The European Champions Cup returns Friday night as Dai Young’s depleted Wasps face Ulster in Belfast. Title holders Saracens, meanwhile, begin their quest for a third successive tournament win as they face Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens.
Can anyone dethrone the north Londoners? Ahead of the big kick off our experts look into their crystal balls to predict this season’s champions, dark horses and much, much more.
Nick Bewley: Saracens. Regardless of their relatively difficult pool, which features last season’s finalists Clermont as well as a resurgent Northampton, expect Mark McCall’s side to lift the trophy aloft in Bilbao come May. Their strength in depth is frightening while their big-game temperament with Owen Farrell directing the ship is second to none.
Tom Hamilton: It is extremely hard to look past Saracens. Remarkably given they have won two on the bounce, their squad looks even stronger than last season and they have the nous and experience of winning Europe’s top prize. With Liam Williams, Will Skelton and Christian Tolofua in their midst, they boast a strong group, and one comfortable with grinding out knockout matches where needed.
James Harrington: Saracens. There’s something inevitable about the two-time champions from the English Premiership. They simply and consistently do everything slightly better than everyone else. They adapt better than anyone. They are Darwinian rugby — and they are the ones who will survive to the end.
Martyn Thomas: Saracens. Winning a third successive Champions Cup will not be easy, but the omens look good for Mark McCall’s men. Pool mates Clermont and Ospreys have both looked out of sorts at the start of the season, while Northampton are a known quantity. Should Saracens get out of the group then they have a squad stacked with quality who know what it takes to win at this level.
NB: Glasgow. Dave Rennie has already made an impact since replacing Gregor Townsend with the Warriors still unbeaten through six rounds of the PRO14. He’s well-versed to the challenges of playing different styles from his time in Super Rugby, so expect Glasgow to punch above their weight in a difficult pool featuring Exeter, Montpellier and Leinster.
TH: Montpellier could find themselves in the final four, and then it’s in the lap of the Gods for who goes on to win. They have bought some brilliant players in the off-season and have started the 2017-18 campaign well, placed second in the Top 14. When you have a squad boasting the power of Louis Picamoles and Nemani Nadolo, coupled with the subtlety of Aaron Cruden and Ruan Pienaar, then you are going to cause problems.
JH: La Rochelle. It’s a first Champions Cup campaign for last season’s surprise Top 14 package, and no one quite knows what to expect. But their philosophy is to attack from anywhere — even from behind their own tryline if the feeling takes them. And they’re in a group with Harlequins, Ulster and Wasps — so, frankly, anything goes. And anyone could sneak through.
MT: Scarlets. The PRO14 champions have not reached the knockout stages of Europe’s biggest club competition for more than a decade, but their form over the last year suggests that could be about to change. Scarlets have started the campaign in style, winning five of their opening six matches, and their Champions Cup campaign last term featured a win over Toulon and draw with Saracens. Faced with an easier pool this time around, Wayne Pivac’s men could finally make a return to the quarterfinals.
Player to Watch
NB: Semi Radradra (Toulon). As a frequent watcher of the NRL, I can tell you that this guy is a try-scoring freak. In 94 rugby league games, the Fijian flyer crossed the line 82 times. Toulon certainly aren’t short of wing options with Chris Ashton, JP Pietersen, Josua Tuisova and Bryan Habana also in the mix, but should Radradra get a chance he will entertain.
TH: Matt Toomua (Leicester). The Tigers centre spent most of last term on the sidelines after suffering a knee injury in just his second game for the club. At his best, he is an inside centre to rival the world’s elite and working in tandem with George Ford, he has the prowess and awareness to light up the competition.
JH: Alivereti Raka (Clermont). The 22-year-old Fijian flyer has touched down five times this season — and as the sharp point to a cutting back line that could include Nick Abendanon, David Strettle, Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra — he’s likely to give opposition defenders more than a few nervy moments.
MT: Aaron Cruden (Montpellier). The All Blacks fly-half is currently nursing a rib injury that kept him out of his side’s Top 14 defeat at Stade Francais. But even if it doesn’t come at Leinster this weekend, Cruden’s introduction to the Champions Cup should be one to keep an eye on. The 28-year-old is a world-class operator at 10, and his ability with ball in hand can ignite a potent Montpellier backline.
One thing you’re looking forward to watching…
NB: The final in Bilbao. This is the first time the European grand finale has been held outside a rugby stronghold, with the organisers opting to host it at the 53,000 capacity San Mames stadium. It’s a positive move in principal to see the game taken to new borders but it’ll be intriguing to see how the game is received by the locals with the final held on the penultimate weekend of La Liga.
TH: The Saracens-Clermont fixture should be mouth-watering. In a repeat of last year’s Champions Cup final, Saracens’ trip to Stade Marcel Michelin will be an occasion to savour. Clermont will have their mesmeric centre Wesley Fofana back and firing and it should be a match that lasts long in the memory. To slightly cheat with the answer, how wonderful it’d be to see a packed Parc Y Scarlets welcoming Toulon, Bath and Treviso to town. The PRO14 champions play some brilliant rugby, and they will surely take that on to the European stage. They should reach the latter stages of the tournament.
JH: Remember the Ulster-Clermont epic at the Kingspan last season? Or Wasps’ thunderous comeback draw at Toulouse? Glasgow’s joyous run to the quarterfinals? Connacht’s snatched home wins over Toulouse and Wasps? Or Scarlets so-near-so-far tied game at home to Saracens? Yes, more of those, please.
MT: Rugby at the U Arena. The rugged charm of the Stade Yves Du Manoir is soon to be replaced with Racing’s new space-age indoor stadium. It is going to be odd to watch the sky blue and whites run out at their new home — named the U Arena because its layout resembles a horse-shoe — but it will definitely be interesting to see what atmosphere 32,000 fans can generate under cover. We are scheduled to find out exactly that when Racing host Munster in January.
NB: La Rochelle, Saracens, Exeter, Munster, Toulon, Wasps, Clermont, Scarlets.
TH: Ulster, Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Munster, Scarlets, Clermont, Montpellier, Toulon.
JH: La Rochelle, Saracens, Munster, Glasgow, Scarlets, Clermont, Montpellier, Toulon.
MT: La Rochelle, Saracens, Montpellier, Munster, Scarlets, Ulster, Exeter, Toulon.