The Champions Cup returned this week as Europe’s best clubs battle each other to be called ‘best on the continent’. The new format is only a couple of seasons old and ensures that only the highest quality teams qualify so that the competition truly represents the elite of Europe. So far, it has been a huge success with each match hotly contested and this year looks to be no exception.
The team to beat in this year’s competition will undoubtedly be Saracens, who have been champions for the last two years and are reaching their top form having risen to the summit of the Premiership last weekend.
Although they will be without the thunderous ball-carrying abilities of Billy Vunipola for the start of their campaign, their forwards are filled with stars such as Jamie George, Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje and are certain to provide enough go-forward. This will be exploited by their ruthless backline, strengthened by the addition of the mazy runs of Liam Williams from the Scarlets and supported by Owen Farrell’s metronomic kicking.
However, they will not have an easy ride in Pool Two which contains last year’s beaten finalists, Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints and Alun Wyn Jones’ Ospreys. Saints have recovered strongly from their opening-day thrashing by Saracens and, inspired by the colossus Courtney Lawes, will be looking to cause an upset by sneaking out of the group. However, Clermont and Saracens have too much European pedigree to allow this to happen and it is impossible to think of the knockout stages without these two teams in it.
Wasps will be hoping that the gears finally start to click together in Pool One after a start to the season plagued by injuries. However, they are grouped with a formidable Ulster side, who have lost only once this season, and will have their sights set on qualification. These two teams are likely to contest for the top spot in the pool, although La Rochelle are a dark horse having finished top of the Top 14 last season, while Harlequins can beat anyone when their experienced core of Mike Brown, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw are on song.
Glasgow will be looking to continue their unbeaten start to life under Dave Rennie in Pool Three but will have to contend with the champions of England, Exeter, who are keen to make more of an impression on this tournament after a disappointing campaign last year. Vern Cotter’s new role as head coach at Montpellier will see him return to Scotland, and his outfit are sure to pack a punch, especially with Louis Picamoles’ lambasting charges from the base of the scrum and Aaron Cruden pulling the strings in the backs. Leinster complete a frightening pool and led by Johnny Sexton’s wily know-how they will be expecting to use their experience to shade the group.
Two giants of the European game will go neck and neck in Pool Four as Leicester are grouped with Munster again along with the French giants, Racing 92 and Castres. The Tigers will be keen to restore some pride after their horror showing last year in which they were routed by both Munster and Glasgow. With George Ford guiding the ship from 10, their game should have more structure this year, but it will be down to their forwards to match the ferocity of their opponents if they are to have any chance of progressing. Munster are likely to edge this group, although two losses already this season show there are weaknesses for the other teams to try to exploit.
Pool Five promises to be full of tries with high class finishers such as Chris Ashton, Semesa Rokoduguni, Anthony Watson and Steffan Evans in it, as well as the presence of Treviso who will struggle to fight against their billing as the weakest team in the competition. Due to this, it is likely that two teams will progress from the group and the star-studded Toulon team and Scarlets free-flowing style are expected to condemn Bath to elimination.
Due to the competitiveness of the Champions Cup, predictions made at this stage often look very silly come round six in January as new stars shine while expected heroes plummet. This year promises to be no different with 20 hugely competitive teams fighting it out for the title. It will not be won on these cold, winter nights but it may well be lost. Everything is to play for, so sit back and let the spectacle commence.
Image courtesy of Louise Tolman