Champions Cup: How will Irish fare against cream of Europe?

Ulster's Rory Best congratulates Irish team-mate Johnny Sexton after Leinster's Heineken Cup victory in 2012
Ulster's Rory Best congratulates Irish team-mate Johnny Sexton after Leinster's Heineken Cup victory in 2012

Europe's elite club rugby competition has not been a happy hunting ground for the Irish provinces in recent seasons.

Since Ulster and Leinster contested the decider at Twickenham in 2012, cash-rich French and English clubs have dominated the showpiece final.

Last year was the first time since the 1997/98 season that none of the Irish provinces reached the knockout stages.

All four begin this campaign against French opposition, so what are their prospects of being crowned champions?

Ulster

It's been a case of so near but so far for the 1999 European Cup champions.

After a decade in the wilderness, a 26-22 away win over Bath in the 2010/11 season shattered the psychological barrier of struggling to win on French or English soil and saw the team qualify for a first quarter-final since winning the tournament.

The following year they reached the final, badly under-performing in a 42-14 defeat by Leinster, but continued to build and qualified for the knockout stages in 2014 as number one seeds.

It could be argued their European journey has never recovered from the blow of losing that home quarter-final to Saracens because they failed to get beyond the pool stages in the last two seasons.

They are in a difficult Pool 5 alongside French teams Bordeaux-Begles, whom they open up against at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Sunday, and Clermont as well as Exeter Chiefs.

Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave and Louis Ludik are among the absentees on Sunday and while Bordeaux boost Iain Madigan and Australian scoring machine Adam Ashley-Cooper, Ulster should have enough firepower to start with a win in a daunting group.

Leinster

Garry Ringrose and Rob Hensahaw should form an impressive centre partnership for Leinster
Garry Ringrose and Rob Hensahaw should form an impressive centre partnership for Leinster

An unprecedented five pool losses for Leinster last season was the ultimate shock to the system for a province used to long European campaigns.

The summer signing of Robbie Henshaw playing alongside rising star Garry Ringrose has given the three-time European champions the prospect of fielding the most dynamic midfield partnership in the competition.

Leinster have won 70% of their opening two fixtures over the last 10 seasons and that statistic should rise on Saturday against Castres at the RDS.

The French outfit are struggling in the Top 14 and have won just once in six meetings with Leinster.

With Sean O'Brien poised for a return, coach Leo Cullen will want to get on the front foot and inject some momentum into their campaign to banish the nightmare of last season.

Munster

Former Munster player Ronan O'Gara is now on the coaching staff at Racing 92
Former Ireland and Munster player Ronan O'Gara is now on the coaching staff at Racing 92

European winners in 2006 and 2008, it's been slim pickings for Munster of late.

They have lost six of their last seven away games in Europe when they have started the campaign on foreign soil, as they do once again this weekend.

A stuttering backline featuring the likes of former Cork hurler Darren Sweetnam, Rory Scannell and Ronan O'Mahony will not be given much time or room to develop this season in such a pressure-cooker environment as Pool 1.

The presence of Munster legend Ronan O'Gara in the Racing 92 coaching line-up on Sunday adds another layer of intrigue to what already looks like the group of death.

With Leicester Tigers and Glasgow Warriors also in the group, Munster have little chance of progressing beyond the group stages.

Connacht

Connacht's Bundee Aki was named Pro12 player of the season for 2015/16
Connacht's Bundee Aki was named Pro12 player of the season for 2015/16

As Pro12 champions, the men from the west no longer should have any inferiority complex about dining among Europe's elite.

Pat Lam has worked wonders with limited resources and after an unconvincing start to their title defence, the shackles will be off once they hit Europe.

There's something fitting that Toulouse are the visitors to the Sportsground on Saturday.

They were the first visitors to Galway when Connacht played in the competition for the first time in 2011/2012.

The province received an automatic berth into the big time that season, and the following season, because of Leinster's success in winning back-to-back Heineken Cup finals.

They are back now in their own right and in Bundee Aki have one of the most exciting talents in the competition. Wasps and Zebre are also in Pool 2, and Connacht have nothing to lose.

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