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JACKSON COLUMN: Europe turning green with envy at Irish success

The rugby map of Europe began to change colour in the spring of 2006 when the Irish first painted it green after breaking the Anglo-French domination of the Heineken Cup, writes Peter Jackson.


It has been like that for four of the last six seasons of Europe’s foremost non-Test tournament, a shift in the balance of power which resulted in Leicester, Toulouse, Wasps and Northampton winning the first six finals of the 21st century.

If the new European season starting this weekend and finishing at Twickenham next May happens to end with the continental landscape being given another coat of green, nobody ought to be the least bit surprised.   

The two most powerful forces in Heineken competition over the last six season are to be found not in the French Top 14, nor the Aviva English Premiership but in the RaboDirect PRO12.

As befits their status as double champions, Leinster and Munster have racked up more victories in the tournament than anyone else.  

Each province has won the European title in two seasons, Munster in 2006 and 2008, Leinster in 2009 and earlier this year.  

Unlike Ulster, the first Irish winner back in 1999 when the English clubs staged their self-destructive boycott, they have won every title outside Ireland – at the Millennium Stadium three times and Murrayfield once.

Of the six teams who have stood the test of time long enough to have won 50 or more ties in the competition, half are from the RaboDirect PRO12 – Munster (80 wins), Leinster (69) and the Scarlets (53).   

The other three are Toulouse (84), Leicester (69) and Biarritz (52).

No Scottish team has ever gone beyond the quarter-finals, no Italian has survived the pool stage.  

As for the Welsh, the sum total of their collective efforts since the first Heineken in 1995 amounts to one losing finalist – Cardiff in that first season when the Scottish and the English stayed out.

The Scarlets renew their perennial quest for the big prize against Castres at home on Saturday, their 100th  tie in the Heineken Cup which puts them alongside Toulouse (118), Munster (115), Leinster (106) and Leicester (104) as the fifth team reach a century.

First as plain Llanelli, the most westerly of the four Welsh regions has had to make do with the recurring heart-break of three losing semi-finals.   The first, against Northampton in 2000, had almost reached extra-time when Paul Grayson landed a long-distance penalty winner.   

As if that was not bad enough, the second, against Leicester at the City Ground in Nottingham, was settled by the most freakish of all penalties when England full-back Tim Stimpson put it over off one post and the crossbar.

The third, a decisive beating by a superior Leicester in April 2007 after the Scarlets had breezed through the pool rounds by winning all six, left no room for complaint.  

For a country still at a loss to understand why their national team failed to reach the World Cup final, the opening round fixtures pair all three Welsh regions with French opponents, beginning with the Blues against Racing Metro in Paris on Friday night.     

The Scarlets then take centre stage on Saturday afternoon, 40 minutes before the Ospreys launch their campaign down the road in Swansea against Biarritz.

There cannot, surely, have been a tougher pool than the one confronting the Scarlets, matching them against double European champions Munster, last season’s beaten finalists Northampton and the French semi-finalists, Castres.

No team can ever have gone to Llanelli with a stranger record than last season’s French semi-finalists.   

They have won four of their last six matches despite scoring one try while bombarding a variety of opponents with a grand total of 38 penalties, the vast majority during home wins over Brive, Lyon, Toulouse and Montpellier..

If the Scarlets are to ensure that the quarter-finals in the New Year are not to be a Welsh-free zone again this season, they will have to get there the hard way.  

Pool 1 also pitches them alongside Munster and Northampton, last year’s beaten finalists, who collide in the opening round at Thomond Park on Saturday.

Leinster start their defence in France against Montpellier, the holders’ status as favourites to retain the trophy unaffected, despite the grim prospect of having to do it without talisman Brian O'Driscoll, already ruled out for up to six months pending a shoulder operation next week.

None of the 24 starters has suffered more because of the World Cup than Biarritz.

Twice losing finalists, to Munster in Cardiff in 2006 and Toulouse in Paris four years later, they are marooned at the bottom of the French League.  

Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili will make a difference to any team but even their absence while on World Cup business does not fully explain why the Basque club is floundering.   

The 24 contenders are split into six pools with the winner of each plus the two highest runners-up advancing to the knock-out stage.    

Rankings are based on results over the round-robin matches with the top four teams rewarded with a home quarter-final.

Pool 1: Castres, Munster, Northampton, Scarlets.
Pool 2: Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, London Irish, Racing Metro.
Pool 3: Bath, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier.
Pool 4: Aironi, Clermont, Leicester, Ulster.
Pool 5: Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens, Treviso.
Pool 6: Connacht, Gloucester, Harlequins, Toulouse.

The first 15 European campaigns have been won by teams from only three countries.  English clubs have won it six times, the Irish provinces five times and the French four times.  

While Wales are down to three representatives this time round, Ireland are up to four and anyone who has followed Connacht’s struggle simply to exist in the professional game will be thrilled that they have finally got their due reward.

How wonderful that Ireland’s westerly province should be in action in the very first match – against Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins in London this coming Friday night.   

Hold onto your hats and do not be the least bit surprised if Leinster ensure that the European crown will still be found in the RaboDirect Pro 12 next season..…