Champions Cup Preview: Pool 1

Date published: October 13 2014

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Our first preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 1, containing Saracens, Munster, Sale and Clermont.

Our first preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 1, containing Saracens, Munster, Sale and Clermont.

With three teams who have made the final four in each of the last two editions of the Heineken Cup, this is pretty much as tough as they come, and a nice welcome back to Europe’s elite for Sale.

Let’s take a closer look at the teams.

Saracens

Desperately trying to prove that English clubs can compete in Europe, Sarries entered unchartered territory last season with their first Heineken Cup final.

After producing arguably the performance of the tournament to hammer Clermont in the semis, they were overpowered and overwhelmed by Toulon in the final.

In recent seasons they have certainly shown the ability to learn from their defeats, and given the strength of this group, they will need to do the same again.

Saracens come into the competition second in the Premiership having lost just once all season. That came against Bath, but they bounced back this week against Gloucester.

It’s worth remembering that last year they were beaten home and away in the group stages by Toulouse. There’s no Zebre around this year to save them if history repeats itself.

An opening game at home to Clermont will be huge and the pressure will be on Sarries from the off.

They will be boosted by the return of Owen Farrell however, with the England man set to be fit for the opener.

One to Watch: Chris Ashton

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Ashton’s tries are key to Saracens’ game plan. Last season he scored 11, including a number of early tries in the big games. Sarries will be asking for more of the same this season.


Munster

Back-to-back semi-finals is not bad going for a team in rebuilding mode, but Munster and Europe go way back.

The last two seasons have seen tough losses in France in the last four and it would be arguably an even greater achievement to get back there this season.

Despite their European pedigree, there is a feeling that this Munster side might be a little vulnerable, having already lost twice at Thomond Park in the Pro12.

Still, the pool is set up for another Thomond miracle, with a trip to Sale to start the competition, and the English club facing a daunting game in Limerick in Round Six.

Given the strength of the pool, Munster probably need to win their opener, or at least pick up a bonus point. Their recent win over Leinster will certainly have given them confidence that they can do that.

The double header against Clermont in December is already shaping up to be another classic between two of Europe’s most passionate sets of supporters.

One to Watch: Peter O’Mahony

The figurehead of the Munster regeneration, it’s easy to forget that O’Mahony is just 25 years old. An absolute nightmare at the breakdown, he will be charged with disrupting opposition ball all day long, and he’ll need to for Munster to impose themselves in the big matches.


Sale

It doesn’t get much tougher than this for Sale, who go into the competition as massive underdogs.

Steve Diamond’s team surprised a lot of people last season to finish in the top six and if they can show that sort of form once more, they will be a tough nut to crack.

The worry though is that against the European heavyweights they might just get bullied, much as they were this weekend in Northampton.

After an opening game at home to Munster they face the daunting prospect of travelling to the Stade Marcel Michelin. Of course Sale have already won in that stadium in an upset in 2008.

Back then Luke McAlister was in Sale colours though, so things have changed a fair bit. One man however who will have circled that game in his calendar is Nathan Hines after his spell in volcano country.

Sale are certainly capable of springing a surprise or two during the group stages, but it’s asking a lot for them to really challenge at the top of the pool.

One to Watch: Chris Cusiter

One Lions scrum-half replaced another in Salford, with Cusiter stepping into Dwayne Peel’s boots. The Scottish international is vastly experienced and will play a key role in a relatively green side. When he’s fit, he’s one of the best nines around.


Clermont

Last year’s devastating finish to the season appeared to signal the end of an era at Clermont, but heading into the European break they sit pretty at the summit of the Top 14.

New coaches Franck Az

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