Ahead of the opening round of the Champions Cup, we look at the 20 teams looking to get their hands on European club rugby’s coveted prize.
Saracens are of course the reigning champions – two-time ones at that – and will yet again be a favourite to get their hands on the trophy.
Without further ado, let’s study the five pools that are set to kick-off.
Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps
It’s been a decent start to the Premiership season for Harlequins, with three wins out of six leaving them in seventh place. They have a good balance of youth and experience with Danny Care and Marcus Smith typifying that, and while some may feel they enter this pool as an underdog against three high quality sides, don’t write them off. Away wins of course are going to be hugely difficult to come by however.
La Rochelle are going to be tough to beat on their home patch and will hope to build on the good work they did in the Top 14 last season. They play such an exciting brand of rugby which bodes well for entertainment in this pool as all four will refuse to go into their shells.
Ulster meanwhile have got off to a five wins and one loss start in the PRO14 but will miss the likes of Ruan Pienaar (departed), Marcell Coetzee (injured) and Paddy Jackson. Facing such a depleted Wasps side first though is a fillip and an opening win will boost confidence.
Speaking of Wasps it has been a dismal opening six games for them with just two wins in the bag. Their side is unrecognisable from their strongest XV and if they don’t get bodies back quickly they could be left with a mountain to climb. Full strength and they’re contenders.
One to watch: Up against a former side in Wasps, this pool campaign is going to be an interesting one for Ulster full-back Charles Piutau. It will also be his last in an Ulster shirt before he makes that big-money move to Bristol where, if promoted to England’s top flight, it will be Challenge Cup rugby for him next season. Such a game breaker for whomever he has played for in New Zealand and Europe, Piutau can pierce defences at the drop of a hat and will be vital to Ulster’s hopes of busting out of this pool. If he can fire, they have a chance.
Clermont, Northampton, Ospreys, Saracens
It’s been a real shock to see Clermont down in the bottom half of the Top 14 and with their latest defeat coming at Toulouse last weekend, this break for European action could be just what they need, especially as they start at a side in even worse form than them, the Ospreys.
Northampton, in contrast, are enjoying their best start to a season for a good while and are just three points off top spot in England. A home opener against Saracens is a fascinating prospect, not least as Dylan Hartley and Jamie George are set to go toe-to-toe this Sunday. That match will be an acid test for Saints as they look to respond from last week’s loss to Gloucester. Teimana Harrison is key for them.
We’ve already touched on the Ospreys and their shocking start to 2017/18 and with Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar’s departures already announced, one fears for this season as a whole. Could it rally them for a strong European send-off? Maybe, but on form they’re unlikely to progress.
Saracens should. What a team and club they have become. With shrewd Test quality additions they are even stronger than last season and we expect them to top this pool and press for a third successive Champions Cup title. They have two wonderful options in almost every shirt this term – think Juan Figallo and Vincent Koch – and seem to have an air of invincibility at the moment after such a prosperous period.
One to watch: Of course Owen Farrell’s qualities are going to be on show throughout this pool campaign if he can remain injury free. This maturing playmaker led by example for the Lions in New Zealand, as did hooker Jamie George, who enters this weekend in excellent form. A hat-trick against Wasps will do his confidence the power of good and with Schalk Brits in tandem, opposition sides will be tested all day. George will be pushing for that England starting berth in these early Champions Cup rounds – what a headache that is for coach Eddie Jones.
Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier
Up there as a pool of death, Premiership champions Exeter, PRO14 heavyweights Glasgow and Leinster and Top 14 title hopefuls Montpellier meet, with Leinster slight favourites with the bookmakers ahead of Montpol and then Exeter, with the Warriors surprisingly big underdogs.
Exeter kick off at home to Glasgow and can no longer be seen as punching above their weight. This is their weight and will have taken so much confidence from their Premiership title win. Rob Baxter has done outstanding things at Sandy Park with this now their next Everest.
Dave Rennie could be on the same early path with Glasgow after a strong start to his tenure. He won the Super Rugby title with the Chiefs in his debut season in charge and what a story it would be if he could replicate that with either the PRO14 or Champions Cup raised aloft.
Yes it will be tough for Glasgow to escape this pool but they won’t die wondering as playing at pace and with width, led by Finn Russell, is their style. That is the only way they are going to beat someone like Leinster, who are such a powerful side up front. They have Lions props, strong hookers and a solid back-row to go with their half-backs and centres and will once again be challenging for pool domination.
