By James Beringer
With the Rugby World Cup firmly ingrained in the minds of sports fans everywhere, the opportunity to get into club rugby has never been better. This weekend marks the beginning of the Northern Hemisphere’s most prestigious club tournament: the European Champions Club. Twenty teams from six countries will fight it out for a shot at European glory at the final in London next year.
Toulon have been the dominant side in this competition over the last few years, winning the title three consecutive times. However, there are plenty of teams across the following five pools that all have a great chance of getting their hands on the trophy.
Pool 1: Oyonnax, Saracens, Ulster, Toulouse
Beginning with Pool A, Oyonnax will be making history by appearing for the first time in this competition. For such a small town in Eastern France, to have made it this far is a phenomenal achievement considering they were playing in the French second division only two years ago. That being said, qualifying from this tricky group will most probably be a step too far for them, despite the astute signing of experienced world cup-winning scrum-half Piri Weepu. Domestic survival in the Top 14 will surely have to take priority over European adventurism, with Oyonnax sitting precariously in 13th position in the French league.
Defending Aviva Premiership champions Saracens and French heavyweights Toulouse will surely be considered the favourites for this pool. Ulster are a good side yet they displayed too many defensive inconsistencies in their 33-28 defeat to Munster in the Pro-12, with missed tackles costing them dear.
Saracens will look to their traditional manner of playing rugby that has rewarded them kindly in the past, but will also look to develop a more expansive game plan in the coming season that is less reliant on the boot of Owen Farrell.
This pool is likely to come down to the winner of the crunch games between Saracens and Toulouse, although with struggling Oyonnax in the group, it is not outside the realms of possibility for both to go through with Ulster finishing in third.
Pool 2: Clermont, Exeter Chiefs, Bordeaux Begles, Ospreys
In many ways, Clermont in Europe are reminiscent of the All Blacks at the World Cup between 1991 and 2007 – always looking to claim the top prize, yet continually falling agonizingly short in the final stages. They will be looking to finally get over the finish line in this tournament, and begin with a potential banana skin match against European newcomers Bordeaux Begles.
Bordeaux will bring an element of the unknown to this pool that could work to their advantage; however, given the pedigree of their opponents, anything other than a Clermont win seems unlikely.
Exeter Chiefs are a team whose stock continues to rise under head coach Rob Baxter, and they will be going into their game against Osprey’s in fine form, sitting 2nd in the Premiership, having overcome English heavyweights Leicester 19-6 last weekend.
Ospreys themselves will be welcoming back some of the heroes of the Welsh World Cup squad to their starting XV. Dan Biggar at fly-half will be a key player for them this weekend, having had a standout competition for Wales. Lock and captain Alun Wyn Jones will also be looking to finally kick the Ospreys into gear at the European level, and claim a first quarter-final berth since 2010. Overall however, Clermont will have a bone to pick in this competition and will most likely emerge as the sole qualifier from this group.
Pool 3: Glasgow Warriors, Northampton Saints, Racing 92, Scarlets
Pool 3 in all honesty is looking almost impossible to call.
Northampton certainly have the pedigree to do well in this competition, reaching the final in 2011 and the quarter-finals last year. However, they have struggled domestically and sit in 10th position with only one win so far this season. However, they do possess many quality players in the likes of George North, South African warrior Victor Matfield and centre Luther Burrell, who was unlucky to lose out to Sam Burgess for a place in England’s World Cup squad.
Their opponents, Scarlets, have been enjoying a fine run of form, sitting third in the Pro 12, and will be looking to make an impact in this year’s competition. Glasgow Warriors finally emerged as a dominant force in the Pro 12 last season and claimed the title for the first time. They will be buoyed by the return of the Scottish internationals, who came so close to a semi-final spot in the World Cup.
Racing will look to draw on the experience and rugby skills of Player of the Year Dan Carter, which will have a huge effect on their performance in this year’s competition.
Pool 4: Stade Français, Leicester Tigers, Munster, Benetton Treviso
The presence of token Italian side Benetton Treviso inevitably means that this group will have two qualifiers for the quarter-finals.
Perennial quarter finalists and 2006 champions Munster will be looking to accommodate the loss of previous captain and club legend Paul O’Connell.
Leicester are trying to role back the clock to 2000 and 2001 when they last won the competition. For a side that has so often dominated their domestic league, they have struggled to recreate this form at the European level.
Finally Stade Français enjoyed a successful 2014-15 season, winning the Top 14 competition. With all these teams expected to gain either 9 or 10 points against Treviso the group is likely to come down to away form.
With this in mind, Munster look the favourites to go through, they are having a fine domestic season, picking up a tricky victory against Edinburgh last weekend, and seeing off a resurgent Ulster at home. They sit 2nd in the Pro 12 behind Connacht, and are ideally placed to do well this year.
The crunch matches will definitely be between Leicester and Stade Français, but the Tigers seem to have the edge in this pool; they sit happily in 4th place in the premiership having only lost once, while Stade Français are in free-fall and are only 11th in their domestic league.
Pool 5: Toulon, Wasps, Bath, Leinster
To call this pool the ‘group of death’ would be an understatement. This is arguably the toughest pool ever assembled in European Rugby, featuring last years champions Toulon, looking to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive European title, the 2011 and 2012 champions and last year’s semi-finalists Leinster, 2007 Champions Wasps, and last year’s quarter-finalists Bath Rugby.
The chances of two teams making it out of this pool are slim to none, and every single game will be a brutal and highly competitive spectacle. Toulon quite simply have the most extraordinary squad ever assembled at club level. The arrivals of centers Ma’a Nonu and Matt Giteau, along with wing Drew Mitchell and Irish lock Paul O’Connell, give Toulon a ridiculous strength in depth. Add these to a side already containing Bryan Habana, the Armitage brothers and (once he returns from injury) Leigh Halfpenny and it is difficult to see any weaknesses in this Toulon side.
However, Leinster are by no means a weak team either, and many of the returning Irish players will have a point to prove following their timid World Cup quarter-final defeat. The Aviva premiership sides are also not to be discounted either and will look to pick points off each other in order to secure what will likely be a solitary qualifying berth from this pool.
Photograph: Alasdair Massie via Flickr