The 2023 Champions Cup gets underway this Friday with Connacht in action against Bordeaux Begles and then Ulster and Munster spring in action on Saturday with Ulster playing Bath at the Rec with Munster taking on Bayonne in Thomond Park.
Leinster play last season’s winners La Rochelle on Sunday who won’t have Ronan O Gara in the coaches box as he serves a one game ban and will have to sit in the stand like last season when Ulster’s home with fixture with La Rochelle was moved from Belfast to Dublin owing to poor weather.
All four provinces have started the URC in decent form and will fancy making it 4 from 4 on opening weekend but the opposition that each side will face will be stiff competition and those sides will have designs on starting the campaign on a positive note themselves.
Connacht will know they can’t allow what happened against Leinster happen more often and that is getting pipped late on in games. A number of key signings like Joe Joyce who played with Bristol Bears previously and JJ Hanrahan who has returned to Ireland after a spell in France with Clermont Auvergne.
The additions of John Muldoon and Scott Fardy has strengthened the coaching staff in Galway and that will help Peter Wilkins keep up the good momentum build up over recent weeks barring last weekend vs Leinster.
Connacht will know a win at home would be the ideal start and to stand any hope in the revamped Champions Cup you need to win at home and then take your chances away from home as its now only 4 group games instead of 6 as was the case previously.
Ulster will go to the Rec to face Johan Van Graan’s Bath side that has picked up a few key wins in the past couple of rounds in the Premiership.
They seem to be going places slowly under Van Graan who again has dipped into the South African market for a few signings with Thomas Du Toit who spent 3 months on loan at Munster a few season ago before returning to South Africa, couple that with Finn Russell at 10 and things are beginning to shape up for the boys from the Recreation Ground.
For Ulster it will be key for them to come away with some points from the opening away day if they can’t win the game come away with a losing bonus or even a try bonus and it will be considered a good day’s work. Of course they won’t look to come away with slim pickings, they will go all out to gain at least 4 match points and see where that might leave them for week two at home in the Kingspan.
Munster take on Bayonne in Limerick with Camille Lopez and Reece Hodge the familiar faces to most Irish fans. They are in 10th in the Top 14 at the moment but that won’t count for much in Europe as we have seen how well some French sides tackle the new look Champions Cup.
Munster have started the URC in ok form with 3 wins, two losses and a draw in Italy with Benetton. They will be without Peter O Mahony, Jean Kleyn and Jack O Donaghue with two of those three hopeful of returning for the trip to Devon on Sunday December 17th to face Exeter.
Munster should have enough in the tank to start the campaign on the right note on Saturday in the prime kick off slot of 5.30pm, no doubt Thomond Park will be in fine voice by kick off time…
Lastly Leinster, reacquaint themselves with La Rochelle who have bested them in the most recent games between the sides namely last May’s Final in Dublin. ROG will have his charges well fired up and these two teams have plenty of spice between them with a tunnel incident involving Ronan O Gara trying to make a point to a match official and being politely being kept away from doing so.
Leinster have mentioned that they have prepared well with the two games against Munster and Connacht ideal preparation to take La Rochelle on Sunday. Leinster have been physically matched by La Rochelle so Leinster will be keen to help turn that around as well as starting the competition in winning fashion.
Jaques Nienaber has been added to the coaching staff taking over from Stuart Lancaster who has the reins with Racing 92 now. It will be interesting to see how the double World Cup winning coach can impact the Leinster set up going forward.
My predictions for the Irish sides in week one are, Connacht win at home to Bordeaux Begles, Ulster to get something from the trip to the Rec like a losing bonus point and maybe even a try bonus point but Bath to get the win.
Munster to win in Limerick against Bayonne and start the group on the right note.
Lastly Leinster to finally gain a first win over La Rochelle who have not been in vintage form in the early rounds of the Top 14 and Leinster to take full advantage for the win..