Champions Cup preview: Pool 4

Date published: November 12 2015

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Our latest preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 4, containing Treviso, Leicester, Munster and Stade Français.

The latter trio will all fancy their chances of progression and from past seasons there could be two teams coming out of this pool into the knockouts.

Let's take a closer look at the teams.

Leicester

Leicester have failed to reach further than the quarter-final stage of this European competition since 2008/09, with last season seeing them not make it out of the pool stage. Needless to say they're determined to bounce back in a decent pool considering others out there.

Key games come against Stade Français first up in the Champions Cup opener on Friday and then in Round 3 and 4 against Munster – what a prospect those back-to-back showdowns promise to be between two of European rugby's biggest names over the years. We can't wait for them.

Do they have the personnel to see off the likes of the Irish giants and current Top 14 champions? The jury remains out there as losing Julian Salvi, Geoff Parling, Blaine Scully and others could count against them in such high pressure matches. Tigers fans will hope new arrivals Brendan O'Connor and Jean de Villiers give them a boost once they are available, with the latter possibly only fit for Round 4.

Marcos Ayerza's fitness is also critical to their hopes while they will hope to partner Manu Tuilagi with the aforementioned De Villiers once the pair are back from their respective injuries. If they can combine then chances will arrive for Vereniki Goneva and Mathew Tait.

The early signs from the Premiership are positive as despite a handful of their stars, they have managed three wins from four, with their only loss coming last week at Exeter where many will suffer the same fate this season. The big ask for the Tigers is to pick up a win on the road in either Limerick or Paris whilst commanding a fortress at Welford Road. Do that and they will be two steps away from the final.

One to watch: Owen Williams

Director of rugby Richard Cockerill has urged Wales boss Warren Gatland to give his fly-half a shot on the international stage. Williams has impressed for the Tigers since arriving from Scarlets over a year ago and has a big opportunity to enhance his credentials in 2015/16.


Munster

Munster missed out on the European knockout stages for the first time since 2010/11 last season as they were beaten to the quarter-finals by Clermont and Saracens in what was a tough group. They managed three wins out of six games but did cross for the most tries in Pool 1.

It all began with drama aplenty at Sale as the Irish side fought their way back from a hefty deficit before Ian Keatley's late drop-goal won the game. They then beat Saracens 14-3 and were looking strong before two defeats to Clermont and one at Saracens dashed their hopes.

This season they must try to improve without the services of talismanic figure Paul O'Connell, who is now with Toulon, while solid full-back Felix Jones has called time on his career. Mark Chisholm and Lucas González Amorosino come in while Francis Saili is a good signing.

They have started pretty well in the PRO12 with six wins from seven and in CJ Stander they have a strong carrier at the base while Conor Murray and Keatley are good organisers. But while they still possess quality in their XV, we can't see them going all the way to a final against teams such as Toulon. That's not to say they can't top this pool as Thomond Park will as always be a factor in the Champions Cup.

Munster must target five points against Treviso at home first up before heading to Paris in Round Two. Claiming victory there is no mean feat as Stade Français beat Clermont at Stade Jean Bouin last week, albeit a weakened Clermont. Losing bonus-points there and at Welford Road to go with wins in their other games should be enough to see them improve on last season but as we say, don't expect the silverware.

One to watch: CJ Stander

We have mentioned him already and if Stander can get Munster over the advantage line like he has done since his arrival from the Bulls in 2012 then life is made that much easier for Murray and Keatley. The number eight is also no stranger to scoring tries so defences must watch him closely.


Stade Français

The less said about Stade Français' European campaign last season the better. Challenge Cup rugby after a dismal Top 14 campaign in the previous campaign and they could not even progress into the knockouts, finishing behind the Dragons and Newcastle Falcons in their pool.

Many would say they were concentrating on the Top 14 and the greater lure – both of the prize and its financial incentives. It paid off, with Stade winning that final against Clermont on a memorable day, which means they are back at European rugby's top table for 2015/16.

This season hasn't started so well in France as they have just three wins from their opening eight games, of course without new arrivals Will Genia and Willem Alberts. Despite that duo coming in we're not falling over ourselves backing them to top the group, as Munster and Leicester are stern opposition. We all know how the French don't like to travel and won't relish trips to Welford Road and Thomond Park.

Up front they do look strong however and will be difficult to get the better of, as the likes of France international prop Rabah Slimani and second-row Pascal Papé offer steel while Alberts and Sergio Parisse is a double act we're looking forward to seeing during the pool.

Genia combining with Jules Plisson is also going to be an exciting link-up should the Frenchman get the nod over Morné Steyn while centre Jonathan Danty is a talent. One area of weakness for oppositions to attack though is full-back as the jury remains out on Djibril Camara.

We suppose the biggest question of all is whether Stade Français will stick to their guns in Europe if their Top 14 form doesn't improve. If they do then they will be battling for top spot. If not then it's positive news for Munster in Round 5 and also Leicester in Round 6.

One to watch: Jonathan Danty

Was a key player for Stade Français in their Top 14 winning season of 2014/15 and the Parisians will look to Danty to get them over the advantage line yet again this year. Danty, 23, is surely an international in waiting as he's nigh on impossible to stop from close range.


Treviso

The PRO12 basement side have had a terrible start to the season, losing seven out of seven games to sit five points off Cardiff Blues and Zebre. Champions Cup rugby is going to be another step up so one therefore worries for how they will fare, once again, in the pool stage.

Last year they finished with one win from the six games which came in the final round against the Ospreys, but we feel they are a weaker squad than in 2014/15 and that could spell a difficult campaign against Leicester, Munster and reigning Top 14 champions Stade Francais.

Michele Campagnaro, Simone Favaro and Mat Luamanu are notable leavers from the squad and while new arrival from Sale, Luke McLean, is a dependable full-back for Italy, we wonder if he can steer this Treviso side around the field from fly-half, especially on the back foot.

They kick-off their pool challenge away to Munster before hosting Leicester. Then it is away and home games against Stade Français as the 7500/1 tournament outsiders hope to avoid the embarrassment of six straight defeats. Umberto Casellato has one heck of a job on his hands.

Skipper Alessandro Zanni wants his side to be as competitive as possible in every game and at Stadio Comunale di Monigo we expect them to not make life easy on their superior visitors. However, eventually the class of their opposition will show through as a tough pool awaits.

One to watch: Jayden Hawyard

Former Western Force full-back Hayward has impressed since making the move from Perth to Italy. His goal-kicking will be key to keeping them in games while he also offers a strong carrying option from the back, scoring twice in the recent defeat at Connacht in the PRO12.

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