With the Champions Cup starting this weekend, Sports Gazette’s two rugby correspondents Danny Ruddock and Matt Horsman give their predictions for the season ahead.
Danny – La Rochelle
Going to go with La Rochelle here. They play a fantastic brand of rugby and have picked up where they left off last year. They might lose interest if they lose their first couple of games but I have a feeling they will come through. Ulster have lost too much in Jackson and Pienaar I think to launch a serious challenge. Could sneak through as a runner up. Wasps are all injured apparently and Quins don’t have the same quality as the other sides.
Matt – Wasps
Many people might be writing Wasps out of the competition already due to their poor early season form and crippling injury list. Quite simply for me, their squad has too much talent to not reach the next round. And by the time Ulster come to Coventry most of their big guns should be back and that should be enough to see them finish top.
Danny – Saracens
A strong pool but I think Saracens will come through it comfortably and Clermont through in second place. I don’t think many will argue about that one. Northampton might bloody a nose but do not have a serious chance of progressing. The Ospreys on form, are just making up the numbers.
Matt – Saracens
An easy decision. I watched Sarries dismantle Wasps on Sunday with ease, and with the strength in depth they possess its tough to envisage a scenario where they don’t come out on top of this pool. Ospreys and Clermont have started poorly domestically while Sarries put 55 on the Saints on the first weekend of the season. Beware the Wolfpack!
Danny – Leinster
This is the most difficult and I am more confident of Matt disagreeing with my pick than my prediction being correct. Glasgow are flying this year and Finn Russell looks to have gone up a gear. Montpellier are stupidly stacked with talent and Exeter are Premiership Champions. Leinster were close to a final last year and still have winners in their squad. It will be tight and there are a lot of home wins, but I fancy Leinster to pick up the most bonus points and pip the others to the post.
Matt – Glasgow Warriors
The pool of death. I’m going to be controversial here and stick to my Scottish roots. Glasgow are the only unbeaten team in Europe at the moment and in Dave Rennie have really gone up a level from last season. They face three of the competition’s best sides in this pool though. English champions Exeter, French juggernauts Montpellier and two-time champions Leinster. Exeter’s inexperience, Montpellier’s away form and the obligatory Jonny Sexton injury will sway it the way of the Glaswegians for me.
Danny – Munster
I reckon Munster will come through this with Leicester providing the sternest challenge. Munster were semi-finalists last year and early signs are that they’ve added a new dimension to their game. Leicester have lots of quality in Matt Toomua and George Ford but I don’t think they’ll have enough. Castres will lose interest and Racing won’t have enough away to challenge.
Matt – Leicester Tigers
A shootout between Tigers and Munster for me for this one, with Racing flattering to deceive last year and adding no real quality. Not that they are short of it on paper. Do they have the grit to go to Welford Road and Thomond Park and win? Je ne pense pas. Castres will be the whipping boys of the group for me.
Danny – Scarlets
This prediction is more hopeful than expectant. Scarlets are playing good rugby this year and have Europe’s best outside back in Jon Davies. Toulon are still a power house but are not the same as in years gone by. With Benetton in the group both sides should really come through. Bath could have a sniff and round two against Scarlets away will be an interesting barometer for the group.
Matt – Toulon
Toulon’s star studded side will want to make up for their poor form both domestically and in Europe last season, and should have too much for the other three sides in by far the easiest pool of the tournament. Bath and the Scarlets are struggling for consistency at the moment while the newly branded ‘Benneton Rugby’ are performing much better than usual – they still won’t find much joy in this group. Be thankful they weren’t put in Pool 3.
I think its incredibly hard to call especially with the seedings in the quarter-final stage. History shows that change happens slowly at the top level of European Rugby, so I have gone for a repeat of last year’s semi-finals. Leinster will go one better than last year but still not convinced that they can topple the Saracens juggernaut in the final.
– Glasgow Warriors
It’s very tricky to predict, but I reckon these four will make it to the penultimate stage. Sarries are an obvious pick, Glasgow less so. I think this is the year that the Glaswegians step up on the European front and flourish on the big stage. There was a lot of talk about members of that Glasgow side not being picked to tour with the Lions this summer based on their showings in the big games for club and country – expect a reaction this season. Wasps will come good and get back to their imperious home form to win their quarter-final (provided they win the group) and Toulon should top theirs to do the same. An honourable mention for Leinster and Montpellier, but in Pool 3 the games are all so competitive that I think we might see the lowest runner up come from within it and miss out on a quarter-final place.
– Glasgow Warriors
Both of us are in agreement that Saracens will be playing in the final in May, and surprisingly we both think that their opponent will be the winner of Pool 3 – we just disagree on who it will be.
Danny and Matt
We both feel that Saracens are too strong to look past this year. A second ‘threepeat’ is on the cards this season. We would love a side to rock the proverbial European powerhouse boat, but just cannot see it happening.
Top try scorer
– Chris Ashton – Toulon
Ashton for all his faults loves the try line. Two games against Benetton and the sunshine in the south of France will mean he is out of sight by the end of the group stages.
– Liam Williams – Saracens
Once he integrates fully into the Sarries’ backline I think Liam Williams will score tries for fun, and on the basis of them getting to the final he’ll have more opportunities to score.
Player to watch
– Joey Carberry – Leinster
Carberry will play fullback for Leinster where I think he is most comfortable. It is not all that often a Sexton run team has a second playmaker, but Carberry provides that in spades. Couple that with dazzling feet and a good kicking game, the kid is special.
– Calum Gibbins – Glasgow Warriors
New Glasgow Warriors flanker Calum Gibbins has come over with Dave Rennie from the Chiefs and is turning heads in the Pro 14 for both his incredible displays and his infamous hairstyle – a must-watch for rugby fans and mullet enthusiasts alike.
Feature image credit: Debbie Knight