Covid stalker and different format have seen Europe’s premier club events lose its fizz

Published Categorised as 2020-21, Clermont Auvergne, Editorial, ERCC, Provincial Rugby Men, Ulster Rugby Tagged , , , ,
Alan O'Connor made 14 tackles last night and is yet to miss a tackle this season.

I am unsure if it is just me, but there does not appear to be the usual fanfare for the arrival of Europe’s premier competitions – the Champions and Challenge Cups.

Perhaps the new format adopted last year due to the Covid pandemic and which ultimately had to be rejigged midway through the first phase continues to haunt a competition envied across the world.

Indeed the threat of Covid still stalks the tournament – the game between Scarlets and Bristol Bears has already fallen victim – and organisers will be watching on nervously hoping they can get their first four rounds either side of Christmas completed in a meaningful way.

The rejigged competition ended up skewed last season and there is always the threat of that happening again – well it has with Bristol picking up a 28-0 win over Scarlets after the Welsh region -marooned in Belfast for the past 10 days – only had 14 fit players for their tie and conceded.

Cardiff and Munster, are also without a plethora of players, like Scarlets forced into quarantine after travelling to South Africa for URC games which were postponed as the Omicron variant of Covid emerged. 

In spite of all those factors perhaps taking the fizz out of the competition, it may well be it has lost its spark because most teams going into battle know their chances of winning it are slim.

There have been few surprises – probably not since 1999 when Ulster lifted the European Cup – in this long established competition.

The new format of playing just four games in the first phase over two pools of 12, as opposed to the five pools of four and six games does add an extra edge to the tournament.

Home wins are must wins and if you want to make the top four, you need to be winning at least three of the four games and picking up bonus points, including on the road.

Basically if you can grind out two home wins and pick up a scrappy victory on the road, you will be one of the 16 progressing to the next stage, and if you are among the top four sides qualifying, there is every chance you could end up with home advantage in both the last eight and semi-finals.

It is geared for the better performing sides, such as Toulouse, Leinster, even Leicester Tigers or Harlequins.

Or you could see the pandemic hit the fixtures halfway through and those who would have expected to progress to the main competition’s knockout stage will end up in the Challenge Cup – just like Ulster last season.

It is always important to start well in any competition, but in Europe it is a must, with only four games to secure progression.

The new competition does have that bite of back to back fixtures that gave the original tournament a real spark and another plus is that having only four games does basically rule out some of the dead rubbers one used to get at the back end of the pool stages.

However, having dismantled Europe’s premier club rugby event, looking across the fixtures in round one, there is a guarantee of some great games coming up.

Northampton against Racing 92 on Friday night is the perfect starter to the main feast on Saturday, which includes Clermont v Ulster and Leinster v Bath, before Sunday’s platter of Wasps v Munster and Connacht v Stade Francais.

Ulster’s big news came late in the week with new South African signing Duane Vermeulen included in the starting line-up to make his long awaited debut. 

Ulster training in the week prior to heading to Clermont.

He had arrived in Belfast ready to join the squad but then ended up isolating due to testing positive for Covid.

A boost to the Irish Provincial side no doubt, but given he has had little time to work with the squad due to isolating, an eyebrow is perhaps raised as to how it could go. However, having seen him in action during both the Rugby Championship and the more recent November Test series, his presence on the pitch will be enough to boost positive thoughts on how Ulster may go.

The majority of the team which won against Leinster two weeks ago – a first win in Dublin since 2013 by the way – are involved in what is a tough opener for Dan McFarland’s side in the Stade Marcel-Michelin, a venue they are yet to win at.

A familiar face on the Clermont side will be Jono Gibbes, who has coached at Ulster, but it will be those on the pitch who will determine the outcome.

Clermont currently lie seventh in the Top 14 having defeated Biarritz last weekend. The European Cup is the one competition which has eluded this rugby-mad part of France and although they have not performed as well domestically as in previous recent seasons, they have won five from six of their home games and will be favourites to start the campaign with a victory.

Another familiar face to Irish fans will be starting at outhalf, JJ Hanrahan, preferred to Camille Lopez this time around.

Ulster’s Dan McFarland and Dan Soper on the Clermont match.

If Ulster’s analysts have done their work as they did for the Leinster game and Ulster can replicate that performance, it may not be as tough a day as some expect.

However, the loss to Ospreys last weekend will serve as a note of caution and Ulster must be more clinical when the opportunity arrives.

A result for this Ulster side, if the win is not forthcoming, is picking up a losing bonus point before Northampton Saints come to Belfast next Friday in what was always going to be a must win game.

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