Sport is cyclical, with the Champions Cup proving the perfect example of that in recent years, and this Leinster side look ready to create a dynasty.
Toulon, Saracens and Leinster themselves have all won the title back-to-back in the past decade and have shared the last eight titles between them. Toulon have fallen away but the other two have the big game experience and know how to win titles and you just can’t overstate how important that is.
Saracens will be the main contenders to wrestle Leinster’s crown away from them and, in truth, the pair of them are head and shoulders above the rest.
Every pool is tough in the Champions Cup but Pool 1 is this season’s ‘pool of death’ with Leinster, Wasps, Bath and Toulouse. And, despite that, I still expect the reigning champions to come through it and win the group without too many problems.
Exeter scraped into the quarter-finals once three years ago but Europe has proven a different beast to the Premiership for them and they’ve found it tough. There’s expectation on them now because of their domestic form but it’s a straight shoot-out between them and Munster in Pool 2 and I think they’ll top that one.
Glasgow and Lyon will be tough trips for Saracens in Pool 3 but the English champions are in ridiculous form at the moment and if they can win at Scotstoun this weekend, I think they’ll make that group look like a walk in the park.
Racing might not have set the world alight yet in the Top 14 this season but they’ve reached the final in two of the last three years and their European pedigree, as well as a bit of an extra spark from Finn Russell and Simon Zebo to add to their power game, should be enough to see them top Pool 4.
Montpellier should win Pool 5 at a canter. Toulon won this tournament three years on the spin but they’re looking like a PRO D2 team at the moment in the Top 14, Newcastle are bottom of the Premiership and Edinburgh are back in the big time for the first time for five years.
My Quarter-Final Qualifiers
Saracens lost seven games in a row in all competitions in the middle of last season and struggled with injuries at crucial times. Going through as runners-up last time around meant they had to go to Leinster in the quarter-finals and I don’t think they’ll make that mistake again.
Everyone seems to have this year’s tournament as a two-horse race and if you’re picking the best two teams in Europe now to meet in the final in Newcastle in May, there’s no doubt it’s Saracens and Leinster but there’s a long way to go between now and then.
It’s not a slight on the competition to suggest that those two are ahead of the rest either. There are a lot of high quality teams involved but they have both developed into behemoths of European rugby and they are at the absolute peak of their powers in terms of the age profile and quality of their squad.
A lot of these Leinster and Saracens players are so used to success with Ireland and England but, whilst being capped internationally is an amazing feeling, there is something special about the bond that’s built over time at club level and then winning the biggest trophy in the club game with men that have become like brothers.
The intensity of the games when you get to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup is as close to Test rugby as you can get but you’re doing that with your mates and that’s one of the intangible factors that sets these Leinster and Saracens teams apart.
There are other top teams in this competition that will all feel like they have a close bond within the squad but there is a culture at those two that’s unrivalled at the moment. They look after their players better than anyone else and the bits you see coming out of the dressing rooms at both clubs shows what the spirit is like and gives a glimpse into one of the keys to their success.
Leinster will have a target on their back this year after winning the trophy for the first time for six years back in May but they’ve shown no signs of being unable to cope with that extra pressure and they’re a province that won the title three times in four years not so long ago so they know there’s always that expectation on them.
I actually think, on paper, this current Leinster squad is better than the crop that won three European Cups under the captaincy of Leo Cullen and with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Jamie Heaslip and others in the side.
I think there’s definitely more quality across the board in this squad and there’s more depth but they’ll only be mentioned in the same breath if they achieve a similar level of sustained success. The players know that and I think they’re ready to create a dynasty.
Leicester started the idea of a dynasty in European rugby when they won it in consecutive years in 2001 and 2002 and then Leinster, Toulon and Saracens have all lifted the trophy back-to-back since 2012. It’s not hard to re-motivate yourselves as players to win it again because it’s the pinnacle of club rugby but having a group of players capable of staying at the very top is rare.
When we won it twice at Leicester we had a group that were getting towards the end of their careers, a lot of whom went on to win the World Cup the year after we’d won back-to-back European titles.
It was downhill after 2002, though, and Leicester haven’t lifted the trophy since then. Toulon won it three years in a row but are now trying to rebuild the club almost after losing a lot of players who were at the very end of their careers.
The scary thing about these Leinster and Saracens sides is that they still have a number of years left at their peak and certainly Leinster seem to have a conveyor belt of talent coming through as well.
They seem to have one eye on the future and building a legacy and a dynasty, whilst keeping the other eye firmly on the here and now and that’s a frightening prospect for everyone else.
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