It’s that time of year where Rugby Europe tries to trick us into thinking rugby is like football with the “it’s-still-called-the-Heineken-Cup-in-our-heads” Cup. Also there’s the Challenge Cup in its wake; average, dull and completely uninteresting to anyone but the CPC faithful. Admittedly there’ll be a few interesting matchups, but we haven’t really warmed up to the idea of tuning into London Irish B playing Krasny Yar in the Siberian winter in January.
The Champions Cup has some interesting draws, with Pool 2 featuring last year’s finalists Saracens and Clermont plus Premiership contenders Northampton and Ospreys. Five years ago this would have meant an impossibility to predict, but the result in this pool seems already set in stone. Ospreys have been absolutely shambolic this season and will realistically only target a home victory against Clermont. The French outfit itself seems a shadow of the team that blitzed their opposition in the Cup and Top 14 last year. They’re currently languishing in 9th place in France. We’re not saying it’s because Glacial Greig has warped time and space around Auvergne to make himself appear moderately fast; we’re just not discounting the possibility. All this to say that Sarries should easily top this pool, and if you’re looking for tips to bet online Saints could be an outsider for honours if they turn out to be one of the 3 best runners-up.
The other standout group this year is Pool 3, featuring PRO14 powerhouses Leinster and Glasgow, as well as Exeter Chiefs and Vern Cotter’s Soulless Bastard Squad over at Montpellier. Picking a winner in this group will be like picking the most deranged Trump tweet, so we’re not going to deliver much insight here. Glasgow are off course the only unbeaten side left across Europe’s three main competitions, but lack the squad depth of their opposition. If they can keep their squad relatively free of injury, Dave Rennie could lead them far into this year’s tournament. Unless Big Vern makes Louis Picamoles dress up as a rabbit and run straight at Finn Russell off course.
These two pools are pockets of excellence, but there are other strong teams around as well. Wasps have currently slumped to tenth place in the Premiership and are experiencing a lot of injury related problems. They’ll want to focus on salvaging their domestic campaign, leaving Ulster as the likely pace setters in Pool 1 ahead of Quins and La Rochelle. Despite their own injury problems in the back row, the utter class of the Ulster backs will leave plenty of defences scorched.
Pool 5, meanwhile, may look deceptively easy due to the inclusion of Treviso, but features three serious contenders for the knockout stage with Scarlets, Toulon and Bath. Out of these Scarlets look like the most consistently threatening team. Their title run in last year’s PRO12 playoffs proved they can beat any opposition on their day and, should they top this pool, they could go far.
The Challenge (to stay awake watching) Cup, however, is such a curious beast, it’ll be nigh impossible to predict. Last season’s victors Stade Francais only barely made it into the playoffs after blatantly and cowardly cheating themselves out of a deciding matchup against Romanian outfit Timișoara Saracens, so who knows what could happen? Pools 1 and 2 look competitive on paper and Bordeaux and Newcastle could well be in the eventual final. Toulouse and Lyon are currently in form in the Top14, but it’s difficult to say if they’ll want to risk their best players getting injured in what’s ultimately an also-ran competition.
Edinburgh and Connacht should progress to the knockout stage virtue of their respective pools and could possibly become favourites. Should their form in the PRO14 rule them out of contention of “domestic” honours, they might as well decide to focus their resources on European glory. And it’s about time for a Celtic team to reach a European final again anyway.
B&M Title Favourites Heineken Champions Cup: Saracens, whomever makes it out of Pool 3
Outsiders: Ulster, Northampton, Scarlets
B&M Title Favourites European Cup of Mediocrity: Newcastle, Toulouse, Bordeaux
Outsiders: Edinburgh, Connacht, Gloucester, Lyon