The European Champions Cup kicks off this weekend. Daniel Ruddock looks at what we should expect from 2017/18 edition.
Whatever it is about European rugby, it is relatively closed shop. The last seven competitions have only produced three separate winners. Leinster twice, Toulon three times and Saracens have dominated the tournament for the last two years.
In fact, since 2014 there have only been two other teams aside from Saracens and Toulon that have competed in a final, Racing 92 once and Clermont Auvergene twice.Looking at those statistics it should not be difficult to pick a winner and really it isn’t.
Saracens have not shown any sign loosening their grip on Europe, their squad is stronger than last year most notably in the form of Lions winger Liam Williams. The emergence of academy prospects like second-row Nick Isiekwe doesn’t hurt either.
One blip in September against Bath aside, they’ve romped to victory in their other five Premiership games, most recently against a depleted Wasps outfit. Lions hooker Jamie George grabbing himself three tries.
What have made Saracens so impressive in the last numbers is their lack of any real weaknesses, a strong attack game, solid set piece, world class goalkicking and their famed wolfpack defensive.
All the groups are tough and Saracens are no different. They slot into pool two alongside Northampton, Ospreys and the team they beat in last year’s Murrayfield final – Clermont.
The Ospreys are the potential soft target, they have only won once in the Pro14 this season. If the other three sides can pick up two wins against them, it is likely two of these teams will make the quarter-finals.
Northampton have found form after a domestic thumping from Saracens in their first game of the season. But just do not have the quality of a Clermont side desperate to taste European success after so many near misses.
It would not be a surprise in the least if Saracens and Clermont both get out of the group and meet each other again deep into the competition.
Pool one involves last year’s premiership finalists Wasps, Harlequins, La Rochelle and Ulster. La Rochelle led the Top14 at the end of the regular season last year, consistently playing an exciting brand of rugby. Led by Top14 player of the year, all-black Victor Vito they have serious quality.
Like all French teams who haven’t been seen in the later half of the tournament too often it will depend on how they start. Win their first two games and they will have ambitions of a quarter-final. Lose them and you could see two teams coming from this pool aswell.
Ulster have started the season well, but are missing key players. A lot will depend on new halfbacks John Cooney and Christian Lealiifano. They play Wasps first up, who seem to have more injured then fit players. A win for either side gives them a big boost early on in the tournament.
Pool three gets this seasons group of death tag. Premiership champions Exeter face off against, Glasgow Warriors, Leinster and Vern Cotter’s Montpellier. A disallowed try arguably was the difference between Leinster and a final last year. Glasgow are absolutely flying this year with Finn Russell pulling the strings.
Exeter have set their sights on Europe having conquered England. And Billionaire Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad has assembled an array of stars worthy of his wealth, including Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden.
An easy prediction is that there will not be a best runner up coming from this group. It is hard to see any of the sides losing at home, if any of them do even in round one or two it could be curtains for them.
Less easy is who will come out on top, all have the pedigree. If Montpellier’s stars show up to play, you cannot really look past them.
Pool four has three teams who are familiar with each other from last years pool stages. Leicester, Munster and Racing 92 are this year joined by Castres.
Munster reached the semi-finals last year and despite the impending departure of head coach Rassie Erasmus, are well placed to go deep again this year. Castres are notorious for being an entirely different entity home and away in Europe and if Racing lose early on will follow a similar pattern.
Leicester are showing better form this year with England fly-half George Ford back at his old club. But they will be wary having suffered heavy defeats to Munster and Glasgow last year. Munster look most likely but with two French teams, a lot will depend on the first couple of rounds.
Pool five contains the Italian team, which traditionally sees two teams comfortably come through the group. Re-branded Benetton Rugby have been better this year. Helped by Conor O’Shea’s hands on approach to every aspect of the Italian game since he took over last year.
Toulon, Bath and Pro14 champions Scarlets will still fancy their chances. The Welsh regions haven’t had a side in the quarter-finals since 2012 and this really needs to change this year. The Scarlets are confident, play great rugby and have replaced Liam Williams with fellow Lion Leigh Halfpenny. It is now or never for them.
Toulon are not the same side that Matt Giteau and Johnny Wilkinson marched all over Europe, but still carry threat with a litany of stars and Bath with the likes of Toby Faletau will be looking to push themselves back into Europe’s elite.
Ever since the competition was reduced to 20 teams the pool stages have looked increasingly more difficult to navigate. Pool 3 looks like it will produce the most high-profile casualty. Saracens are hot favourites, Clermont will inevitably be there or there abouts. The rest of the challengers will need to show there credentials early if they want their shot in the knock-out stages.
Photo Credit @wikimedia