Our latest preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 3, containing Leicester, Scarlets, Ulster and holders Toulon.
Our latest preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 3, containing Leicester, Scarlets, Ulster and champions Toulon.
There are no bad groups in this competition but Pool 3 definitely has a certain shine, particularly given that it features three former champions.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
Champions in 2012 and 2013, Toulon have the strongest squad on the continent and now the success to match it after last year’s Top 14-Euro double.
Mourad Boudjellal has developed a squad brimming with experienced, world-class players who, despite the collection of egos, all appear unified by a drive for silverware. Consider the additions for this season – James O’Connor, Mamuka Gorgodze, Leigh Halfpenny – and you have an idea of the talent at Bernard’s Laporte disposal.
There is however a Jonny Wilkinson-shaped hole that has not yet been entirely filled. Replacing the England great needs equal parts of excellent distribution and accurate goalkicking, with Giteau offering one but not quite the other.
Halfpenny’s debut only came last week in an away loss against Toulouse, as coach Pierre Mignoni admitted the lack of a performance was more concerning than the defeat.
Finding the right XV when you have so many good players is harder than it sounds, especially when you consider that the best player in Europe last season, Steffon Armitage, was on the bench on Sunday.
With their second successive title however last season Toulon showed great mental fortitude. Repeating in Europe has only been done three times, before Toulon by Leicester and Leinster, while no one has ever won three in a row.
Toulon undoubtedly have the squad and temperament which leaves their chances down to the variables; form, injuries, execution and luck. None of those can be bought or paid off.
One to Watch: Matt Giteau
Toulon really missed the Australian’s presence against Toulouse. So creative, Giteau is now the man Toulon turn to made the magic happen. Named Top 14 Player of the Year last week, it’s worth noting Toulon are five from five with him but one from four without so far this season.
Just about emerging out the other side of a rough beginning to the season, Leicester haven’t won a European title now for 12 years.
This season doesn’t feel like the year the Tigers will amend that record but to have a fighting chance they at least need their strongest XV – not an easy request when as many as 21 players recently were in the treatment room.
A sense of change at Welford Road has been hard to ignore with Freddie Burns arriving to replace Toby Flood, but the way Leicester folded to a 45-0 thrashing at Bath set the alarm bells ringing.
For now there is no Geoff Parling, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Tom Croft, Ed Slater or Anthony Allen – massive figures all of them.
It’s essential they have as many of those players back for the double header with Toulon in December.
If Burns can rapidly find his feet and the Leicester pack holds its own then who knows, because the firepower is there in the backs with Manu Tuilagi and Vereniki Goneva to break games open. But visits to Ravenhill and Toulon are especially tough.
One to Watch: Brad Thorn
A full 80 minutes for Leicester recently in the win over Harlequins confirmed that Thorn, set to turn 40 in February, still has the legs to go with his inspirational play. A real warrior playing for a team who cherish their warriors. His influence is huge.
Losing director of rugby David Humphreys has barely destabilised the Irish province, having lost only one of their first six matches in the Pro12 so far.
Johann Muller is retired and Ruan Pienaar currently injured but Ulster have ticked through the start of the season very well indeed. No Pro12 team has conceded fewer points than their 76.
There’s no doubt that over recent seasons Ulster have risen to become a major European player. Making the final in 2012 ended with disappointment at Twickenham but with Pienaar on song and a pack inspired by captain Rory Best, they have great potential.
Starting off with a bang by beating a struggling Leicester at Welford Road would propel them forward in the group stages, with Paddy Jackson hopefully back to guide the ship after he missed the impressive Glasgow win with concussion.
With Toulon having to travel to Ravenhill in Round Two after Ulster face a misfiring Leicester, it’s not inconceivable for Ulster to win their first four matches and put themselves right in contention to win the pool.
That’s on paper though. Lose those first two games and their campaign will be tricky.
One to Watch: Chris Henry
When things go well for Ulster, he tends to be the reason why. The Ireland flanker is uncompromising, physical and a turnover master. In those tight matches his input could swing the result.
There has to be an odd team out in such a tight pool, with the Scarlets appearing to be the prime candidates to do so.
That doesn’t mean however that they won’t both produce some thrilling attacking rugby nor that they’ll be easy to defeat at home.
Many a memorable Heineken Cup clash has been played out at Parc y Scarlets and Ulster were forced to settle for a 32-32 draw on their visit at the beginning of the season.
New head coach Wayne Pivac highlighted his side’s number of unforced errors in the recent defeat to Munster – something that has to be controlled when facing Toulon in particular with their explosive backs.
Travelling to the Stade Mayol both for a first game of the competition and after Toulon have been defeated and vowed to respond is a thankless task. Take anything away from that however and their confidence will soar.
How the forwards go is a concern but the talent out wide with Scott and Liam Williams, along with Rhys Priestland at ten, is undeniable.
One to Watch: Samson Lee
We initially had an eye on in-form scrum-half Gareth Davies, but his three-month injury layoff means we won’t see him until the latter rounds. So we’re turned out attention to Lee, the Wales tighthead if things go to plan for the next decade who has already ousted Adam Jones.
Pool 3 Prediction: Putting the Scarlets respectfully to one side, Toulon are the favourites to top the group but it may come down to the final two matches if they fail to win at Ravenhill or Welford Road. Ulster, given their form, will be right in the hunt just ahead of Leicester. Expect Toulon to win Pool 3, with Ulster in contention as a possible runner-up.