European rugby is back. Is it possible that you haven’t paid too much attention to the rugby that’s been happening in France? Do not fear! We’ve got you covered. This guide will allow you to get a head-start as the first two rounds of pool action get under way in the elite Champions Cup.
Pool 3 fixtures v Munster (A), Glasgow (H), Northampton (A), Exeter (H)
A great side for developing nation aficionados. Bayonne, or Aviron Bayonnais for the hipsters, could feature Luke Tagi (Fiji) at tighthead, Manuel Leindekar (Uruguay) at lock, and Gela Aprasidze (Georgia) at scrum-half. Bayonne were the revelation of last season’s Top 14 as they won more games than they lost and finished in the final Champions Cup spot after getting promoted the season before. This season has been a small step backwards but they have still beaten Toulouse, Stade Francais and Pau – three of the top six in the league.
One to watch: Arthur Iturria – Back-row-come-lock is a nightmare for opposition lineouts.
Verdict: Desire to stay in the Top 14 might draw their attention more than European glory.
Pool 1 fixtures v Connacht (A), Bristol (H), Saracens (H), Bulls (A)
Mid-table mediocrity since they re-established themselves in the Top 14 in 2011. They feature the surprise French half-back pairing of Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert, who have combined together in the last four matches to lead the team to two away losses and two home wins – c’est le rugby francais. Madosh Tambwe’s try-scoring record dried up in December last year and he has now scored just four times in 14 matches.
One to watch: Louis Bielle-Biarrey – Electric winger who has already scored twice since returning from the World Cup.
Verdict: Will fancy their chances in their two opening matches and should pick up at least a win and a bonus point loss.
Pool 4 fixtures v Leinster (H), Stormers (A), Leicester (H), Sale (A)
Montpellier have beaten only one team in the Top 14 this year and, inexplicably, that team was La Rochelle. The men from the west coast have had a poor start with four wins and five losses which sees them sitting in ninth place. That won’t be too troublesome as the gap is just nine points to league leaders Racing 92, who have only won two more matches. Their European journey starts with a rematch of that final for the ages we saw in Dublin barely six months ago. If they emerge with two wins from their opening two matches, they will be favourites for a third successive title.
One to watch: Judicaël Cancoriet – The back-rower arrived last year from Clermont, where he was a regular in a mediocre team. Looks reborn in La Rochelle.
Verdict: Poor start to the season and they will be missing their talismanic leader, Ronan O’Gara, for the Leinster match after his latest ban. It’s hard to see them staying unbeaten through the opening rounds.
Pool 1 fixtures v Bristol (A), Bulls (H), Connacht (H), Saracens (A)
Have lost four of their past five games and find themselves third from bottom of the Top 14 after a poor start to the season in which they have won just three times. Unfortunately, given the French mindset, that will probably mean they see Europe as an inconvenience. They might be lured in though by a pair of winnable matches to start with.
Verdict: Their opening match against Bristol should be a cracker, as long as Lyon take it seriously.
Pool 2 fixtures v Harlequins (H), Ulster (A), Bath (A), Cardiff (H)
The Parisian playboys find themselves at the top of the Top 14 after nine games. If we’re being harsh though, they have had a relatively easy start to their season in terms of fixtures. The confidence from leading the table should see them approach Europe with a spring in their step. Expect them to inflict their unique brand of rugby on some unfortunate opponents.
One to watch: Will Rowlands – the Wales lock has played just 17 minutes for Racing so far but he was exceptional in the World Cup.
Verdict: Given Ulster’s difficult start to the season, Racing should be looking to come away with two from two – and maybe 10 points – from their opening matches.
Pool 4 fixtures v Sale (A), Leicester (H), Leinster (A), Stormers (H)
Stade have been a bit of a revelation this year after a brilliant fourth place in the Top 14 last season. This term they have won six matches and sit in fifth place. They come into Europe having beaten Toulouse 27-12 in their last match. They’ve done this by going back to basics with their stripped down game-plan. Veteran scrum-halves Brad Weber and Rory Kockott have been vitally important in their success.
Verdict: Their approach should suit the poor weather they are destined to face over these opening two weekends. Expect them to target this competition.
Pool 3 fixtures v Exeter (H), Northampton (A), Munster (H), Glasgow (A)
It’s been a great start to the Top 14 season for the rebuilding galacticos as they’ve won six times and sit second, a point behind Racing. Veteran signings like Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones might have drawn the attention but there’s a very good, and young, French core here. Enzo Hervé has done a great job while Biggar returns to full fitness and full-back Melvyn Jaminet has recently arrived to boost French stocks. There is also a strong Northampton flavour as Kieran Brookes and David Ribbans could both be involved in a homecoming reunion on 15 December.
One to watch: Jules Coulon – The back-rower is just 21 and already a menace both with ball in hand and at the breakdown.
Verdict: The three-time champions and last season’s Challenge Cup winners obviously have history in Europe and will relish the chance to win a title with a more sustainable team.
Pool 2 fixtures v Cardiff (H), Harlequins (A), Ulster (A), Bath (H)
They fell short in Dublin last year with a disappointing semi-final performance. Their season was a success however as they split titles with La Rochelle, beating O’Gara’s team in the Top 14 final. They’ve struggled to get too much going this season though and sit sixth, six points off the top, with the injured Romain Ntamack leaving a void at fly-half. Without any standout stand-off putting their hand up, they’ve turned to Antoine Dupont and Thomas Ramos, out of position. A European run is a prerequisite for Toulouse, so expect them to turn their full attention to these opening two matches.
One to watch: Baptiste Germain – Yet another talented nine/10 to come off the French conveyor belt. Actually made a Champions Cup final team sheet back in 2021, but was an unused replacement as Toulouse beat La Rochelle.
Verdict: Fly-half is an issue, but the talent in this team is frightening and they should have too much for all but a handful of Europe’s elite.