So too will Montpellier under new head coach Vern Cotter, who have quality aplenty in their squad. They have started the Top 14 in decent form with five wins out of seven and in Bismarck du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Aaron Cruden and Nemani Nadolo they have game-breakers aplenty.
One to watch: Three fly-halves catch our eye in this pool as Finn Russell, Jonathan Sexton and Aaron Cruden are all in good form and will be crucial to their side’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages. Cruden though is our pick as Montpellier picked him up when he is in his prime and that should pay off with qualification to the quarter-finals Such a talent with ball in hand and with the boot but it is his running game that’s often underestimated. If he unlocks opposition defences then the likes of Nemani Nadolo are set for fruitful games.
Castres, Leicester, Munster, Racing 92
Another tough pool comprising former winners in Leicester Tigers and Munster as well as 2016 runners-up Racing 92 and fellow French side Castres, who will be the underdogs in this group.
After bowing out at the semi-final stage last season, Munster will be determined to kick on by reaching the final and winning the competition. The pending departure of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has been offset slightly by the recent appointment of his countryman, former Springbok forwards coach Johann van Graan as the Irish province’s new head coach, although the latter is still untested in that position as he has never coached a team at senior level.
Leicester have done well so far this season and are amongst the frontrunners in the Premiership at this early stage of the season. With proven internationals like George Ford and Matt Toomua pulling the strings in their back-line they should do well if their forwards can provide them with quality ball.
Racing and Castres are currently in the bottom half of the Top 14 after several indifferent performances. They should be difficult to beat at home although, like most French sides, their form on the road will be crucial in determining how they fare in the tournament.
Castres head into this tournament low in confidence after losing to Top 14 basement dwellers Brive last weekend and will be hoping to bounce back when they host Munster in their opener.
One to watch: Ireland and Lions back-row CJ Stander made a big impact during Munster’s run to last season’s semi-finals and he will, yet again, be a vital cog in the Irish province’s set-up. Stander’s prowess with ball in hand will be important to his side’s cause as his carries give them much needed momentum. Also keep an eye on his team-mate, scrum-half Conor Murray whose game management will be important while Racing 92’s veteran fly-half, Dan Carter will also be keen to show that he still has what it takes to dominate games at this level.
Bath, Benetton Rugby, Toulon, Scarlets
Tournament heavyweights Toulon and the Scarlets will be favourites to qualify for the knockout stages from this pool while Bath should push them close. Benetton are favourites to finish at the bottom.
Toulon are currently sixth in the Top 14 standings after suffering a narrow defeat against Bordeaux-Bègles at the weekend. The three-time champions will be desperate to make an impact again in this competition after last lifting the trophy in 2015. They are set to start their campaign without their captain Duane Vermeulen, who is injured, although they have a plethora of top class players with the likes of Samu Manoa, Raphael Lakafia and Mamuka Gorgodze all capable of filling that void.
Scarlets are sitting pretty at the top of the PRO14 Conference B table after winning five out of their six matches so far. The Welsh region will be eager to make an impression in the Champions Cup after winning the PRO12 and particularly after missing out on the quarter-finals in this tournament last season. In Wayne Pivac, they have an innovative coach while centre Jonathan Davies showed on the British and Irish Lions’ recent tour of New Zealand that he is one of the world’s best players in his position.
Bath suffered a setback last month when they lost the services of their head coach, Tabai Matson, who returned to New Zealand for family reasons. But his departure has not proven such a big blow with fellow New Zealander Todd Blackadder coping well as Bath’s director of rugby and they are currently in fifth place on the Premiership table.
They have several top class players in their ranks and the likes of Taulupe Faletau, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph will be expected to lead their charge, although they kick off their campaign minus fly-half Freddie Burns, who is serving a three-week suspension following his red card for a dangerous tackle against Worcester Warriors on Saturday.
Despite being underdogs in this pool, Benetton Rugby have made a solid start to their PRO14 campaign, winning three out of six matches so far this season. Former Highlanders Super Rugby pivot Marty Banks has done well since joining the Italian outfit and will be expected to lead the charge as their chief playmaker.
One to watch: Fijian flyer Josua Tuisova is one of the most exciting players in the entire tournament and heads into this year’s tournament in a rich vein of try-scoring form after some superb performances in the Top 14. A powerful runner, who possesses plenty of pace, Tuisova has the ability to change the course of a match with a moment of brilliance. With impressive playmakers like Ma’a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud, François Trinh-Duc and Anthony Belleau on his inside, Tuisova is sure to prove a handful for opposing defences if he finds the ball in space.