Excitement amongst European rugby fans has been growing steadily in the last few weeks. And gladly, the moment has almost arrived. The 2018/19 Heineken Champions Cup returns this weekend and promises to be at its ever brilliant best.
Here at Last Word on Rugby, our group of writers will cover the results and the outcomes. Today, David Challis places a full focus at Pool 2 which contains two English sides; Exeter and Gloucester. Alongside them are the European giants Munster and the Top 14 champions Castres.
With a full focus on Pool 2, we will asses each teams’ chances of progressing and look at the key matchups throughout the pool stages.
Castres – The French Champions
After a somewhat surprising Top 14 triumph, having come from sixth place to win the title, it is difficult to dismiss Castres in this pool. Like any French team they boast power up front as well as the likes of France international Scott Spedding in the backline. This means that especially at home, Castres will be a very difficult trip for any of the sides in this pool. Champions by rights, they may also have the quality to provide an upset on the road.
Here we go! The launch of the 2018/19 #ChampionsCup in Toulouse!
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 1, 2018
However, as much as Castres will provide a threat in this pool, their likelihood of doing so is only relative. In previous years, Castres have slipped into the French stereotype of ‘not performing away from home’ and, given their current away record in the Top 14 – there is no reason that this poor away form trend will not continue.
An away trip to Kinsgholm on the opening weekend will be a real test of their intentions and chances this year.
If they can come away with a result they then welcome Exeter a week later. These opening two rounds could go either way for Castres. Just as likely to pick up two losses as two wins. It is doubtful that they will progress to the quarterfinals of the Heineken Champions Cup given quality of the other sides but expect them to have a say in who does.
Gloucester – The outside bet
Gloucester’s start to the premiership season has been sensational at times but at others they have fallen back into old habits of inconsistency. This is a trait they can ill afford to show if they want to make their mark on this year’s Champions Cup.
The signing of Danny Cipriani has made Gloucester a potent attacking threat and he will have to be at his best if they are progressing this year. At their peak, Gloucester probably have the firepower and quality to compete with anyone in the Champions Cup. Whether they find those levels for six rounds will be the big test of Johan Ackermann’s side.
The key matchup for Gloucester is likely to come in rounds three and four when they face Exeter home and away. It is difficult to see them besting Exeter away but a victory at home could be key for them. For the cherry and whites to qualify they are probably going to need to win away at Castres or Munster and this may just be one step too far, for the West Country side.
— GloucesterRugbyNews (@gloucrugbynews) October 9, 2018
Expect fireworks and from this Gloucester side. They will provide us with unpredictability and excitement. Qualification is probably beyond them but if they can pick up a big scalp early they may be catapulted to a stellar campaign.
Munster – Champions Cup Giants
Munster are a side packed with Heineken Champions Cup and international experience. The likes of Conor Murray and CJ Stander will be looking to go one better than last year’s semi-final exit to Racing 92. Compared to the English sides Munster have the ability to rotate their stars more in the Pro 14 so they are fresh for European rugby which should play to their advantage especially in the later rounds.
However this side is not without their problems. Injuries at scrum half have caused huge problems with star man Connor Murray still out with a neck problem. To add to this a Munster will be potentially without a further three scrum halves for this weekend’s key clash with Exeter. With the weather set to be wet and windy on Saturday a lot of pressure could be put on a young academy star Duncan Williams on his Champions Cup debut.
Champions Cup prep starts tomorrow with two weeks of European rugby coming up!
We travel to in-form Exeter next week before old rivals Gloucester visit Thomond Park in just 13 days.
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 7, 2018
Munster will fancy their chances this season. They have a strong squad and what they will see as a manageable pool. However, they start with a difficult task away at Exeter. A win this weekend will be huge for Munster but it looks to be a big ask. Come round six expect Munster to be right up there in this pool and they will be expecting that they will progress to the knockout stages even if they cannot win the pool outright.
Exeter Chiefs – England’s front runners
The Chiefs were disappointed not to reach the knockout stages last season’s Champions Cup. Baxter cites some slight complacency in rounds three and four after a strong start. This is something he stresses will not be repeated again.
The ‘full focus’ appears to have shifted for Exeter regarding this competition. Gareth Steenson has said that ‘the mindset has changed from learning from the competition to trying to attack it’. The buzz around Sandy Park for this weekend’s clash against Munster is palpable, with all the players and staff ready and raring for kick-off.
This year appears to be a great chance for Exeter to make a real statement in this competition. They have traditionally done well on the road in France so if they can continue this and stay consistent at home then expect the Chiefs to be mixing it with the best in the latter stages of this tournament.
As for all the teams comprising Pool 2 of the 2018/19 Heineken Champions Cup, there is a full focus on the external competition. It will bring out the best in all of the sides – and provide fascinating challenges for all sides – especially, the four sides highlighted here.
2018/19 Heineken Champions Cup – Full focus on Pool 2
Gloucester and Castres may provide some upsets in this pool and could spoil the party for the other two sides. Unless one of these sides really picks up momentum in the opening two round I think qualification is beyond them.
This means the pool is likely to come down to a straight shoot-out between Munster and Exeter. This then makes this weekend’s clash at Sandy Park all the more important. If Exeter can pick up a win and get the ball rolling early, they could be very difficult to stop, in this year’s Champions Cup.
Pool 2 opening round fixtures
Exeter Chiefs v Munster Rugby – Sandy Park. Saturday October 13
Gloucester v Castres Olympique – Kingsholm Park. Sunday Oct 14
Not long to wait #ChampionsCup fans
Pool matches begin this Friday, so fly your colours & cheer on your team! @ChampionsCup
Pool 2 looks to be the 'Pool of Champions' @DavidChallis3 pic.twitter.com/NL3RUcIIzP
— LWOSRugby (@LWOSRugby) October 12, 2018
Join our reporter David Challis each round, for match analysis and breaking down all the results and upcoming fixtures, for the 2018/19 Champions Cup.
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