So yesterday we finally found out who would be facing who in the European Challenge Cup and the Champions Cup, too.
It seemed only natural to take a look at the pools and make a couple of predictions at this, a very early stage in proceedings. The first thing that really struck me as different is that there was no blatantly obvious pool of death. I did, eventually, decide which pool I thought was the hardest, but this year it was harder to pick than usual.
POOL 1- Racing 92, Glasgow Warriors, Leicester Tigers, Munster
So I said it was tough, but this for me has to be the pool of death. Racing 92 French Champions and European Runners up this year, Glasgow Warriors Pro12 semi-finalists and one time Pro12 Champions, Leicester ten times Premiership Champions and two times European Champions and finally, the bottom seed being Munster the two times European Champions and four times Pro12 Champions. All of these sides (except perhaps Leicester) have a lots of recent history, with Racing conceding one of their two European defeats last year to Glasgow (Saracens were the other) and with Munster and Glasgow contesting some really tight fixtures over recent years, too.
Enough silverware there for you? Racing are certainly one of the form teams in Europe at the moment and should top the pool. Despite their impressive domestic form under Gregor Townsend, I can see Richard Cockerill’s new-look Leicester side using all of their experience to over come the Weegie Warriors. Despite always stepping it up in Europe, unless something radically changes, Munster could be in for another tough year in Europe.
Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, Glasgow Warriors, Munster.
POOL 2- Connacht, Wasps, Toulouse, Zebre.
A few years ago, this would appear to be an easier pool. I mean Connacht have always struggled, Wasps have only just regained Champions Cup status, Toulouse are obvious winners and why are Zebre even there?
Oh how things change. In their first final in their history, Connacht overcame three times European Champions and four times Pro12 Champions, Leinster, to claim their first ever significant title. Over in England, Wasps made it to the European quarter finals and the Premiership play-offs too and have since named a number of star names such as Danny Cipriani and Kurtley Beale.
Toulouse on the other hand, despite struggling more in recent years, are four times European Champions and according to Wikipedia have won the French title 64,000 times so will be a stern challenge. The final team, Zebre, have very little to their name, little more than a handful of wins and they seem all but doomed. They did very well in the Challenge Cup last year and were unlucky not to qualify from their pool, but sadly I still hold the opinion that the Italian sides would be better off in the Challenge Cup, for the benefit of themselves and the integrity of the competition, for the time being at least.
This is a really hard pool to call. Wasps have gained a number of stars, Connacht have lost them. Despite having a poor year in Europe you can also never write of Toulouse. In the end, I chose the form of the teams last season to call it safe, although this is a really open pool (the top three, at least)
Wasps, Connacht, Toulouse, Zebre
POOL 3- Saracens, Toulon, Scarlets, Sale Sharks
This is the other pool that people have mentioned as the pool as death as it contains two of European rugby’s
over spenders power houses in Saracens and Toulon, both of whom have claimed European titles in the last few years. Scarlets have had a fairly poor Europe last year, going without a win. However, from next season their backline will boast the likes of Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell, so don’t write them off just yet- they should at least put up a good fight. Sale Sharks too have had another strong season in the Premiership and played well in last years Challenge Cup so will put up a battle.
This pool will be tough, but on current form and continuous tales of Mourad Boujellal making ridiculous comments about his team, who have in the last season had a serious drop in form, I see Sarries topping the pool, with Toulon in second. It’s then between the Scarlets and Sale Sharks. With so many Welsh internationals, I can see Scarlets just taking that one, although not by much.
Saracens, Toulon, Scarlets, Sale Sharks
POOL 4- Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton Saints, Castres.
This will be another tight one. Despite a drop in form in Europe and a final loss to regional rivals, Connacht, Leinster are developing some really exciting young talents, whilst still boasting some well seasoned internationals and therefore when they click, they could be a real force in the competition once more.
Montpellier had an impressive showing, winning the Challenge Cup in a tight affair against Harlequins and also managed to finish 3rd in the Top14, one place above eventual Champions, Racing 92. Northampton on the other hand didn’t make it out of their pool last year and didn’t reach the Premiership play-offs for the first time in a couple of years, but you can still never write them off. Finally Castres have seen a serious fall from grace since they were French champions a few years back, but managed to climb to sixth in the table last year in the Top14 and will be looking to put in a good showing in Europe this year.
This was a hard one to call, but I’m going to back Montpellier to top it, with Leinster and Northampton fighting it out for second and Castres being tough opposition, but ultimately coming in fourth place.
Montpellier, Leinster, Northampton Saints, Castres.
POOL 5- Exeter, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Bordeaux Begles.
What a pool this looks to be. Switch Ulster for Ospreys and this pool came right down to the wire last year. Exeter made their first premiership final last season and first European semi-final, Clermont always seem to get to the last hurdle before they fall, Ulster have had a very nifty back line with the very much on-form Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Stuart McInally and Jared Payne, whilst Bordeaux dug deep last year and despite not qualifying, still managed to make seventh spot in the Top14.
That is why this one is so hard to call. I love watching Ulster play, but I think they’ll only mange third place (please prove me wrong), with the experienced Clermont taking the top spot and Exeter Chiefs slotting in just below them in the table.
Clermont Auvergne, Exeter Chiefs, Ulster, Bordeaux Begles.
As usual, let me know your thoughts on Twitter, or in the comments!
The Scribbler, 30th June, 2016