Our latest preview ahead of the European Champions Cup looks at Pool 2, containing Connacht, Toulouse, Wasps and Zebre.
Two teams could well progress out of this pool and on form it seems likely that a Wasps side full of stars will finish on top of the pile.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams.
Connacht make the step up to Europe’s top table this season and boy have they earned their seat after winning the PRO12 title in 2015/16.
Despite that success they are still viewed as underdogs in this pool, as Wasps and Toulouse are seen as the main challengers to progress. Such talk won’t bother them one bit as they thrived on being written off last term. We won’t be doing that in what is a favourable group.
A win first up at home to Toulouse would be ideal and is definitely possible, with Toulouse having struggled for form in recent years in Europe, especially on the road. Connacht can create a hostile atmosphere at the Sportsground and this is must-win if they’re to progress.
Leading their charge will be Bundee Aki from the centres but the loss of Robbie Henshaw and AJ McGinty has been felt. They will hope the impending arrival of fly-half Marnitz Boshoff will add a solidity to their game as he is a solid goal-kicker and manager of his backline.
Connacht endured a tough start to this season, losing their first three PRO12 games, but they have responded with back-to-back wins at a perfect time to gain momentum before their European action. While it’s unlikely they will finish above Wasps, bonus-point wins over Zebre and a home win against Toulouse might well be enough to see them sneak into the knockout stages in what would be a fantastic achievement.
One to watch: Bundee Aki
The talisman in midfield for Connacht, Aki became a crowd favourite in no time at all. Powerful with ball in hand whilst having delicate touches when looking to offload, his leadership is going to be crucial against the likes of Wasps and Toulouse. What a signing he’s been.
It was a forgetful European campaign last year for Toulouse as, with the terrible events in Paris fresh in their minds, they opened their pool campaign with a heavy loss at Saracens. They never really recovered from that and incredibly the side synonymous with challenging in this competition finished last in Pool 1, behind Saracens, Ulster and even Oyonnax. Toulouse will be determined to bounce back in 2016/17.
Ugo Mola has had a full season at the helm and will be hoping for a much improved showing this time around. But first-up, a game away to Connacht will be tough before they welcome an impressive Wasps to Stade Ernest Wallon. Should they lose both, they will be in trouble.
This season has started pretty well as Toulouse have won four out of eight in the Top 14, their latest loss coming at Clermont last week, but if they can respond with a victory at Connacht they would welcome Wasps before back-to-back games against Zebre.
There is still the unpredictability factor surrounding Toulouse though and we expect them to face a battle with Connacht for second place.
One to watch: Gaël Fickou
A player who oozes class, Fickou’s form is key to Toulouse’s hopes this season. With deceptive pace and a real eye for a gap, Toulouse must utilise his talents if they’re to progress from this pool. We look forward to clashes with Bundee Aki and Elliot Daly in the coming months.
Up there as possible winners of this competition due to their recruitment and the work of director of rugby Dai Young, Wasps head into the pool as favourites to finish on top of the pile. Judging from their start to the Premiership season we see no reason why that won’t happen.
Yes they were beaten at Saracens last weekend but they were missing a whole host of names and let’s face it were up against an outstanding team. In this pool Wasps should take 10 points from their games against Zebre and one would expect them to win all of their home games too.
Connacht and Toulouse away will of course be their most difficult assignments, but with stars aplenty in their squad, on paper they are the strongest side in Pool 2. Even now, without Kurtley Beale and Willie le Roux having played a game and several injuries, they look too good.
Young deserves a great deal of praise ahead of their home opener against Zebre as the brand Wasps are playing make them difficult to live with for opposing defences. And with many players – such as Tommy Taylor, Joe Simpson, Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly and more – unlikely to feature for their country in November and the Six Nations, their focus will be solely on club matters. That is great news for Wasps fans.
One to watch: Danny Cipriani
Recently snubbed again by Eddie Jones as Alex Lozowski got an England call-up, Cipriani continues to be frozen out at international level. To his credit he has taken this latest setback with maturity and has shown flashes of brilliance so far this season. Teams will fear him.
Rank outsiders to progress from the pool, Zebre know it’s going to be a tough year in Europe as they start with a trip to the Ricoh Arena.
Finishing above Treviso in last season’s PRO12 means they are back at the top table and it’s fair to say they will have taken a good deal of confidence from 2015/16. They ended with three wins from six games in the Challenge Cup while they claimed five victories in the PRO12.
However, this will be a big step up for the Italians and a zero from five record to start 2016/17 is hardly ideal preparation for facing Wasps on the road. After that daunting test they take on Connacht at home before it is home and away games against Toulouse in December.
They brought in Derick Minnie and Kurt Baker during the off-season but injury has seen full-back Baker absent while flanker Minnie hasn’t yet nailed down a spot in the side. Zebre will hope a late fightback in defeat to Glasgow last week is the start of a turnaround in form.
One to watch: Andries Van Schalkwyk
Zebre need their pack to front up in this group and the likes of Oliviero Fabiani, Johan Meyer and Van Schalkwyk are key contributors to their cause. The number eight is a tireless worker around the field and will relish the challenge of going up against top class forwards.