The #Scrumdown - Champions Cup Preview (and predictions!)
Rugby : Jonathan Hatch puts his reputation on the line by joining the predictions committee
There may be an injury crisis in domestic rugby, but whether that is down to rule changes, the bloated season structure or the physical prowess of the modern player, the debate will have to wait, because the jewel of the European season is upon us once more; The Champions Cup.
Saracens will start as favourites to match Toulon’s record of three wins in a row, but with an extensive injury list and with seven of their players on limited rest following the Lions tour it is far from a certainty. Let’s take a look at the groups, and my predictions for who will make it to the quarter finals. Hopefully I can do better than my colleagues in the Football department at The Sporting Blog.
Pool 1 – Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps
This one is very hard to call. Harlequins have played some magnificent rugby this season, but in fits and starts. They’ve struggled to put games away, and trips to Ravenhill and Stade Marcel-Deflandre may prove difficult, though they have beaten Wasps in Coventry already this season. Wasps, for their part, have been at best mediocre so far season, falling to lackluster defeats against Bath and Saracens. They are now without their first two choices of fly-half, and may do well to concentrate on the Premiership instead.
Ulster have started promisingly this season, despite a shock loss to Zebre, and they’ll fancy the chances of getting out of the group in top spot. La Rochelle have also started brightly, but will need at least one win in England to get by, which will be tough.
Progressing – Ulster
Pool 2 – Clermont Auvergne, Northampton, Ospreys, Saracens
A pig of a group, featuring the back-to-back champions and the perennial ‘best of the also rans’ Clermont. Ospreys have been horrible this season, and are unlikely to challenge in any meaningful way. Expect the odd big performance, but I can’t see them getting the 4+ wins needed to reach the quarter-finals. Northampton have bounced back from a drubbing by Saracens on week one of the season, but their away form is still questionable. This group may just be a little too tough for them.
Which leaves Sarries and Clermont, who play each other on consecutive weeks in December in what may be the highlight of the group stages. I expect them to win one a piece, and for both to progress.
Progressing – Saracens and Clermont
Pool 3 – Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier
Boy-oh-boy this is a horrendous group. Champions of England, the only unbeaten top-level team in Europe, three-time Champions cup winners and free-spending French high flyers. Due to the competitiveness of the group I expect only one of the teams to progress, but who that team will be is very difficult to predict.
Exeter are desperate for European success having somewhat floundered in the competition since their rise to prominence. They’ll do well at home, I expect, but may struggle away. Glasgow are the dark horses and will come close. Montpellier have not travelled well this season, and are desperate to win the Top 14. It may be an obvious bet, but my money is on the experience of Leinster to prevail.
Progressing – Leinster
Pool 4 – Castres, Leicester, Munster, Racing 92
Arguably the weakest group in terms of current form, Pool 4 should be ultra-competitive because of it. Leicester are my favourites. They have now won four on the bounce, and their backline is really starting to hum. They also have the experience of winning big games when under the cosh. Munster should join them, having started relatively strongly in the Pro14 and with their incredible record in the competition.
The French teams have both been poor by their standards this season, with all the speculation surrounding Racing’s merger with Stade having a detrimental effect on the Parisians.
Progressing – Leicester, Munster
Pool 5 – Bath, Benetton Treviso, Scarlets, Toulon
This is the last time an Italian team will qualify automatically for the competition, and Treviso have been pretty decent so far this season, so expect them to throw everything at this competition, even if they have limited success. Bath are far too inconsistent to get through a group this stern. They will probably pick up a high profile scalp like beating Toulon away, but lose to Treviso at home.
It is between Toulon and Scarlets, and my bet is they both progress. Scarlets are playing wonderful expansive rugby at the moment, and have become the Welsh standard bearers, and proved in the Pro12 final last season that they can win big games. Toulon’s squad is too big and too experienced not to qualify, but I think Scarlets will pip them to top spot.
Progressing – Scarlets, Toulon
Game of the Weekend: Exeter vs Glasgow
Scarlets’ visit to Toulon should be really interesting, but the way Glasgow and Exeter play and the volatile nature of their pool should make this one totally unmissable.
Player to Watch: Marcus Smith
The 18-year-old fly half has made a brilliant start to his professional career at Harlequins, but the Champions Cup is a different kettle of fish. It will be fascinating to see how the youngster deals with the pressure against La Rochelle.
Predictions for the weekend:
Ulster beat Wasps
Harlequins lose to La Rochelle
Northampton lose to Saracens
Ospreys lose to Clermont
Leinster beat Montpellier
Exeter JUST beat Glasgow
Racing 92 beat Leicester
Castres lose to Munster
Bath lose to Treviso
Toulon lose to Scarlets