Champions Cup: Rugby moves up a gear on European adventure

Leinster celebrate their victory over Racing 92 in the European Rugby Champions Cup final in Bilbao in May. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Leinster celebrate their victory over Racing 92 in the European Rugby Champions Cup final in Bilbao in May. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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The new season is one-and-a-half months old but in many ways this weekend marks the start of proper business as the Heineken Champions Cup, arguably the toughest competition outside of Test-match rugby, gets under way.

For the first time in four years Scotland have both of its pro teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the elite competition and the next two weeks will give an accurate measurement of where the two sides are.

Warriors coach Dave Rennie was typically honest this week when he accepted that below-par performances which are enough to pick up wins in the Guinness Pro14 will simply not cut the mustard in the Champions Cup.

The Kiwi knows that all too well from his first taste of the competition last season as Glasgow’s perfect start in the bread-and-butter Pro14 was exposed as carrying the deceptive consistency of a souffle at the Michelin-starred top table, where losses to Exeter and Montpellier effectively ended their challenge before Halloween. Subsequent losses to eventual champions Leinster rubbed salt in the wounds.

Glasgow face a daunting but mouthwatering opener at Scotstoun on Sunday against Saracens, the side who beat them in their only previous progression to the quarter-finals two seasons ago.

The intensity of a European competition, in which even second place in the brutally competitive pools is no guarantee of qualification, has been something which has left Scottish teams consistently wanting since the tournament was launched in 1995-96.

Aside from that sole Glasgow foray into the knock-out stage, Edinburgh have managed it a couple of times, most recently their surprise run to the semi-finals six years ago.

Under Irish coach Michael Bradley, that adventure now has a kind of dreamlike “did that really happen?” feel to it. Edinburgh finished second bottom of the then Pro12 that season, with just six wins out of 22, but after topping a pool which also contained Cardiff, Racing 92 (or Metro as they were then) and London Irish, they toppled Toulouse in front of nearly 40,000 in a Murrayfield quarter-final before a narrow loss to Ulster in the Dublin semi-final. There is no doubt that the current Edinburgh side, which has been impressively whipped into shape by no-nonsense English coach Richard Cockerill, is in many ways superior in terms of culture and mindset to that class of 2012.

However, the return from a four-year wilderness in the second-tier Challenge Cup, which they reached the final of in 2015, is set to be a fierce examination of the Cockerill resurgence. An opener away to Vern Cotter’s Montpellier tomorrow will be followed by the visit of three-time champions Toulon.

A December double header follows against Newcastle, the city which will host May’s finals weekend at St James’s Park, which proved such an excellent rugby venue at the 2015 World Cup, atmospherically hosting Scotland’s pool clashes with South Africa and Samoa.

Cockerill will draw on the nous which saw him experience semi-finals and finals as both a player and coach with Leicester Tigers in a competition which again has as its main title sponsor Heineken, the beer company which became synonymous with the tournament for 20 years.

Edinburgh’s return to the premier competition is on merit, reflecting the fact that the competition is now free of national quotas and so stacked with quality that it renders the old sporting “group of death” cliche as meaningless.

Reigning champions Leinster, who broke a five-year Anglo-French stranglehold last season, open proceedings tonight against Wasps at the RDS in a Pool 1 which contains four clubs who have lifted 11 of the 23 European Cups to date, with Bath and Toulouse meeting tomorrow.

As the Irish province begin their quest for a record fifth European title, their coach Leo Cullen said: “I’m not sure there was any target on our backs the last couple of seasons so it’s good to be back in that situation where teams are looking at us a bit more.”

Jonny Sexton returns at stand-off for Leinster, who have reverted to their strongest team after overcoming Munster in the Pro14 last weekend.

Brad Shields returns to reinforce Wasps after being out since fracturing his cheekbone on his club debut last month.

The New Zealand-born England flanker is restored to the back row for the trip to the Irish capital but Wasps captain Joe Launchbury is still unavailable due to the knee injury he sustained in mid-September.

Wasps director of rugby Dai Young said: “It adds some intensity when you think about who you are playing. We’ve played Leinster a few times over the past couple of seasons and we’ve got a huge respect for the way they play the game.

“We’re under no illusions, we’re not going there as favourites but we’re looking forward to it.”

In tonight’s only Challenge Cup fixture, Sale travel to Perpignan.