There is nothing quite like the excitement of the opening weekend of European club rugby. The Heineken Champions Cup is back for the 2018/19 season.
It’s the renewal of the deeply-ingrained Six Nations rivalries that have lain dormant since March and the end of seven months of relative civility in the north-west corner of Europe.
Tactically, it’s the intrigue of different playing styles from differently adjudicated competitions coming together and trying to put down an early marker, as much for pride as for positioning in pool tables.
Then there is the upcoming international window and opportunity to impress at the highest club level that also factors into the excitement, with every run, pass and tackle seeming to carry even more importance than they usually do. International coaches will have a strong idea of the squad they want to pick prior to European competition, but that doesn’t stop the rest of us from enjoying it like that’s not the case.
Coming into the tournament, only two teams remain unbeaten from the first block of domestic fixtures across the three constituent leagues and they are Saracens and Exeter Chiefs.
Are they truly that dominant or is it an indictment of the quality of teams below them? Have the Guinness PRO14 and Top 14 surpassed the Gallagher Premiership in terms of overall competitiveness?
Something worth musing on in the build-up to the opening round of fixtures this weekend, but far too complex of an issue to dig deeply into here.
Wherever you stand on that question, the form of those two sides is impossible to ignore. They are well coached, have first XVs which are capable of beating anyone in the competition and both boast excellent depth, that can see them survive all but the worst of injury crises. Don’t forget they are averaging just under five tries per game, too.
They are far from the only challengers, however, with Leinster in fine fettle as they begin the defence of the title they won in Bilbao back in May. Their only loss on the young season came away at Parc y Scarlets, which there is no shame in, particularly with the likes of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and James Ryan absent that day.
A bizarre and aberrant display against the Southern Kings aside, Glasgow Warriors have also started the campaign in strong form, as have the only side to best Leinster so far this season, the Scarlets.
From across the Channel, Montpellier and Racing 92 would seem to offer the most pertinent threats, with the two most impressive French sides, Clermont and Stade Français, actually having to make do with places in the Challenge Cup this season.
You can’t rule out teams when the quality of the three leagues is condensed into just 20 sides and there will no doubt be dark horses eager to make statements of their own.
There is Muster’s ability to find an extra gear in European competition, Wasps’ free-flowing style that can run teams ragged when they are in the mood and the new challenge posed by an underrated Lyon side. Heck, there’s even the resiliency of a declining Toulon to contend with, although results in this season’s Top 14 suggest that the quarter-finals might finally be beyond the side from the Côte d’Azur.
Let’s breakdown the pools.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) June 20, 2018
In Pool 1, Leinster face a challenge that is bigger in prestige and historical achievement than it is currently on the pitch. Bath, Toulouse and Wasps account for seven titles in the competition, although not a single one since 2010 and though in an individual match you could make a case for any one of them springing a surprise on the Dubliners, over the course of a six-game slate, Leinster are heavy favourites.
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Watch: Johnny Sexton discusses the upcoming Champions Cup, as well as Conor Murray and a ‘World League’.
Realistically, any one of the other three could be in position to bag a best runners-up spot. They’re good enough that you would expect them to hold serve at home, whilst being competitive enough to be in the mix for losing bonus points on the road, the matches against Leinster aside, obviously.
Moving on to Pool 2 and the story could centre around whether or not Exeter are finally able to make that leap from English powerhouse to European force. It hasn’t happened yet, due in part to some very testing draws in the past few years, and for all the form and ability they bring, the long-term injuries to Sam Simmonds and Jonny Hill are not going to help them make that next step.
Their biggest threat should come from Munster, despite the province’s sharply contrasting form so far this season, with Castres and Gloucester having offered relatively little at this level in recent seasons. As Top 14 champions and a side that comfortably knocked off Wasps at the Ricoh this past weekend respectively, neither side can be written off, but Exeter have the depth and resiliency to survive their personnel losses and Munster have an intangible love affair with this competition that, annoying clichés acknowledged, does seem to make them play above themselves, especially at Thomond Park.
