The Heineken Champions Cup is back, with the best European clubs competing against each other. Almost all the biggest stars in the northern hemisphere will be involved and there are plenty of teams with a point to prove. We take a look at what to watch out for this weekend, and in the tournament to come.
The ever-present French
Rugby commentators calling all things French unpredictable has become, well, predictable. And it’s not true anymore. The last French national team to throw it about and pull off shock victories was probably the 2007 vintage.
French club teams, meanwhile, tend to be predictable in many ways: big packs, superstar names, regularly terrible away from home, and, ultimately, more focused on their domestic league. That said, there has been a French team in every Champions Cup final from 2013. Twice, there have been two. Toulon won it three times in a row from 2013-15.
The French teams can be beaten but they can’t be dismissed. The most likely French qualifiers this year look like Racing 92 (Pool Four) and Montpellier (Pool Five). Toulouse and Toulon are no longer the powerhouses they once were although they won’t be easy games. Watch out for Lyon (Pool Three), who could qualify as a best runner-up – it’s an odd group and they just won away at Racing 92. Castres won the Top14 last season but problems at fly-half mean they might struggle in a tough group.
Will the Maverick 10s get their moment?
It was a big summer for exciting, attacking fly-halves making moves. Finn Russell, Joey Carbery, Danny Cipriani, and Lima Sopoaga all switched clubs amidst great fanfare. All will play in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Add to that mix Adam Hastings, Rhys Patchell, Gareth Anscombe, as well as a George Ford close to his best form, and Julien Dumora – a player more accustomed to full-back – and fans could see a lot of thrilling attacking play from the 10s.
Danny Cipriani is just in such great form at the moment 🙌
Another classy assist 👌 pic.twitter.com/xKJN1mrQ8h
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) October 6, 2018
Will they light up the tournament? Or will conditions demand the mastery of players like Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, who can play in all conditions? For many players, this tournament will be their chance to stake a claim for their respective Rugby World Cup squads. The risk-reward nature of their games will be heightened. Without a platform from their forwards they will struggle, of course, but fans will be hoping these players can open up defences with their magic.
Will England improve?
Last season, Saracens were the only English club to make the knock-out stages. They got there by the skin of their teeth and lost to Leinster in the quarters. Bath, Wasps, Leicester Tigers, and Exeter Chiefs all underperformed last time round and will be looking to prove a point. Will any of them succeed this time?
Exeter were in a true “group of death” last time round. There are no easy groups in the Heineken Champions Cup but they should have a slightly easier time of it this year. A win over their main competitors, Munster, in the opening round will help them stamp their mark on the group.
Leicester have had an unconvincing start to the season and will probably struggle in a group that features last year’s runners-up, Racing 92, and semi-finalists, Scarlets.
Bath and Wasps have the unwelcome challenge of competing with each other for, in all likelihood, the chance of a best runner-up place. Their head-to-head games will be crucial because Leinster may well be too much home and away.
Gloucester haven’t featured Europe’s senior competition since 2014. They have a tough group and they may lack the experience to progress. Watch out for the sparkle of Danny Cipriani, who will relish the stage.
Finally Newcastle Falcons, similarly lacking in experience, will likely find their current struggles in the Premiership carry over into the Heineken Champions Cup.
Young breakout players vs ageing superstars
The Heineken Champions Cup always features some true superstars and this year is no exception. Leinster and Saracens fans will be hoping that homegrown superstars like Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola will be a match for the imported superstars of the French clubs. However, the likes of Jerome Kaino, Malakai Fekitoa, Julian Savea, and Francois Steyn may well face competition for the spotlight from elsewhere too.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 23, 2017
Romain Ntamack is already a regular starter in the Toulouse team, where his ability to read the game and find space is making fans talk of an international call-up. Nemani Nadolo might be injured for the opening round but Gabriel N’Gandebe, almost his opposite physically, might make an appearance. His pace and footwork will threaten any defence.
Across the pond, Jordan Olowofela and Zach Mercer have been making names for themselves for a while now at Leicester and Bath, respectively, but they haven’t made their mark on Europe yet. George Horne at Glasgow Warriors already has a pair of international caps but he faces tough competition for the nine jersey in Scotland – a big showing in Europe would stand him in good stead.
Leinster v Saracens: the Heineken Champions Cup final?
A lot can happen in the group stages (let’s not forget, Saracens lost home and away last season and only managed a draw away to Ospreys). That said, Leinster and Saracens look like the ones to beat. They probably have the strongest starting XVs in the competition. Both of their packs are international standard. Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell are the best fly-halves in the northern hemisphere. They have squad depth to burn, with 11 British and Irish Lions between them.
Saracens couldn’t live with Leinster in the quarter-final last time round but the feeling lingers that we haven’t seen the best contest of these two teams just yet. Both teams should emerge from their groups as winners, earning themselves a home quarter-final. In that case, fans of both teams and neutrals will be hoping for a true clash of the titans.
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