Our next preview ahead of this season’s Champions Cup takes a look at Pool 3, featuring defending champions Saracens along with Sale, the Scarlets and Toulon.
Getting to see Saracens and Toulon go up against each other is worth keeping tabs on this Pool alone, with Sale and the Scarlets both hoping to cause an upset.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that Sale are on the brink of turning a big corner after a few underwhelming seasons. Long regarded as far from the most aesthetically pleasing side to watch in English rugby but that reputation is beginning to change, and a big part of that is down to the arrival on the scene of exciting young backs Sam James and Mike Haley.
Tough to defeat at home, Sale have in fact won just two of their first six games in the Premiership this season, and the battle for consistency is currently the biggest problem – jumping from an impressive home win over Leicester Tigers before slumping to a 30-3 loss away at Bath the following week.
Turning over one of Saracens or Toulon at home certainly wouldn’t come as a major shock to the system, but it would require Sale performing at their best.
AJ MacGinty is still settling into the Danny Cipriani shaped hole at fly-half and Peter Stringer’s injury is a setback, given he still offers so much to the side even at 38.
Expectations therefore are lower than for the two frontrunners in Pool 3, but that will suit Sale just fine. Being written off seems to get the best out of Steve Diamond’s side. A potential threat.
One to watch: Josh Beaumont
Sale’s captain and number eight is on the cusp of gaining international recognition for the first time, down in part to his versatility to play in the second and back rows combined with real power. Always leads from the front.
The defending Premiership and European champions have started the season in good form, racking up five wins from six in the league and making a statement on Sunday with the way they contained Wasps’ previously free-flowing attack.
An already imperious squad feels ever stronger this season thanks to the additions of Vincent Koch, who arrived this week, Schalk Burger, Sean Maitland and a surprise impact at fly-half from Alex Lozowski, who in the absence of Owen Farrell due to injury has taken his opportunity by the scruff of the neck. Should Eben Etzebeth arrive as expected in the coming days, then the monster only gets scarier.
Chris Ashton’s suspension and Savenaca Rawaca’s decision to opt out of his move means that another injury on the wing could expose some younger prospects a little sooner than planned, but all in all Mark McCall’s squad are built to once again make it at least all the way to the final four.
Saracens won all six of their pool matches last season to qualify as number one seeds, and matching that will require a big performance at the Stade Félix Mayol over Toulon, something they are fully capable of pulling off.
Pool favourites certainly, and tournament favourites too.
One to watch: Jamie George
The England international is applying the pressure on national captain Dylan Hartley following his bright start to the season, and while always a mobile and effective operator in the loose, the tweaks to the laws regarding the rolling maul mean that George is set for a bigger spotlight this season, having scored twice on Sunday against Wasps.
Expectations are far from high for the Welsh region after they bottomed out of last season’s Pool 3, losing all six of their matches in a group containing eventual finalists Racing 92 along with Northampton Saints and Glasgow Warriors.
Is this year’s Pool any easier? Not exactly. Wayne Pivac’s side have started the PRO12 season with three wins out of six, losing their opening three games of the season to Munster, Edinburgh and Ulster.
Talented players in the Scarlets’ ranks aren’t exactly hard to spot – just look at the quality across the backline especially with Liam Williams, Gareth Davies, returning signing Jonathan Davies and new signing Rhys Patchell to pick out a few, not forgetting an all-Welsh international front row with Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee.
Having shaken off that surprisingly poor start to the season and built up a winning run, the Scarlets host Sale Sharks in the first game of the competition at the right time, and a win would do wonders for their confidence. Overturning Saracens and Toulon however looks like too much of an ask.
One to watch: Johnny McNicholl
Getting the ink dry on this contract was one of the smartest bits of business by a PRO12 franchise for some time. McNicholl had his best Super Rugby season in 2016 with the Crusaders, a dominant try-scoring force throughout who looked as though he was starting to fulfil his potential. Expect fireworks from him in a talented back division.
Are the three-time champions still the force of old? Even with their 2015 European title triumph, Mourad Boudjellal’s good ship hasn’t felt quite as steady on the water since the departure of first Jonny Wilkinson and then a host of other veterans in Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman and Ali Williams. Having to watch the seemingly ageless Chris Masoe depart for Racing last season and then get the better of Toulon in the Top 14 final must have stung as well.
The transition from Bernard Laporte to Diego Dominguez looked like a complete disaster after Toulon’s rough start to the new season but the waves are beginning to settle down again, defeating Montpellier and Clermont in consecutive weeks – no mean feat – before coming away from a tricky fixture last weekend against La Rochelle with a draw.
Efforts to bulk up the tight five have been made after Toulon were perceived as soft upfront, as Marcel van der Merwe and Laurent Delboubles try and fill Hayman’s enormous boots, but time will tell if that’s possible to achieve without going out and signing Owen Franks.
This is still an outstanding group of players, now working under a more settled coaching unit with the arrival of Mike Ford, and their expectations should understandably be high for the season. But only one team can top Pool 3 to get a home quarter-final, and on the basis of what we have seen so far in 2016, Toulon face a major battle to overhaul Saracens in order to do that.
One to watch: Josua Tuisova
The 22-year-old feels on the brink of a breakout season for Toulon, having already shown how much power and speed he has in his locker. Tries aren’t a problem for Tuisova, but perhaps this is the season where he turns into a proven matchwinner.