The 2021/2022 Champions Cup kicks off this weekend, and of course, certain aspects deserve to be examined in greater detail.
Munster’s Unprecedented Situation
Since the conclusion of the November Internationals, the dominant talking point in Irish rugby circles has been Munster’s South African Covid-19 saga. If you want a further rundown of the affair you can check out our piece from last week. For now, the current situation is that Munster have committed to sending out a 23 man squad to face Wasps on Sunday despite the affair having severely depleted their overall squad numbers.
34 players and staff are isolating in Ireland, while 14 who tested positive remain in quarantine in South Africa. The remaining senior squad members who did not travel are currently training with members of Munster’s National Talent Squad and Provincial Talent Squad. The ERC also announced new measures to help ease the strain on sides such as Munster, Cardiff, and Scarlets. They were permitted to add new players to their Champions Cup roster, with a deadline of December 7th to register any new members. Munster will undoubtedly look to their academy and possibly the AIL.
Sadly, Scarlets have been forced to forfeit their game with Bristol due to a lack of numbers. 32 of their front-line players who had travelled to South Africa have been quarantining in Belfast, leaving them with just 14 available for Saturday. The quarantine ends on Friday but for player welfare reasons Scarlets have decided to give the points to Bristol. Scarlets' predicament has been met with considerable backlash on Twitter, with fans and pundits citing the EPCR's failure to come up with a solution that did not involve punishing a team for simply following Covid guidelines.
Feel for the Scarlets, who have done absolutely nothing wrong and yet still get effectively punished for something entirely out of their control. There were alternatives open to EPCR; this was not what Covid regulations for dealing with infection in camp were intended.#YmaOHyd.
— Tim O'Connor (@timoconnorbl) December 7, 2021
Munster’s South African trip coming so soon after Ireland’s November Tests has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Many of their Irish contingents were allowed a rest period, giving the province a strong core of players to take on Wasps. Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Keith Earl, Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery, Damian De Allande, and Conor Murray are all available.
Wasps have been relatively uncompetitive in the Champions Cup over the last decade, and this looks unlikely to change. And given that Munster nearly always deliver when their back are against the wall in Europe, I would back them to come back from Coventry with a result.
Cardiff Blues find themselves in a similar situation to their URC counterparts and are without 28 players and 14 staff members heading into their home fixture against Toulouse on Saturday.
Johann van Graan's swansong?
On Monday, it was reported in the Irish Independent that Munster’s head coach Johann van Graan was being linked with a move to Bath Rugby. This comes after last month’s announcement that Munster's backs coach Stephen Larkham would be heading back to the Brumbies at the end of the season. However, whether this will turn out to be in Munster’s favour or not remains to be seen. van Graan’s tenure so far has been underwhelming, with little growth since the departure of Rassie Erasmus.
van Graan is among the staff members currently isolating, and Munster’s Academy head coach Ian Costello has been taking charge of training with the senior team. It begs the question, will Munster’s performance against Wasps after working under a new coach have any bearing on their willingness to keep van Graan?
It also adds more interest to other Champions Cup fixtures. Leinster will be facing off against Bath on Saturday, giving us a look at van Graan’s potential new side. Bath are currently languishing in last place in Gallagher Premiership with zero wins and ten points behind next best Bristol Bears. Should Van Graan leave it would also open up speculation as to who will replace him, undoubtedly leading to the names of Ronan O’Gara and Mike Prendergast being bandied about. O’Gara’s La Rochelle come up against Glasgow Warriors on Sunday while Prendergast’s Racing 92 are facing Northampton on Friday.
French Champions Cup Contenders
Reigning champions Toulouse are the team to beat in this year’s Champions Cup, while Leinster, Racing, and La Rochelle will be the favourites to take the crown off them. Clermont can always guarantee a strong showing in Europe, while a resurgent Leicester will unquestionably be looking to get themselves back into the business end of a tournament that holds so much history for them. Munster, Exeter, and Ulster will have knockout-stage notions but it is unlikely they will be able to battle past the top four sides if they make it that far.
Injuries were a key factor in the latter stages of the 2020/2021 Champions Cup, hampering both Racing and Leinster in their respective quarter-final and semi-final losses. They will more than likely come into play next year along with home advantage. If Toulouse and Leinster sides can avoid these roadblocks and avoid each other, then a meeting in the Stade de Marseille next year may well come to pass.
Players to Watch
Rather obviously, Romain Ntamack will be top of most fans’ wish list of players they want to see ball out in Europe this season. The clip of his daring break against the All Blacks was seen around the globe and cemented his status as the most exciting young half-back in world rugby. It also helps to be playing outside his maverick partner in crime and World Player of the Year nominee Antoine Dupont.
21-year-old fullback Freddie Steward enjoyed a near-perfect start to his international career, being one of the standout players in Eddie Jones’ side. He heads into this season’s Champions Cup with a Leicester side full of confidence and one that will have their eyes on a semi-final at the very least.
Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan. The two Leinster and Irish hookers are difficult to separate at the moment. They both have very similar skillsets, with crisp hands and explosive running power and speed. Of course, Kelleher is the man in possession of the jersey, but the fight Sheehan will bring to take it off him will be a fascinating watch.
Hooker? What hooker? 🔥#URC | #LEICON | @LeinsterRugby pic.twitter.com/zQaSb8ehOb
— United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) December 3, 2021