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The bookies' four favourites for the Champions Cup and other talking points

By PA
Leinster have dominated the Pro14 for the past two seasons. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Heineken Champions Cup will see teams from three leagues – Gallagher Premiership, Guinness PRO14 and French Top 14 – battle it out to be crowned kings of Europe this season.

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Here, the PA news agency looks at how the competition might pan out and who are the players to watch as the tournament swings into action.

The format
The Champions Cup has increased to 24 teams this season, comprising two seeded pools of 12. Each side plays four group games – against two opponents home and away – in December and January. The top four teams in each pool will secure quarter-final places, with those matches being played over two legs in April. Sides that finish fifth to eighth in each group will form the European Challenge Cup round of 16 alongside eight Challenge Cup qualifiers. The finals of both competitions take place at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on May 21 and 22.

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The contenders
European title holders Exeter could again be the team to beat. Their memorable victory over French challengers Racing 92 in last season’s final saw them become England’s sixth different European Cup-winning club, and they have made a blistering start to the current Premiership campaign, posting three successive bonus point victories. Paris-based Racing again look well-equipped, along with record four-time European champions Leinster and Toulouse, but with just four group fixtures, the margin for error is tiny.

The dark horses
Rugby union’s European Cup has been contested for 25 seasons, but the fact that only 12 teams have won it underlines an acute degree of difficulty. Of those former winners, nine are among the title hopefuls this time around, and the bookmakers’ odds strongly suggest the champions will come from Leinster, Exeter, Racing or Toulouse. But a host of challengers are lining up behind them, including twice winners Wasps, who were Premiership finalists last season, another double European champion in Irish heavyweights Munster, and perhaps the strongest dark horse of all – Bristol – on their European Cup return after a 12-year absence.

Vive la France!
France boasted the inaugural European Cup winners when Toulouse, inspired by Thomas Castaignede, triumphed at Cardiff Arms Park in 1996. Just two other French clubs – Brive (1997) and Toulon (2013-2015) – have won the tournament since then, but it would be no surprise if they featured strongly this time. The French national team has been revitalised under head coach Fabien Galthie, finishing second in last season’s Six Nations and then being beaten by England during extra-time in the Autumn Nations Cup final five days ago. If clubs like Toulouse, Racing, Bordeaux-Begles and current Top 14 leaders La Rochelle can thrive against the back-drop of that feelgood factor, then a first French winner since 2015 could easily materialise.

The players to watch
European Cup rugby has always been a stage for many of the world’s leading players to showcase their ability, and this season will be no exception. Fresh from helping England win the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, stars like Jonny May, Henry Slade, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill now prepare for the Champions Cup arena, with Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton, France’s Six Nations player of the tournament Antoine Dupont and South African World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe also among those aiming to make an impression. It promises to be pure box-office.

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Shaylen 2 hours ago
Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink

If France, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland got together and all changed their eligibility laws in the same way SA has it would be absolutely bonkers. All players from all nations involved in Europe would be fair game as would their coaches. The investment in rugby would be supercharged as teams would rush to create dream teams. Transfer markets would be super charged, salary caps may change, private investment would grow as rich backers first buy clubs and then put money into their clubs in an effort to land the best players. The richest clubs and franchises would benefit most but money and players would move across borders at a steady flow. Suddenly countries like Wales and Scotland would have a much larger pool of players to select from who would be developed and improved in systems belonging to their rivals within superstar squads while their clubs receive large sums in the transfer market. The Six Nations would experience a big boost as the best players become available all the time. The Champions cup would become even more fiercely contested as the dream teams clash. Fan engagement would grow as fans would follow their favourite players creating interest in the game across the continent. Transfer markets and windows would become interesting events in themselves, speculation would drive it and rumours of big transfers and interest in players would spread. All of this is speculation and much of it would not eventuate straight away but just like in football the spread of players and talent would create these conditions over time. The transfer markets in European football is proof of this. Football had the same club vs country debate eons ago and favoured an open system. This has made it the largest game in the world with global interest and big money. Rugby needs to embrace this approach in the long run as well

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J
Jon 8 hours ago
Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

This is a bit dramatic for me, I think the Rebels and Force cultures would be very strong, and if a player is chosen from either, you can be confident they are in a good head space and ready. Whether they quite have the technical or tactical foundations of the other two states is where one would way their risk of selection. I see no need for Schmidt to worry about that risk in this squad. The main reason I could see a predominance of players from Brumbies and Reds, is simple cohesion. What might the coaching group make of what’s lacking in the Tahs, and to a lesser extent Rebels and Force’s, franchise? Certainly sides (players) that are running irish plays like we saw from that lovely McDermott long ball with have a head start. I hope the players can continue it at International level. Really liked what I saw of Wright (don’t know player focus and just hadn’t seen a lot of him anyway) in that game, can see him being a glue in a Wallaby side too. A with the similar worry of selecting players like Ryan, I think it unfounded to worry so much about forward balance at the moment. Including both Wright and Skelton in the same lineout is not going to lose you games gainst Wales. Nor will any unknown weakenss Wales might find in Ryan be exploited to any great extent. It is the perfect time to introduce such a young player. What other shortcuts might Schmidt want to make now, just a year out from hosting BIL? When Gamble came on the scene I thought he had a Pocock ability to break game apart along with performing the role of a openside well. I would be very keen to drop Leota/Hooper for Gamble, and in your squad make up, include Uru as a lock. Did you forget to remove Vunivalu from your team? Would you have Meafou in your squad if you could?

114 Go to comments
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