Though only made possible by the newly expanded knockout phase, all four of Ireland’s provinces advancing from the group stage of European rugby’s elite competition remains a feat worthy of note.
Two of those provinces won all four of their group games, while Leinster’s only loss came in the form of a Covid-enforced forfeit.
The clubs have done their part in contributing to the general air of optimism currently surrounding Irish men’s rugby, but the mood is never far from shifting.
Over the next two weekends as many as three Irish provinces can book their place in the last eight, or find their Champions Cup dreams in tatters for another year.
The opening leg of Connacht and Leinster’s inter-provincial derby – a first all-Ireland meeting in Europe since Leinster and Ulster’s extraordinary quarter-final three years ago – is first up on Friday night before Ulster and Munster begin their ties against the competition’s two most recent winners.
Connacht eye almighty Leinster upset
In their two previous meetings this season Leinster have scored 92 points against Connacht, crossing for 14 tries as they secured winning margins of 28 and 37.
The second of those – a 45-8 thumping in Galway – was delivered less than two weeks ago in the absence of their array of Ireland stars, most of whom have since returned to the province and will feature on Friday night as Leinster again travel west to the Sportsground, where the capacity has been lifted to over 8,000 for the game.
A rocking atmosphere alone will not suffice as the familiar blue juggernaut roles into town.
So far this season Connacht have failed to shake the infuriating inconsistencies within their week-to-week performances that sees them lurch from imposing forcefulness to chaotic ill-discipline all too frequently.
There are times, like in their 36-11 hammering of a previously undefeated Ulster and the 36-9 obliteration of Stade Francais, where Andy Friend’s side prove themselves to be a match for any club side in Europe.
They will need to find such a performance not once but twice if they are to run close a Leinster side who feel they have a point to prove in the Champions Cup.
After winning four titles on the bounce, Leinster rightly feel they can no longer hang their hat on league success alone.
Their progress in Europe is what defines them, and having failed to reach the final in last two seasons they have attacked this year’s competition with an almighty vengeance, scoring 198 points across three group matches.
Leo Cullen’s charges will view Friday’s game as another chance to put the rest of the competition on notice; Connacht’s brief is to drag their interpro rivals into a dogfight.
Familiar French giants stand in Ulster’s way
Dan McFarland could do little else but laugh when his side were rewarded for going undefeated in the group stage with a two-legged tie against the defending champions.
The five-time winners have been at least partly responsible for Ulster’s exit from the competition in the last two seasons – cruising past them in a re-arranged 2019-20 quarter-final before ending the province’s 26-match unbeaten home run in a group stage meeting in Belfast three months later.
The favourites tag worn comfortably by Toulouse in those recent meetings is not as clearly attached to the Top 14 side this time around, even if it is hard to see past Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and friends at Stade Toulousain on Saturday.
With good reason Ulster will back themselves to topple any side at home, therefore even if they cannot claim a famous victory in the first leg, keeping it close in France would give them a huge opportunity to reach the last eight.
The group stage clean sweep felt like something of a coming of age for Ulster’s exciting young backline as they elevated their reputations from promising talents to world class performers.
Now Michael Lowry, James Hume, fit-again Robert Baloucoune and the rest of the province’s explosive talents are tasked with turning it on against the very best in European club rugby.
Injury-hit Munster seek another gritty European win
Munster were dealt a dreadfully unlucky hand this week with Irish international trio Tadhg Beirne, Dave Kilcoyne and Gavin Coombes joining Andrew Conway on a lengthy injury list.
While loss of Beirne (thigh) and Coombes (ankle) has robbed Munster of two of their most dynamic breakdown presences, Johan van Graan can at least call upon the experience of backs Simon Zebo and Mike Haley after both resumed full training this week.
Uncertainty over what the province’s coaching set-up will look like next season continues nearly four months after van Graan revealed he would be leaving Munster at the end of the season, and three defeats from their last four URC games see Munster go into this game in desperate search of a spark.
That said, they remain firmly in contention in both competitions and can draw from gutsy away European displays earlier this years – most notably their bonus point win away to Wasps when they were forced to hand out five debuts in their starting XV with a huge chunk of their squad unavailable due to the ill-fated trip to South Africa in December.
Exeter, champions in 2020, are themselves out to prove a point that they too remain firmly among Europe’s elite having struggled for consistency in this season’s Premiership.
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