The Champions Cup draw has thrown up some titanic match-ups in the pool stages as the defending champions Saracens get drawn into the group of death. Robert Rees has your preview ahead of next season’s competition.
Leinster, Lyon, Northampton Saints, Benetton
Last year’s runners-up Leinster are expected to claim the top spot somewhat comfortably, but the race behind them will be the intriguing part of this group.
Northampton’s rise in the Gallagher Premiership last season saw them play plenty of thrilling rugby but they need to clamp down on the points conceded if they are to have any chance of progressing beyond the pool stages.
Benetton will be the dark horses after a very tidy Guinness Pro14 season that saw them qualify for the Champions Cup on merit for the very first time. Kieran Crowley’s men should give a good account of themselves.
Expect that Lyon will finish bottom of the table.
Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, La Rochelle, Sale Sharks
Putting this group in order would be a task not even the bookies would like to put odds on. It begins with two losing finalists in their respective leagues in Exeter and Glasgow.
They are joined by Challenge Cup finalists La Rochelle and a Sale side who’ve invested very well in the off-season whilst on a climb up the ladder.
You’d expect it to be one of Glasgow, La Rochelle or the Chiefs to top the group with the other two then battling it out for a place in the last eight.
Never dismiss a strong side like Sale but with the season just gone, being too inconsistent and the new players only having a short period of time to gel with the World Cup ahead, it may be a season too soon for the Sharks.
Taking points away from home will be crucial in qualifying from this group, providing they remain strong at home.
Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath
Yet another thrilling pool and one that is going to be hard to call. Despite a poor end to the season Harlequins are firmly on the rise and will be firm contenders provided they can turn The Stoop into a fortress.
Reigning Challenge Cup champions Clermont will be the favourites to top the pool but with strong opposition in Ulster and Quins they’ll be pushed all the way. You wouldn’t put it past seeing two sides progress from this pool.
Bath will need a massive step up on last year’s European form and despite a strong flurry to end their league campaign their away form needs strengthening if they wish to progress through a very difficult pool.
Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys
The 2019/20 ‘Pool of Death’. Reigning champions Saracens headline the group, but perennial European do-gooders Munster also come off the back of a strong season on two fronts.
Racing have a host of star-studded talent and in their theatre-like stadium they can push the very best. Ospreys hold the torch for Wales in the tier one competition but have drawn the short straw when it comes to who they’ll face.
Saracens will probably top the group with Racing and Munster fighting it off for one of the other quarter final slots. Ospreys have a strong squad but may well struggle in such a talented pool.
Toulouse, Gloucester, Montpellier, Connacht
Toulouse are certainly the favourites heading into this pool having reached last year’s semi-finals before going on to win the Top14. Below that it opens right up.
Montpellier underachieved in last season’s campaign and can certainly do damage with their firepower, similar with Gloucester.
It’ll come down to whether either of those two can claim enough points on the road to be pool contenders or the ‘lucky losers.’ Connacht can be good enough on their day but a pool with some seasoned teams in it will be a tough ask for the men from Galway.
Early predictions following the Champions Cup draw
Top eight qualifiers as predicted by Robert Rees:
Leinster (28 points), Toulouse (28), Saracens (27), Clermont (26), Exeter (22), Northampton (20), Glasgow (18), Racing (16).
The arrival of Champions Cup rugby will also attract new supporters. See how your side did last season.
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