It was only a couple of weeks ago since Saracens triumphed in Newcastle to lift the Heineken Champions Cup but the Heineken Champions Cup tournament organizers are keen to start discussions about the new season in earnest with the completion of the European Cup draws this afternoon. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool match ups.
Pool 1: Leinster Rugby can have little complaints
A satisfactory draw for Leinster Rugby on reflection. The pool opposition comes in the form of Lyon who showed little regard or attention span for this tournament last season. It remains highly unlikely that the French side track record in this competition will change next season. A talented squad but the priority is elsewhere: domestic success is paramount.
Northampton Saints will look to profit from Lyon’s lack of interest in this pool. The Franklin Gardens’ outfit have marquee players in the pack with Hartley and Lawes in the ranks. The emergence of Mallinder to orchestrate the back line evolved as last season progressed and should continue for upcoming season.
Benetton Rugby were the revelation of the Guinness Pro14 last season and should have taken the scalp of Munster Rugby in the playoffs only for lack of experience to close out the contest. Astute signings like Ian Keatley will boost the squad depth chart and expect the Italians to be uncompromising opposition for all their pool opponents this term.
Leinster Rugby should be looking to run away with this pool. The long term goal is to secure a top two seed for the quarter finals. Given the opposition, they should achieve this aim with ease. Northampton Saints potentially may sneak the runner up spot here despite good cameos from Benetton Rugby.
Pool 2: Evenly poised pool
On paper, a pool which looks quite close to call. The main talking point being the return of Stuart Hogg back to Scotstoun with his new club Exeter Chiefs. It was bound to happen that Glasgow Warriors and Exeter Chiefs would lock horns and so it has proved given this backdrop.
What to expect from this pool? I am rather interested in how La Rochelle evolve this season with Ronan O’Gara now the head coach. The French side’s expansive, attacking approach was so easy on the eye but it also resulted in the side conceding too many points to opponents. Can O’Gara address the concerns on the defensive side of the ball while not tampering with the fabric and attacking ethos of the club? The results could be a mixed bag initially.
Glasgow Warriors come into the new season with renewed determination to right the wrongs of last season. This pool does not have Saracens so the Scottish side can to be looking at top spot here but there have been key personnel losses and whether the new recruits can bring the same quality is too early to judge early doors. The jury is out on the Warriors for the new season.
Exeter Chiefs have bolstered their squad with the acquistion of Stuart Hogg, a full back with devastating attacking line ability and a big boot to execute the kicking game. The side continue to evolve but their pack is the cornerstone and it will continue to be in their set piece and attacking maul. Glasgow Warriors have been warned! Devoto, Slade and Nowell are quality back line options.
Sale Sharks are the mysterious side of this pool. They have potent attacking options. Strauss, De Klerk, McGinty and Ashton can provide key cameo moments and then you add the versatility of Beaumont in the back row at the breakdown and this is a side to be fully respected. AJ Bell Stadium is a tough place to go and get a result; expect a couple of teams to get turned over by Sale Sharks.
Great opportunity for Exeter Chiefs to stamp their authority early on this pool given the personnel and coaching changes in Glasgow and La Rochelle. Sale Sharks have the potential to turn over any one of these sides at home. Exeter Chiefs impressed me massively last season, they are primed for a good run in this competition this year and suspect that they will target this competition given this pool. Exeter Chiefs and potentially La Rochelle to advance.
Pool 3: Can ASM Clermont Auvergne deliver on the road?
This pool is intriguing for a number of reasons. ASM Clermont Auvergne make a welcome return to this competition; their squad is stacked with talent and quality. Their home form imperious but there are question marks on their form on the road still, something that the other pool opponents will look to exploit.
Ulster Rugby come into this season with renewed heart, a complete transformation from twelve months prior where there was doom and gloom. Dan McFarland, coaching staff and playing staff should be commended for last season; competitiveness restored and on another day could have taken the scalp of Leinster Rugby in the quarter final of this competition.
