Our next preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 5, containing Bordeaux-Bègles, Clermont, Exeter Chiefs and Ulster.
In an interesting twist, Clermont, Bordeaux-Bègles and Exeter Chiefs have been drawn in the same pool for the second successive year and they are joined by Ulster in what should be a tough group.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
UBB will have extra motivation to do well this season after failing narrowly to reach the quarter-finals in 2016.
Under the guidance of head coach Raphaël Ibanez, they have done well in the Top 14 and are currently in fifth place in the standings, five points adrift of tabletoppers Clermont.
UBB head in to the Champions Cup in a rich vein of form, after winning their last three matches – against Lyon, Pau and Brive – but prior to that, they suffered a heavy 40-16 loss to Clermont in Round Five of the Top 14.
But despite that result, Ibanez’s troops will be no pushovers and they have made some shrewd signings with Ireland fly-half Ian Madigan and Wallabies lock Luke Jones joining a squad which already includes the likes of Lionel Beauxis, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Jean-Baptiste Poux.
UBB’s backroom staff has also been bolstered by the arrival of veteran coach Jacques Brunel, who has taken charge of the club’s forwards after completing a five-year stint as Italy’s head coach.
One to watch: Adam Ashley-Cooper
The Wallaby centurion has settled in nicely, since joining last season, and his experience will be handy in this tournament. The veteran three-quarter possesses an astute rugby brain which helped him to score 37 tries in 118 Tests for Australia. Such experience will prove invaluable especially during the latter stages of the pool phases and – if they qualify – also during the knockout rounds.
Another side who will not be lacking in motivation after they failed reach the quarter-finals of last year’s competition.
This after their final pool match against UBB ended in dramatic fashion when Morgan Parra turned down the chance to take a penalty which would have secured them top spot in the pool.
Les Jaunards head in to this season’s competition in fine form and are currently sitting pretty at the top of the Top 14 standings with a three-point lead over closest rivals La Rochelle after eight matches.
Their best performance in that competition was a 47-10 demolition of defending champions Racing 92 at Stade Marcel Michelin with Noa Nakaitaci leading the way with a hat-trick of tries.
Despite losing the services of experienced Wales centre Jonathan Davies, who has returned to the Scarlets, Clermont still have plenty of attacking threats with English duo Nick Abendanon, David Strettle, Parra, Nakaitaci and Wesley Fofana all capable of changing the course of a match with a moment of brilliance.
The 2013 and 2015 runners-up will expect forwards like captain Damien Chouly, Fritz Lee, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Benjamin Kayser and Sebastien Vahaamahina to lay the foundation for those exciting backs, while the recruitment of Wallabies Sitaleki Timani and Nathan Charles will also be expected to boost them up front.
One to watch: Noa Nakaitaci
The Fijian born French international is an elusive runner blessed with blistering pace and has impressed with several impressive performances in the Top 14 this season. A superb finisher, the 26-year-old has already scored six tries from eight matches in the Top 14 and is currently that tournament’s joint top try-scorer with Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff.
Rob Baxter’s charges did well to reach the quarter-finals of 2015/16 tournament but were knocked out – somewhat surprisingly – by fellow Premiership outfit Wasps.
Exeter also reached last year’s Premiership Final, where they lost to Saracens, and although they have delivered a mixed bag of performances in that tournament this season, the Chiefs will be expected to at least match last year’s Champions Cup effort by reaching the knockout rounds.
Baxter has bolstered his squad by signing a trio of Wallabies in Dave Dennis, Lachlan Turner and Greg Holmes as well as one-Test England international Ollie Devoto, who joined from Bath.
They will, however, be without the services of first-choice wing Jack Nowell for the opening rounds of this tournament after he sustained a quad injury during an England training camp recently.
Utility back Henry Slade will be keen to impress after missing most of last season’s campaign due to a broken leg.
One to watch: Thomas Waldrom
The barnstorming number eight has gained a reputation for his try-scoring exploits and will be keen to give the Devon-based outfit much needed go-forward from the base of the scrum. When he builds up a head of steam, Waldrom is difficult to stop and that’s exatly what the Premiership side’s fans will want.
Under the guidance of director of rugby Les Kiss, Ulster have made an impressive start to the PRO12 where they are currently in first place on the table despite suffering their first defeat to that competition’s champions, Connacht, last weekend.
Ulster have several seasoned campaigners in their ranks with former Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar out to prove a point as he will end his six-year association with the Belfast-based club at the end of this season after the Irish Rugby Football Union halted plans for him to sign a new contract due to their succession policy.
New signing Marcell Coetzeee is still recovering from a serious knee injury and is yet to make his debut for the province. Ulster do, however, have enough depth in their back row to cope with the Springbok’s absence.
The experience and leadership of Ireland captain Rory Best will lead the forward charge alongside the likes of back-row Roger Wilson and utility forward Iain Henderson while they have several exciting players in their back-line.
Fly-half Paddy Jackson, who impressed in the number 10 jersey for Ireland during their three-Test tour of South Africa in June, has developed in to a fine playmaker and will be keen to bring out the best in his outside backs which include brilliant attackers like Tommy Bowe, Charles Piutau and Jared Payne.
One to watch: Charles Piutau
The All Black utility back arrived at Ulster amidst much fanfare after a stellar season at Wasps and will be expected to unlock opposition defences as he is one of the game’s best players with ball in hand when on song. Capable of playing in various positions – including centre and wing – it’s at full-back where he usually causes the most damage with his counter-attacking a sight to behold.