The poor Cardiff Blues. Back in the competition and they draw Saracens, Glasgow and Lyon in Pool 3.
Saracens would seem to be strong favourites, although a trip to Scotstoun in the opening round to take on Glasgow is exactly the kind of fixture that could see the Londoners battling uphill for the rest of pool. Lyon are a side littered with stars, too, not to mention the fact that they are also a cohesive group and arguably play beyond the sum of their parts, something which is not true of all French sides.
If Saracens top the group, Glasgow would be a prime contender for a best runners-up spot. With the strength of Lyon rounding out Pool 3, it’s tough to see Cardiff Blues making too many waves this season.
Pool 4 up next and it could be a direct showdown between Racing 92 and the Scarlets. Ulster have started the season in patchy form, to say the least, and although Leicester Tigers seem to be beginning a new upward trajectory, there is a substantial gap between them and the top two in this pool at the moment.
Even the intimidating home advantages that Ravenhill and Welford Road used to pose seem lessened of late, making this pool another prime candidate to offer up two quarter-finalists.
The fact Scarlets host Racing in the opening round of fixtures could be key in their bid to top the pool. If they can see off the Parisian side on Saturday, not only do the take the reins in the pool, they also test the resolve of Racing in the competition, with the Top 14 regularly something which can become a distraction for French sides, especially if they suffer an early loss or two.
The final group, Pool 5, will be contended by Edinburgh, Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons and Toulon.
Newcastle and Toulon have had tough schedules to start the season, but their form has been poor and there’s no other way to describe it. Edinburgh have been solid, certainly, but this is a pool you wouldn’t be surprised to see Montpellier record a clean sweep of wins in.
Give Montpellier that kind of momentum and they could run all the way to St James’ Park.
The brilliance of the competition is that it can spring upsets at any point. Teams can be transformed from middling form in their domestic league to everything clicking in Europe, whilst powerhouses can come unstuck, as they are stymied by refereeing that differs from what they are used to it.
To borrow from football, it’s the magic of the cup.
All of that said, Leinster and Saracens have to be strong favourites. They have won the competition for the last three seasons, have challenging but winnable pools and have both looked sharp domestically. Wasps and Glasgow fans may beg to disagree, but you can probably slot the two capital sides in right now as home quarter-finalists.
Montpellier are perhaps the strongest contender to join them, given the state of play in Pool 5, leaving Exeter, Munster, Scarlets and Racing to duel it out for the fourth home quarter-final, something which only adds to the excitement of the opening weekend, given that those four sides all face off against each other on Saturday afternoon.
As potent as the challenges from France, Scotland and Wales are this season in the competition, not to mention the ability of Exeter and Munster to throw their hats into the mix, it’s impossible to turn away from the magic of a potential Leinster vs Saracens final in Newcastle later this season.
Seeding could well ruin the chances of that and pit the two sides against one another in an earlier round, but as a spectacle and a contest, it’s hard to imagine a more salivating prospect than the best of Ireland going up against the best of England in May.
The Anglo-Irish rivalry may not have the same intensity east of the Irish Sea that it does west, largely due to an unquenchable desire to beat ‘neighbours’ France, Scotland and Wales, but it is seemingly stoked up more vigorously with each passing season.
From dramatic Six Nations contests to starkly different approaches to how rugby should be run and administered, and from having one each of the two recent European powerhouses to the boasts from fans of domestic strength in order to win respect from an opponent considered an equal, it’s a rivalry which has only improved of late.
Saracens and England were on top in 2016, they battled and hung on to those mantles in 2017 in the face of an Irish resurgence, before finally giving over to Leinster and Ireland in 2018.
Can Leinster and Ireland defend their positions in 2019 or will it be the year of Saracens’ and England’s riposte?
It all begins this weekend.
In others news: Connacht’s Sportsground set for a €30m redvelopment.
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