European Champions Cup: Seven players to watch this season including the world’s best, a former All Black and Italy’s rising star

Colin Newboult

Ahead of the start of the European Champions Cup, Planet Rugby delves into which players could make an impression this season.

The biggest club competition in the sport starts on Friday and features some of the best in the game.

It, of course, includes the current World Rugby Player of the Year, while there are are several new signings who are set to have their first taste of European rugby. Equally, there are individuals who have a fascinating back story that will hope to star in 2022/23.

This list does not have players from the three South African franchises as it will be covered later this week, so without further ado, let’s delve into who are the names to look out for.

Christian Wade (Racing 92)

The former Wasps flyer makes his return to the Champions Cup after a three-year stint in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Despite the lengthy absence, the Englishman has quickly looked back at home in rugby union. He has already impressed those in Paris with his displays for Racing, with his pace, balance and deceptive strength causing problems for opposition defences in the Top 14.

Although the French outfit have a plethora of options in the back three, Wade is doing well enough to play a significant part in the big European matches. Unfortunate not to add to his single England cap, the 31-year-old offers a point of difference and there is no doubt that teams will be paying special attention to him, otherwise he could breach their rearguard with regularity.

Josh van der Flier (Leinster)

This list wouldn’t have been complete without the best player in the world. Van der Flier has always been an outstanding flanker but the Ireland star has gone up another level over the past couple of years. His carrying game has improved significantly, while the back-row has been far more abrasive in the tighter exchanges, enabling him to become a genuine world-class openside.

The 29-year-old is a key player for both province and country, and he will need another big season if Leinster are to finally win that elusive fifth title. The Dublin-based outfit have consistently been in the mix, but defeats to La Rochelle over the past two tournaments has stopped them from becoming the most decorated team in Europe.

George Bridge (Montpellier)

After losing his place in the Crusaders and All Blacks sides, the wing decided against staying in the country and trying to earn a spot in the New Zealand squad for next year’s World Cup. He instead signed for Montpellier and made his debut for the club in their Top 14 defeat to Clermont Auvergne at the weekend.

Bridge adds significant quality to the French outfit, who will no doubt rotate their squad during the Champions Cup group stage. The speedster may therefore, not feature in every match, but he will certainly be a key man during their 2022/23 European campaign. He is such a smart player who knows his way to the try line and will be a significant threat to opposition defences.

Val Rapava-Ruskin (Gloucester)

The loosehead has been around for a while, firstly at Worcester and more latterly at Gloucester, who he joined in 2017, but he is among the best props in Europe at the moment. Rapava-Ruskin was unlucky not to get any game time for England during the Autumn Nations Series, such is his form, but he has taken his frustration out on opposing tightheads.

Georgian-born but raised in England, he is unsurprisingly a fearsome scrummager, but he is much more than just a set-piece merchant. The prop is absolutely outstanding at the breakdown and one of the best jackallers in the Premiership, while his strength and athleticism makes him a threat with the ball in hand. With Gloucester continually improving under George Skivington, he will be fun to watch this season, starting with their opener against Bordeaux-Begles.

Ange Capuozzo (Toulouse)

It is odd that a player makes his mark on the world stage before featuring in the top-tier of the European game, but that is what Capuozzo has done. The Italian superstar will make his Champions Cup debut this season after joining from Grenoble, who have spent the last three years in the Pro D2 in France.

Capuozzo was still playing for the Stade des Alpes-based side when he stunned Wales in the Six Nations with a mazy run that set up Edoardo Padovani’s match-winning score. It was a moment which displayed his talent and also suggested that he could be one of the sport’s outstanding players over the next few years. The talent Toulouse have in the back three, and particularly full-back, is quite frankly ridiculous, but we are sure that he will be a crucial part of their European efforts in 2022/23.

Gregory Alldritt (La Rochelle)

Only Ardie Savea is currently competing with the France star as the world’s best number eight, with Alldritt absolutely vital for both club and country. Still only 25, the back-row shone in La Rochelle’s run to their first-ever Champions Cup title as they overcame Ireland – sorry, Leinster – 24-21 in the showpiece event.

You don’t become one of the best number eights in the game without being physically imposing but, as well as his immense athletic talents, Alldritt is also a smart operator. He has an outstanding rugby brain and a superb skill set which means that the French star can impact the game in many different ways.

Manu Tuilagi (Sale Sharks)

The powerhouse centre rarely needs much game time to find his best, but we are still waiting for him to hit his straps this season after recovering from his latest injury. Playing in an excellent Sale side which have an imposing forward pack, Tuilagi has the platform to show his talents, but he is still feeling his way back after missing England’s July series in Australia.

Following hamstring and knee issues which hampered his 2021/22 campaign, both the Sharks and England have taken a more cautious approach, managing his minutes in the Premiership and then the Autumn Nations Series. With Sale having a week off from league matters after the end of the November Tests, it means that Tuilagi has had time to recover from his international excursions. The 31-year-old should therefore play a key role for the English team, especially in the opening two rounds of the competition.

READ MORE: South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: A look into the record books