For Leinster their journey starts here. A journey that ended so sweetly last May in Cardiff with their second Heineken Cup in three years begins this weekend away to Montpellier, but what is in store for the reigning champions.
Gone is Nathan Hines, who was a tower in pack for them in their never to be forgotten defeat of Northampton in last year’s final and gone is none other than Brian O’Driscoll, who for all intents and purpose will miss the entire campaign with a trapped nerve, along with Shane Horgan until the new year.
It could be argued that their group of Montpellier, Bath and Glasgow is less tougher than their ‘group of death’ last year, still it will be no mean feat if Leinster come out on top of this group.
If Leinster are to go deep into this year’s Heineken Cup then they must absorb the loss of O’Driscoll and be able to do without their inspirational centre. The spotlight would appear to fall on Fergus McFadden. Heir apparent it would seem to BOD’s jersey at provincial and international level, McFadden has a golden chance in front of him to lay down a serious marker and make that 13 shirt his own.
Sean O’Brien has grown for Leinster and Ireland over the past year and will again play a huge role if both teams are to be successful over the next 12 months. As big and powerful a ball carrier as you could find, O’Brien is a human wrecking ball who not only makes huge hits but can make equally huge yards if needs be. Joe Schmidt will be praying the ‘tullow tank’ stays injury free this campaign.
Both Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton have suffered with dips in form at various points in 2011 and if both can regain their form Leinster will have a huge chance of putting together back to back Heineken Cup campaigns.
One could argue that Heaslip hasn’t quiet been the force he was ala the Lions tour in 2009. He was rushed back from an ankle injury for the visit of Clermont in the pool stages and since then he has, at times, struggled to meet the lofty standards he sets for himself.
Sexton struggled for form and confidence at the World Cup. Since coming back into the Leinster blue he has looked the player that blew Northampton away in the final. A match winner at any time of the game, Sexton should be regaining his confidence back in a jersey that he has made his own. With him in the side and his ability to tear any team apart he should kick Leinster far in this years competition.
Winning another Heineken Cup would be an unbelievable achievement for Leinster. Can they do it? They can. The tough campaign that they had last year will stand to them. That dodged, winning mentality that Joe Schmidt has instilled in them will see them through any challenge.
Leinster can top the pool and for their supporters they can dream of a day out in Twickenham come May 2012.
Leinster Rugby Stats
ERC European Ranking 1 (31 pts)
Biggest Win 92 – 17 (v Bourgoin 2004)
Heaviest Defeat 7 – 43 (v Toulouse 2002)
Most Appearances Shane Horgan (87)
Top Points Scorer Felipe Contepomi (348)
Top Try Scorer Brian O’Driscoll (30)
Having got to the quarter finals, Ulster will be looking for more of the same in this Heineken Cup campaign as they look to keep tabs on their provincial rivals, Munster and Leinster.
However if they are to improve on last year it will required a huge effort to even get out of the pool as alongside them in pool 4 are Clermont of France and Leicester Tigers from England. It will be a tough ask but Brian McLaughlin and his side know what it’s like to have the odds stacked against them.
The games against Leicester may decide Ulster’s faith in the competition. If they can beat the Tigers home and away and possibly pull off a shock against Clermont in Ravenhill, then Ulster could put themselves in with a real shout of making the quarters.
They have suffered a huge loss with the news that scrum-half Ruan Pienaar has been ruled about for between 4 to 6 weeks after picking up a hamstring injury in training. Pienaar was a huge player for Ulster and unlike Munster and Leinster, Ulster struggle with that depth of squad needed to compete at the very highest level.
One huge plus for them is a fit again Stephen Ferris. Like Sean O’Brien at Leinster, Ferris was back to his best in New Zealand, particularly in the win against Australia. If Ferris can stay injury free then Ulster can have a good run in Europe this season.
However that may not be in the Heineken Cup. A good start in the competition is vital if Ulster are to stand any hope of getting out of their pool. If they start well who knows. If they don’t then it could be third spot in pool 4 for them. The opening game against Clermont will tell all.
ERC European Ranking 16 (10 pts) Wins 41 Draws 3 Losses 50
Biggest Win 59 – 3 (v Benetton Treviso 2002)
Heaviest Defeat 3 – 56 (v London Wasps 1997)
Most Appearances David Humphreys (57)
Top Points Scorer David Humphreys (564)
Top Try Scorer David Humphreys (14)