European Champions Cup Rugby is back this weekend.
So, who are the big hitters and who may potentially cause the upsets. Looking at the performances so far this season, it will be difficult to see past Leinster to do a repeat of last year’s victory in Bilbao, while for the French sides, as is always the case, it depends on whether they are more interested in Europe of winning the French Top 14. Exeter are flying high in England, and will hope they take their form to the Champions Cup and onto the knock out stages, which similar to Glasgow, they haven’t managed to achieve. There is no ‘Pool of Death” per se, but some pools appear easier than others
Looking at the pools
Leinster, Wasps, Bath, Toulouse
As I predict that Leinster will win the whole competition, I expect them to win this pool. Runners Up is a three horse race. Toulouse is the one French team that normally takes the European competition seriously and they will be a big ask especially at home. I have always been a fan of Todd Blackadder, and when Bath are on song they can match anybody. Wasps have beaten the teams they would be expected to, though they have been run close on a few occasions. Because of that I don’t think that the runners up from this pool will get through to the knock out stages.
Exeter, Munster, Gloucester, Castres
This is the toughest pool and whoever goes through will fancy their chances of going all the way. Exeter are in great shape in their domestic league, having already won at Wasps and Bath. Munster are always a force to be reckoned with and I reckon that double header will decide the pool with the runners up getting a QF place. Gloucester are starting to show their potential but this has been tempered with inconsistency within their performances. They wont get away with that at this level
Winner: Exeter; Munster (QF)
Lyon, Cardiff Blues, Glasgow, Saracens
Going by history, this pool should be Saracens. Cardiff who qualified through the final position playoffs in the PRO-14 won’t be much of a threat and may be the whipping boys of the pool, and Saracens seem to have the match of Glasgow, who have in previous years have failed to bring their league form to the European table. That will be key game in the pool this weekend when Glasgow host Saracens. A win for the Scots and its game on, if not, it could be straightforward for Saracens. Glasgow have only lost once so far, but their performances have not been to the standard that they have set on previous years. As for Lyon, I feel that they will be mpre interested in winning their domestic competition, and if they get an early reverse, they may lose even more interest.
Winners: Saracens,; Lyon (QF)
Racing 92, Scarlets, Ulster, Leicester
With the exception of Scarlets, all the teams in this pool have gad indifferent form, and even the Scarlets have had some moments. Ulster and Leicester have both got recently arrived Head Coaches, and this has been reflected in their fluctuating form. It is because of this I can’t see either qualifying. Looking at the other two, Racing have the stronger squad, and will surely win the pool. Having added this season Finn Russell, Simon Zebo as well as having the next big thing of French rugby (No.8 Jordan Joseph), I feel they will top the pool and then who knows.
Winner: Racing 92
Montpellier, Toulon, Edinburgh, Newcastle
This will be a shoot-out between the two French heavyweights. As they are playing at the moment, Vern Cotter’s squad of Internationals will surely win the pool for Montpellier. Toulon are a shadow of their European winning days of the early 2010s when they did the ‘Threepeat’, but they will still fancy their chances to get out of the pool. Edinburgh (5 years) and Newcastle (12 years) are returning to the top tier competition after a few years out. This will be a learning curve for both clubs, though Edinburgh have been relatively successful in the Challenge Cup, so will probably be better experienced for the competition.
Winners: Montpellier; Toulon (QF)