With the 2018/19 European Champions Cup kicking off this weekend, we give our verdict on which teams will be in the hunt for the coveted trophy.
The defending champions have been drawn in a tough pool alongside four-time tournament winners Toulouse and Premiership outfits Wasps and Bath. Although the other three teams are all competitive, the Irish province are favourites to top the pool as they have continued where they left off last season by making an impressive start in the PRO14, where they currently lead Conference B with just one loss from six matches.
In Leo Cullen, they have an astute coach who made history last year when he became the first person to win the competition as both a player and a coach. Cullen has a strong squad and one of their strengths is that they have plenty of depth in their ranks. They boast numerous Ireland internationals with the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Seán O’Brien among the leading players in their respective positions in the world. Apart from a strong pack of forwards, Leinster also have superb backs and game-breakers like Sexton, James Lowe, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney will all be expected to play key roles if they want to repeat last season’s success.
Another team to keep an eye on will be Montpellier, who will be determined to go much further than last season’s offering, when they did not make it out of a group of death that included eventual champions Leinster, Exeter and Glasgow Warriors.
On paper Vern Cotter’s outfit boast a strong line-up, with the spine of their team particularly impressive. Bismarck du Plessis and an in-form Louis Picamoles in the pack and Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden as a half-back pairing will be key to their challenge in Pool 5, which they should progress from. Alongside them in that group will be Edinburgh, Newcastle Falcons and Toulon, who have all not been in the best of form thus far in 2018/19. Expect Montpellier to be in the knockout mix when the quarter-finals arrive next March and if Nemani Nadolo fires, they’ll be dark horses.
A team that continues to impress under the guidance of Rob Baxter, Exeter have been drawn in a tricky pool alongside Castres, Munster and Gloucester. However, they should have enough quality to progress as they have been flawless in their opening to the Premiership campaign, carding a six wins from six record to date to go into Europe sitting pretty at the English summit above fellow title rivals Sarries.
Their game is built on a dominant forward pack with intelligent playmakers and an underrated midfield. But how much they will miss the free-scoring Sam Simmonds over the upcoming months is a concern, especially now that Thomas Waldrom has moved on. They still have plenty of quality in their team such as Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Don Armand and will be incredibly hard to beat again, with last season’s champions Leinster finding the Chiefs especially difficult to shake off in 2017/18.
One of the best squads on paper in the competition, last season’s beaten finalists will again be in the frame for silverware this term after the arrivals of Simon Zebo and Finn Russell, who add a real injection of attacking intent to a formidable pack and impressive group of finishers in their backline, which includes Virimi Vakatawa.
Racing are drawn alongside Leicester Tigers, Ulster and a team who came close to making our list, Scarlets, who should be the Parisians’ main rivals in the Pool. But there is just that extra steel, size and wage bill behind this Racing outfit, which we feel gives them an edge in the group and makes them a genuine contender once again. Last season’s streak of five straight hard-fought wins until that narrow final defeat to Leinster showed what a force they are and we expect them to push hard.
The Premiership champions will not be lacking in motivation after losing at the quarter-final stage to eventual tournament winners Leinster last season. The 2016 and 2017 champions will fancy their chances of making the knockout phase after being drawn in Pool 3 with Lyon and Cardiff Blues, who are new to the Champions Cup this season after participating the Challenge Cup last season, and Glasgow Warriors, who failed to make it to the 2016/17 Champions Cup’s knockout rounds.
Saracens go into this year’s Champions Cup brimming with confidence as they are still unbeaten in the Premiership having won all six of their matches so far. Another team with excellent depth, Saracens’ charge will be led by star players like Owen Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Liam Williams, Maro Itoje and Alex Lozowski. Although all the aforementioned players will be key to their cause, Sarries supporters will be praying for an injury-free campaign for Billy Vunipola, who is one of the game’s best ball carriers when fully fit and will be crucial to their challenge.