Leinster face London Irish in opener - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Leinster face London Irish in opener

By Luke Phillips 09/10/2009 06:53:29 AM Comments (0)

European Cup holders Leinster kick off this season's rugby union tournament with a potential banana-slip of a game on Friday against in-form English Premiership club London Irish.

Leinster, bolstered by the signings of prop Mike Ross and Scotland lock Nathan Hines to make up for Australian flanker Rocky Elsom, boast an international-like line-up, as do Munster, the 2008 champions and fellow Irish province.

But Leinster captain Leo Cullen said other teams had got stronger for this season's premier continental club knock-out competition.

"It was tough enough winning the Heineken Cup last season but I guess it is going to be even tougher defending it - we certainly won't have any element of surprise on our side this time," Cullen said.

"The squad is desperately hungry to move on and build on the success of last season but the standard of teams simply gets better every year and the French teams in particular have recruited very heavily and will be a massive challenge.

"London Irish are a very strong physical side with a number of powerful runners, superbly coached by Toby Booth.

"They will be a real handful and a huge challenge but, as we also like to play a brand of attacking rugby it should be some match.

"We were a bit ragged getting out of our group last season and it wasn't always the prettiest.

"We could have easily gone out in the quarter-finals but being a bit under the radar might have helped us and we certainly rode our luck a bit," said Cullen, whose side last week handed out a 30-0 thrashing to 2008 champions Munster.

Munster are listed as favourites by Ladbrokes, Britain's biggest high-street bookmaker, with Leinster in third, along with French giants Toulouse, Stade Francais, Clermont and Biarritz in the top six.

Three-time champions Toulouse face Sale on Sunday, with Stade Francais hosting Edinburgh and Clermont seeking to put a hatful past Italian minnows Viadana at home. Biarritz travel to Glasgow for a tricky game against a resurgent Scottish side.

"If we lose a match, the European Cup is as good as over," said Toulouse coach Guy Noves of his team's Pool 5, which also includes Harlequins and Cardiff, who won the Anglo-Welsh Cup last season and narrowly missed out on a place in the European Cup final after losing a penalty shoot-out to Leicester.

Noves' assertion is not too far off the mark in what has turned out to be a cut-throat tournament that provides constantly nail-biting action as 24 teams (seven English, six French, four Welsh, three Irish, two Scottish and two Italian) in six pools vie for just eight spots in the knock-out stage.

Only the pool winners and the best two second-placed finishers qualify for the quarter-finals, with the next three best placed pool runners-up entered into the quarter-finals of the second-tier European Challenge Cup.

The rules up the ante on teams wishing to qualify as outright pool winners, with clubs in pools that include Italian whipping-boys Viadana and Treviso having a much more realistic chance of qualifying as second-placed finishers on superior points difference.

The first round of action also sees two-time winners and last year's beaten finalists Leicester at home to Welsh club Ospreys, who have not enjoyed the best start to the season.

French champions Perpignan travel to Treviso, while Pool 1 rivals Munster are also away to Northampton.

Ulster play Bath in Pool 2's other game, while Llanelli host 1997 champions Brive and fellow Welsh region Newport-Gwent Dragons travel to Gloucester.

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