Heineken numbers favour Ireland for first time

Ireland has four clubs in the Heineken Cup for the first time – with Connacht Rugby as the tournament newcomers courtesy of Leinster winning the 2011 Heineken Cup final and earning an additional place for another Irish club.

And although Connacht will be taking their tournament bow at Harlequins on Friday night it will be their 99th European match after being ever present in the 15 seasons of the Amlin Challenge Cup.

“I don’t think there will be the need for too many motivational words on the day – it is going to be a massive occasion and we cannot wait,” said Connacht’s international back rower John Muldoon.

“It is a massive challenge for us against the Premiership leaders but, having played them a fair few times in recent seasons, we know pretty much what to expect.

“We have managed to beat them once or twice and we are all really looking forward to our first game in the Heineken Cup. However, we know that Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea has really turned their fortunes around and developed a greater consistency in the club.”

Eric Elwood – the former Ireland outside half who scored 473 Amlin Challenge Cup points for Connacht – is now in charge as head coach and will be locked in a battle of wits with former club and country team-mate O’Shea.

“Eric is a very passionate man who wears his heart on his sleeve and only wants the best for Connacht Rugby,” said Muldoon. “The players feed off his energy and enthusiasm and he is a doer rather than a talker who lives and breathes Connacht Rugby.

“In the professional era we have had Warren Gatland, Michael Bradley and now Eric and all three have had hands in getting Connacht to where we are today. Warren went on to bigger and better things but when he was with us we were in a tough place and he took us out of the doldrums while Eric is now making sure we go further and further.”

While Connacht are the newcomers, former double Heineken Cup champions Munster will be playing their 116th tournament match when they meet Northampton Saints at Thomond Park on Saturday.

“It is going to be an incredibly tough game against last season’s beaten finalists last year,” said captain Paul O’Connell. “I know from personal experience what a Heineken Cup final did to us – it galvanises you even more and makes you want it ever more.

“When you look at their team they have class and physicality everywhere, from their front row to full back, and they will be all the stronger for the bitter experience from last year.

“You rarely see a team come from nowhere to win the Heineken Cup as you need to go close a few times and now they have done that. Perhaps you never go as close as last season, when they were so far ahead, but they will have leant a lot form that, stored up that experience and be increasingly determined this year.

“Both Irish and English players will be disappointed with their World Cups, none of us went out to New Zealand to come home after the quarter-final stage, but you just have to get on with it and immerse yourself in your club side.

“We also have the Scarlets in our group – the club who knocked us out of the Heineken Cup in the 2007 quarter-finals when they beat us 24-15 – and their World Cup players will have plenty of confidence after New Zealand as well as having a great tradition in the tournament.”

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