Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 4

Pool of Death

Pool 4 is loaded with talent and formidable home fortresses. Welford Road, Kingspan Stadium, Parc y Scarlets and Paris La Defense Arena. A pool which has different dynamics since the start of this season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects. 

Scarlets must strike early

The opening home fixture for Scarlets conceivably could determine how the Welsh region will fare in this competition. Racing 92 are the visitors and this has the potential to be an epic encounter. Scarlets still are a formidable side but when you consider the likes of John Barclay, Scott Williams and Tadhg Beirne are no longer at the club and the loss to injury of Cubby Davies, it is an arduous task this weekend. 

Racing 92 come into this fixture loaded with squad talent. No doubt, Donnacha Ryan will be thrust into competition to disrupt Scarlets set piece. Finn Russell, Simon Zebo will look to continue their good starts with the Parisian club. This pool battle looks likely to go down to the final game of the pool in January. 

Leicester Tigers. A club in crisis after sacking Matt O’Connor after one game this season (yes, it was mauling against Exeter Chiefs) but surely insufficient time to pull the trigger. Geordan Murphy has taken on the interim role with mixed results. A couple of keynote wins in recent weeks has also seen reversals to Worcester (H) and Wasps (A). The style of rugby is every much a work in progress with Tuilagi and May the main threats out wide provided an over worked pack provide a platform. 

Ulster Rugby come into this competition with a lengthy injury list and a sudden reversal of form. Interpro losses to Munster Rugby (A) and Connacht Rugby (H) has checked early season optimism where front row issues have surfaced and the squad depth looking stretched to breaking point. Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the pack will need to lead by example and hope that Cooney and Burns get sufficient ball to launch McCloskey in open exchanges. Cooney’s performances will also be key. 

Verdict: 

This is a pool which looks like a two horse race unless Leicester Tigers or Ulster Rugby can upset the other two teams early doors. Round two fixtures will be noteworthy. Ulster travel to Scarlets while Racing 92 entertain Leicester Tigers (familiarity breeding contempt) and a true pattern could emerge after this round. Racing 92 squad depth means that they should top this pool with Scarlets securing a runners up berth. 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 2

Munster under pressure

An interesting pool awaits in pool two with intense pack battles the order of the day with Munster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby and Castres in the mix. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pool and has genuine concerns about Munster Rugby this season. 

Munster Rugby vulnerable?

When you consider Munster Rugby’s season so far, it reads played six; won three (all at home), lost three (all away). The road trip performances have seen the Irish province leak thirty plus points and there is no quick fix in terms of the defensive issues seen so far. The scrum half injury crisis could be a decisive blow as well with star player Conor Murray not in contention to play in the competition’s first two rounds at least. The home form will need to be on point to progress but nothing will be taken for granted. 

Exeter Chiefs look best equipped to take advantage of Munster Rugby vulnerability. Their imposing pack has being their foundation and their ability to turn penalty count to tries using their marauding maul is a source of great concern for their pool opponents. Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter have also evolved their game plan with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert resulting in some very impressive score tallies. The home form in Sandy Park will be strong; question mark on the road trip form which did lag last season so an interesting subplot. 

Gloucester Rugby make a welcome return to the competition; an incredible rugby town and knowledgeable rugby support. The Shed will be hopping for this tournament. Gloucester Rugby are evolving into a very competitive side; their expansive play seen to full effect last season and with their acquisition of Danny Ciprani, the attacking options are endless with an extremely pacy back three (Marshall, Trinder, Sharples). A team which has recruited well in the pack with a strong South African influence. Grobler at lock has all the attributes to be a sensational signing. A team to be feared and their home opener against Castres will gauge morale and confidence of pool progression here. 

Castres. The great enigma of European Cup competition. When they are interested (more than likely at home), they can cause massive issues for travelling teams but their policy of fielding below strength sides on the road will mean that the French Top 14 kingpins will languish in the mid-pack. An opportunity perhaps for the other pool teams to secure five points in their home games? 

Verdict:

The hope is that we will see some exciting contests but who am I kidding, the arm wrestle games will be a key theme and start with the Exeter Chiefs home opener against Munster Rugby. Potentially two teams to advance from this group given that Castres may travel light on the road. Munster Rugby look vulnerable here and suspect a last round miracle may be required to advance as a pool runner up. Exeter Chiefs for me look the form side in this pool. Plenty of twists and turns in this pool. 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 1

New name, same exciting competition!

After the opening salvos in domestic competition, European Cup action looms large on the horizon for the next two weeks. The Heineken Champions Cup sees five intriguing pools with quite a few teams fancying their chances of quarter-final progression. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the pools. 

Pool 1: Pool of Champions

When this pool emerged, it was dubbed the ‘pool of champions’ and rightly so given the history of Toulouse, Wasps, Bath Rugby and Leinster Rugby in this competition. However, one side looks destined to rule the roost in this pool and it is the reigning European Champions Cup holders. 

Leinster Rugby have started as they finished last season, the side have gained momentum in recent weeks with some keynote interpro wins against Connacht Rugby and Munster Rugby in recent weekends. Squad depth looks good for the province and with James Lowe on superb try scoring form, hard not to go past Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s charges. 

Wasps come into the competition on the back of a solid domestic league opening. Third place in the standings with four wins and two losses, the most recent came to Gloucester Rugby (21-35) and a performance which was described by Dai Young as a ‘kick up the backside’. Several injury concerns coming into the competition with the likes of Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson and Brad Shields. Home form will be key for Wasps. 

Bath Rugby come into the competition with more questions than answers. Undoubted talent in the ranks but there are vulnerabilities in the pack which were exposed by Exeter Chiefs last weekend (24-39). Teams need to play clever against Bath Rugby, go too expansive and this team will punish any inaccuracies in open play. Their home game against Toulouse will be a key fixture in determining how far Bath Rugby go in this pool phase. 

Toulouse have an amazing rugby union fan base, historical success but in recent times, success has dried up. The squad boasts the likes of Gray, Medard and Kaino but the Top 14 results have being a mixed bag. An unconvincing 10-0 win to struggling Agen last weekend, a thumping loss away to Montpellier (66-15) on the road. All pool opponents heading to Stade Toulousain will get a tough game, the road trip form of the side is a big question mark.

Verdict:

Provided Leinster Rugby can safely negotiate their first two opening fixtures (Wasps at home, Toulouse on the road), they should be well set to advance as pool winners with December fixtures against Bath Rugby. I do not see two teams advancing from this pool; the English teams potentially cancelling each other out and a vulnerable Toulouse side on the road will not win enough points away to secure a quarter final spot.