Our latest preview ahead of this season’s Champions Cup takes a look at Pool 4, featuring Castres, Leinster, Montpellier and Northampton.
It’s another tough pool to progress from as all four sides on their day are a match for anyone in Europe. Picking a winner won’t be easy.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
The rank outsiders with the bookmakers in this group but they will be difficult to beat, particularly on home soil for their pool rivals.
Losing Richie Gray, Remi Lamerat and Sitiveni Sivivatu during the off-season does, however, leave them lacking a touch of class and with Leinster, Montpellier and Northampton having strengthened, it’s going to be a tough ask for Castres to finish at the summit of this pile.
In 2015/16 they were in the Challenge Cup and failed to make it out of their pool after losing three out of six matches, with their focus clearly being on domestic matters. If things don’t kick-off well, one fears that will again be the case after a poor start in the Top 14.
They’ve won three out of their first eight matches in France but their last three games have seen them face Racing 92 (win), Clermont and Montpellier (both lost) so it’s hard to be overly critical of Christophe Urios’ men, who will want to prove a point first up at Leinster.
Once again the form of a streetwise pack that includes Alex Tulou will be key while Rory Kockott and Remi Grosso need to shine in behind.
One to watch: Alex Tulou
Montpellier allowed Tulou to leave a couple of seasons ago and their loss has certainly been Castres’ gain. Such a devastating runner with ball in hand, Tulou will be key to his side’s hopes in this pool. He’ll come up against his former team in December’s back-to-back rounds.
Put simply, last season’s European campaign was a disaster for Leinster as they finished bottom of their pool with one win, behind Wasps, Toulon and Bath. They conceded 17 tries in the pool and their woes began in Round One when Wasps were impressive 33-6 winners at the RDS.
This year they have added Stuart Lancaster to their coaching team and have looked much more solid in the PRO12 so far, beating Munster in their most recent game to send them into the clash with Castres with their tails up. A repeat of last term’s opener surely won’t happen.
After hosting Castres, the Irish giants head to Montpellier for a tough clash before away and home games against Northampton come during December. They simply must get off on the right foot against Castres, with the form of Jack McGrath, Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton being key.
Bringing in Robbie Henshaw during the off-season from Connacht has certainly boosted their midfield stocks, but we feel they just fall a touch short of Montpellier in terms of quality. They will need other teams to take points off Jake White’s outfit, which is always a hope when it comes to French teams playing abroad in Europe. However, we’re finding it difficult to see Leinster finishing top of this group.
One to watch: Jonathan Sexton
Leinster need a massive campaign from their fly-half if they are to beat Montpellier and Northampton to the summit. He wasn’t at his best last season but if he links with Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose while grabbing games by the scruff of the neck, Leinster have a chance.
Boasting a star-studded squad that includes the likes of Nemani Nadolo and Bismarck du Plessis, Montpellier will be looking to build on last term’s Challenge Cup success by lifting the Champions Cup in Jake White’s final campaign in the hot-seat before Vern Cotter arrives.
White will move on at the end of 2016/17 with his open eagerness to take over from Stuart Lancaster as England head coach in 2015 coming back to bite him. His players will want to give him the perfect send-off though this season and they have the personnel to do just that.
Nadolo is a special player and he could well take this competition by storm, with François Steyn and Demetri Catrakilis also key players.
They beat pool rivals Castres last weekend in the Top 14 and should have too much for their other group rivals in terms of points accrued at the end of this pool stage. It won’t be plain sailing but Montpellier’s class, particularly from Nadolo, will shine through in the end.
One to watch: Nemani Nadolo
He did some wonderful things in Super Rugby for the Crusaders and it was only a matter of time before a big-spending European team came calling. Montpellier did just that and he is set for big things in this season’s Champions Cup. Sit back and enjoy the big man’s skills.
After sneaking into the knock-out stages last season as the lowest seed, Northampton were dumped out of the competition at the last-eight stage by eventual winners Saracens. They almost caused a shock in that game but eventually Sarries found their form to win at Allianz Park.
This season Saints have recruited well as the arrivals of Louis Picamoles and Nic Groom have added a steeliness at the back of the scrum. They need Luther Burrell and George North outside them to bring their power game while it goes without saying that both Stephen Myler and Dylan Hartley must have cool heads in their decision making and executing their skills. If those boxes are ticked, they are a strong side.
Teimana Harrison was unearthed as a real talent in the back-row last season while Tom Wood and Ben Foden will be looking to catch the eye of Eddie Jones in the coming weeks after once again being left out by England.
Saints will be there or thereabouts in this pool but only if they make Franklin’s Gardens a fortress, something they have not done so far in the Premiership with two home defeats already carded. A solid start against Montpellier is crucial before they head to Castres for another pivotal match.
One to watch: Louis Picamoles
It’s rare we see French stars heading across the Channel to play in England but Picamoles wanted a new start and he has certainly go that at Northampton. Such a destructive runner with ball in hand, the Saints will need their number eight to carry their charge in this pool.