European rugby is back for Irish provinces, with the Champions Cup getting underway tonight.
Ahead of this, let’s assess the Irish provinces’ pre-tournament chances.
Armed with the returning internationals, all sides will be ready for the weekend ahead.
First up for the Irish are Ulster.
A quarter-final exit to Leinster spelled the end of last year’s hopes for the Ulstermen, having suffered an inconsistent season.
This season looks to be an improvement, with the team having lost just two of their first six Pro 14 games – an embarrassing 63-26 drubbing from the Cheetahs and an inter-provincial loss in Thomond.
Despite these two setbacks, they sit second in Conference A, nine points behind Leinster but in a comfortable position for the semis.
Ulster face a pool consisting of Gallagher Premiership strugglers Bath and Harlequins, which could prove positive for the Ulstermen, but a tough opponent in Challenge Cup holder’s Clermont Auvergne could stop them from reaching the top spot.
Ulster begin their journey Saturday at 1pm away to Bath – both teams will be hoping for improved form after the return of their internationals.
Next up is Leinster.
Having won in 2018 and lost to Saracens in last season’s final in May, Leinster will be hopeful that their European dominance will continue this year.
A superb start to their domestic campaign leaves them top of Conference A of the Pro 14 heading into their European opener.
Having gone unbeaten, Leinster will be hoping to carry that form onto the European stage in Pool 1 against Benetton, Lyon and old rivals Northampton.
A tough pool with three of the four teams in the top two in their domestic leagues respectively, Leinster will have to be on their best form when European Rugby calls.
With Lyon top of the Top 14 and Northampton second in the Premiership, Leo Cullen’s men will look to make a statement for the season, something that could derail in such a tough pool.
However, with an unbeaten record in the league and an easier start on paper at home to Benetton, Leinster could come out on top.
Leinster game against Benetton Treviso kicks off at 3:15pm on Saturday, a team they edged past in the domestic season opener.
The penultimate provincial game involves Munster.
After a heart-breaking exit in the semi-final stage last year at the hands of Saracens, Munster will be hoping to take their claim for the trophy a few steps further this year.
With a strong start to the Pro 14 this season, in which they sit top of conference B, losing only to a pacey Cheetahs side, Munster will feel they have a strong chance of reaching their goal.
A tough Pool 4 looks to put a spanner in the works as it sees them pitted against last year’s winners Saracens, 2018 finalists Racing 92 and Ospreys.
Munster, however, have arguably been the strongest side domestically out of the four, with Ospreys and Racing struggling to get going.
Saracens’ 35-point deduction for breaching salary cap rules in the Premiership might see them set their focus on domestic games to ensure survival this season, so Munster could come out of the group as winners.
Munster begin their Champions Cup campaign at 5:30 on Saturday when they travel to Wales to face the Ospreys, who are struggling domestically.
Last to play is Connacht.
Connacht have started the season off as well as Ulster have. Losses to Scarlets and Leinster either side of their four wins have dampened an otherwise bright start. They sit fourth a closely contested Conference B, but are seven points ahead of fifth-placed Treviso.
Connacht, competing in their first Champions Cup season since 2016-17, will look to get out of their pool, having been unsuccessful the last time out.
They face Montpellier, Toulouse and Gloucester in Pool 5 of the competition.
Although suffering inconsistent starts, the three teams will be no pushovers, with Toulouse being a semi-finalist last year.
A number of big names will line out for the three opposing teams against Connacht too, posing individual threats with their qualities.
Connacht will be confident, given that they have the best domestic form leading into the opening round, but a tough pool may prove too much for them.
They entertain Montpellier in their opener at 1pm on Sunday, an inconsistent team with multiple big names returning for the side.
Hopefully our four provinces can do us proud on the biggest European stage in rugby. Maybe a trophy awaits for one of them in May.