw against a much weakened Leinster side. You would imagine that such a result is not possible with a full strength selection for a European weekend.
The trip to Treviso has proved difficult for some teams. Most notable were Biarritz failing back when they were at their strongest. Leinster have struggled there on occasion, but Leo and co. must be targeting a full ten points from the two games.
That leaves Lyon as a bit of an unknown entity. Is their strong finish to the domestic league a sign of an improvement? Winning away in France is never easy, so this game should be treated with care. A lot depends on what round we have to go to France to play them in.
If it’s late in the pool stages and they have lost a game or two, then we should expect victory. If they are still in the running, or if it’s still rounds one or two, then it might be more difficult.
Expect a cagier game plan either way from Leinster when playing away from home. They will make sure of the win before going after the bonus point victories, at least when playing on the road.
This draw gives Leinster a clear and achievable chance to top the seeding at the pool stages, giving what can be called decisive home advantage in the knock-out stages.
Munster have a tougher route, facing both Saracens and Racing 92, champions this year and finalists last year respectively. The Ospreys finish out the group, a banana skin waiting to happen.
With the seeding based on the finishing position in domestic leagues, this sort of tight, killer group is always a possibility. Leinster had a tough one last year and did just enough to come out on top.
If Munster can win all three of their home games, then they stand a chance. They have got to pick up all away bonus points and sneak a win or two away from home. In their favour is that any of the teams might steal points from the other two.
Perhaps Munster can do everyone else in the competition a favour by beating Saracens and denting their chances of home knock out games. I would fancy our chances playing Saracens at quarter final stages in the Aviva, rather than the neutral territory of Marseilles.
The European final is on the move again to a new city following great experiences in both Bilbao and Newcastle. The move to the south of France and near perfect climate (touch wood) should draw a large crowd of fans. Get your tickets early — they are on sale now.