Leinster's path to fifth star could be significantly cleared by Munster
The double-header between Munster and Saracens, next month, could prove telling for Leinster's hopes of getting a fifth star.
Right now, and as we witnessed last season, there are three tiers to the Champions Cup. You have the hopefuls, you have the top sides and then you have Leinster and Saracens.
Leinster marched imperiously to St James' Park, last May, and looked set to get that coveted fifth star stitched above their crest. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster had dovetailed superbly, again, and were primed to retain the cup they won in Bilbao the previous year.
In the semi-finals, Saracens swatted Munster to one side and Leinster crushed Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium. Those two sides were the best tier two - filled with game, talented sides - could muster, but it was not enough.
In the final, Leinster hit the front but they were pay heavy costs to gain even a single metre against a fierce Sarries defence. A turnover and try late in the first half saw Saracens go from 10-0 to 10-10 at the break. Leinster ran out of puff in the second half and Billy Vunipola won it for the English side.
Speaking to Jack Conan after the game, he acknowledged that it would most likely be Leinster and Saracens scrapping over the silverware for the next few seasons. He commented:
"Yeah, I’m sure we will meet them again. Please God, this time next year we’ll be back in this scenario in Marseille.
"So we’ll regroup and the start of next year we’ll set our eyes on May 11th or 12th, and get back into another European final and get that fifth star. This isn’t the end of Leinster’s success in European rugby."
Six months on from that final in Newcastle and the path to that fifth star may be significantly cleared by their old inter-provincial rivals Munster.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery looked at the state of play in Europe, the Saracens salary sanctions and the teams best place for title glory.
Saracens are three-time champions of Europe but they have a tricky proposition to deal with this season, brought on by payments to third parties associated with players that went against the Premiership salary cap rules.
Sarries blew a considerable amount of hot air about appealing their £5.3m fine and 35-point deduction but ultimately took the punishment. They currently sit on -22 points and bottom of the Premiership so may choose to focus on domestic survival, at the cost of European glory.
Flannery says he has heard, from reliable sources, that Saracens may send a weakened team to Thomond Park for the December 7 pool stage encounter with Munster. They have festive league fixtures against Bristol, Exeter and Worcester so may prioritise those ties.
They face Ospreys in the Champions Cup, at home, this weekend and a bonus point win may force a re-think, and have Mark McCall send a few heavy-hitters to Limerick next month. Should Munster get one over on them, though, they may well park their European ambitions, even though it would be the club's only way back into next season's Champions Cup.
"When I would have been finishing up seasons at Munster," Flannery says, "you'd always be taking stock of where you are and where the best teams are. You'd always be comparing yourself to Leinster and Saracens."
"I was thinking that they might prioritise the Premiership so they would not get relegated," Flannery adds. "Financially, it would affect Saracens a whole lot more if they were to be relegated... I think this year now is the best chance that Irish teams are going to have at winning Europe."
Leinster would have fancied their chances, regardless, but Munster and Ulster have also suffered at the hands of Sarries in recent years and would not shed a tear if they were to field weakened teams and bow out.
"It'll be mainly the French challenging us this season," Trimble reckons. "It'll be Racing, Toulouse, Clermont and Exeter, who were the stand-out English team in the first weekend. Outside of that, Gloucester, Bath and Harlequins are all poor.
"A lot of the problems with English sides are their fitness," says Flannery. "The Premiership is slow."
Murphy raises the point, too, that Irish provinces have won European Cups (Munster 2008 and Leinster 2012) in the same seasons as World Cups are held.
WATCH THE LATEST HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
SUBSCRIBE TO BAZ & ANDREW'S HOUSE OF RUGBY: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are joined by Jerry Flannery in the House of Rugby studio to look back on a winning weekend of Champions Cup rugby, and the imperious form of Leinster.