Europe’s premier club rugby competition returns this weekend as round one of the European Champions Cup Rugby takes center stage. Leinster are the defending champions and start as 2/1 favourites to repeat the feat, while Saracens who are targeting a third win in four years are second at 10/3. With so many quality sides and a group stage to negotiate before the knock-out clashes, anything is possible. However, expect the above two and a few French sides like Montpellier 8/1 and Racing 92 at 16/1 to be hanging around the draw at the business end of the tournament. With the opening exchanges upon us let’s take a look at what is on the cards with our preview and predictions for round one of the European Champions Cup.
Leinster Rugby v Racing 92 (Final) – Highlights
Leinster v Wasps
In pool one, Leinster begin their title defence at home to Wasps on Friday night at the RDS Arena. Last season Leinster were supreme on their way to lifting the title unbeaten when they edged Racing 92 15-12 in a pulsating final. Since losing their opening Pro14 clash of the season to the Scarlets, they have rattled off four consecutive wins, including a 30-22 win over old enemy Munster on the weekend.
Last season Wasps failed to make it out of the group stages despite finishing second to La Rochelle, and with Bath and Toulouse also in the group they, could struggle to get through again. Their early season Premiership form has been decent with four wins from six although they do come into the game off the back of a 35-21 home loss to Gloucester.
With rain expected in Dublin, don’t expect to see a fluid affair between two attacking minded teams.
Prediction: Leinster to get the home win
Bath v Toulouse
Like Wasps, Bath failed to get out of the group stages last year, while Toulouse are back in Europe’s elite after missing out last season. With just two wins from their opening six games of the season, Bath’s form is not where they would want it to be. That said, they will be happy with the fact that their opening game is at home, with a win setting them up nicely in Group one.
Toulouse have had a reasonable start to the season with four wins from their opening seven matches in the Top 14, although their points difference of -22 must be a worry for coach Ugo Mola.
Prediction: Bath to get the home win
Montpellier v Edinburgh
Montpellier are one of the favourites to win the tournament and when you look at their squad and coach it is easy to see why. Vern Cotton has done an outstanding job since he took charge last season, guiding his team to the final of the Top 14 before losing to Castres. They have plenty of world class quality in Louis Picamoles, Ruan Pienaar, Benjamin Fall, Frans Steyn and Bismarck Du Plessis and come into the game with just the two losses from their first seven games of the season including a 29-17 win on the weekend over Toulon. Unfortunately, one of their form players of the season Johan Goosen will not feature after injuring his ankle and looks set to miss the next two months.
Edinburgh have won three of their opening six games in the PRO 14, however wins over the Cheetahs, Benetton, Connacht are hardly on a level of Europe’s elite. With Toulon and Newcastle, the other two sides in their group five, I don’t expect them to do too much.
Prediction: Montpellier to get the home win
Exeter v Munster
The Chiefs have exceeded expectations domestically but under achieved in Europe. Last year they never progressed from the group stage. Surely this is the year that they up their game to the next level? Their early season form has seen them reel off six consecutive wins, and with an opening clash at the fortress of Sandy Lane, a good performance against Munster could be just the boost they need as they look to get through to the business end of the tournament.
Munster are past masters in Europe and were edged 27-22 in the semifinals last season by eventual winners Racing 92. Coach Johann Van Graan will be the first to admit that consistency to their early season form has been lacking, supported by their stats so far that reads, W, L, W, L, W, L. Looking that that sequence it appears a win is on the cards this weekend? Perhaps if they weren’t playing a rampant Chiefs.
Prediction: Chiefs to get the home win
Scarlets v Racing 92
I like the look of this opening clash in Pool 4, last season’s losing finalists against last season semifinalists. The Scarlets looked good last season before losing to Leinster and have started their PRO 14 campaign in decent form with four wins from their six. They will be delighted to be opening their European campaign at home against the French giants, especially considering their slightly indifferent Top 14 form at the start of the season.
Racing have managed just the four wins from their opening seven Top 14 games including a 13-19 loss to Lyon last weekend. However, this is a side that performs on the big stage and I expect them to battle through to an opening win.
Prediction: Racing 92 to get the away win
Ulster v Leicester
Ulster were unlucky not to get through to the quarterfinals after putting on a good showing in the pool stages with four wins. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Tigers that registered only one win from their six pool games.
Both teams have struggled to find their best form in their respective leagues this season, Ulster coming into the game off the back of two losses and a draw, while Leicester have at least bounced back from their loss to Worcester with wins over Sale and Northampton.
Tough one to call, however the fact that Leicester have found a way to score points away from home leads me to believe they can get the points this weekend in Belfast.
Prediction: Leicester to get the away win
Gloucester v Castres
The Cherry and Whites are back in the big time and few can argue the impact coach Johan Ackermann has had on their progression. This is a guy that guided the Lions to the final of Super Rugby in consecutive seasons, experience that will stand him in good stead in the European competition.
Their early season form has been pretty good with three wins from their opening six games including an excellent 35-21 win away to Wasps last weekend. Danny Cipriani will be relishing the opportunity of being in the mix at this level, and must use this as a platform to increase his stock and get back into the mindset of Eddie Jones.
The fact that they are opening their European adventure at home is a bonus, although Castres are the Top 14 champions and have started their season with four wins from seven games.
One would think that the French with their superior European experience should get the points here, however I am going to back the home team on this occasions based on their outstanding form last weekend.
Prediction: Gloucester to get the home win
Lyon v Cardiff Blues
Interesting clash between two tournament newcomers. Cardiff have impressed early season in the PRO 14. Their opening three games saw them lose by a point to Leinster and by two points to both Zebre and Benetton, before bouncing back with a convincing win over Munster. They come into the game off the back of three consecutive wins and will be looking to make that four this weekend.
That said Lyon are an outstanding team and with wins over Racing 92, Montpellier, Perpignan and Grenoble already this season, I can see the Blues having a tough day in the office.
Prediction: Lyon to get the home win
Toulon v Newcastle
Toulon are not the same team that saw them win the Champions Cup three years running. Last season they scraped through to the quarterfinals before being beaten by a point in the dying minutes of their clash with Munster. With just two wins from their opening seven Top 14 games, the once powerhouse of European rugby find themselves languishing third last in the table.
Despite only beating Worcester this season, the Falcons will fancy their chances this weekend. They pushed Saracens in their opening game, scored 33-points away to Leicester and still lost, were down by in-form Exeter by just seven points and by Wasps by just a point. These stats suggest that they are up for a good scrap and can score points, although I see the wounded animal in Toulon opening their account with the win.
Prediction: Toulon to get the home win
Glasgow Warriors v Saracens
Glasgow registered just the one win in Europe last season, while Saracens scraped through to the quarterfinals before being ousted by Leinster. Cast that aside and focus on the early season form and we could have a cracker on our hands!
Glasgow have lost just the one game from their first six matches, while Saracens have yet to taste defeat. Saracens may have swept all before them in the Premiership this season, however the reality is they need to step up their game if they are going to clinch their third European title in four years.
Their away clash against a very good Glasgow side is just the sort of challenge they need in their opening game. I expect Mark McCall’s team will be up for this and that they will edge a tight contest.