Ulster Rugby will be only too aware that they will need the likes of Rob Herring to step up big this season given the imminent retirement of Rory Best. The pack platform with Coetzee and the continued improvement of O’Sullivan and Moore in the pack is required for Ulster Rugby to unleash their exciting back line.
Bath Rugby and Harlequins will be eyeing up this pool with interest too. The West Country side showed good cameos in the competition last season but there were too many lapses, none more so than Freddie Burns try cock up against Toulouse at home. A managerial change in direction should provide renewed focus to a squad who have the talent but whether they have the consistency to deliver for an entire pool campaign remains unanswered.
Harlequins. A strong second half to the Gallagher Premiership season, a club with tradition and noted for their cohesive attacking play. A youthful side with the likes of Marchant and Smith looks potentially mouth watering and expect plenty of quality attacking cameos from the London side.
ASM Clermont Auvergne with their home form look odds on to qualify but there is hope for the other three in the pool. Ulster Rugby may profit from the two English sides cancelling each other. Home form and loser road trip points will be huge. 50/50 whether a second team comes out of this pool.
Pool 4: Pool of Death
No other words for it. Munster Rugby fans were forewarned after the seeding draw this week but the pool was not kind. Saracens, Racing 92 and Ospreys means six titanic pool games in store.
A pool like this has to be embraced by all sides. The pool fixtures will be immense and the players and coaching staff teams will relish pitting their wits against each other.
Saracens will obviously enter the pool as favorites. They are the reigning champions. They are the side to be knocked off their perch. Quality squad depth and numerous match winners in the pack and back line. Owen Farrell leadership at half back continues to impress.
Racing 92. A team who left plenty of regret this past season. Undoubted talent and scoring prowess but were opened up far too easily at times. A return for Simon Zebo back to Thomond Park, bound to be an emotional return as well for Donnacha Ryan as well.
Ospreys. The sole Welsh side in the competition will look to impress early. Jones’ leadership along with Tipuric in the pack will need to set the tone for a side who have had a number of notable player departures. Interesting to see how Allen Clarke gels the side; early Guinness Pro14 momentum required.
What of Munster Rugby? Coaching personnel appointments in recent weeks; excitement from the supporters on what Rowntree and Larkham will bring to the table. The pressure is now on the playing squad, the skill set has to evolve and improve. The acid test will be answered sooner than in previous campaigns.
Tough pool. Tough fixtures. Home form is paramount and also the objective of not given pool opposition any points from these fixtures could separate the victors from the vanquished. Early fixture results will be crucial, cannot be behind the eight ball early in this pool. Saracens with their squad have to be favored to progress, prospect of another side coming from this pool looks remote. Bonus point try wins look problematic.
Pool 5: French teams hold the key
Toulouse and Montpellier are paired in this final pool. Toulouse’s recent domestic league success will only bring on the likes of Dupont and Ntamack. A side who impressed with their attacking play last season. Huget and Medard will look to stamp their authority on proceedings early.
Montpellier. A true enigma. The squad depth is incredible. The coaching ticket world class but they have not been able to deliver in this competition. Ruan Pienaar’s departure looks a massive void. The domestic focus becomes a factor here and Montpellier will look to rotate their squad on the road trips which provides hope for the other non-French sides in the pool.
Step forward Gloucester Rugby and Connacht Rugby, two sides who have the attacking capability and home confines to make their French juggernaut opponents feel very uncomfortable. The fixture between these two sides will be key to seeing if either one of them are involved in the shakeup. Danny Ciprani holds the keys of the Kingsholm side. If he fires, the side are on it.
Connacht Rugby for me need to embrace this pool, play without fear and look to execute their uptempo attacking game plan in these fixtures. The pack platform may be problematic to establish but excited to see how Andy Friend’s side fare; expecting a couple of marquee results here.
Toulouse have unfinished business with this competition after this past season. Their pack and attacking play should see them advance as pool winners and potentially a top two seed. Montpellier are a side whose interest could wane quickly. Gloucester Rugby and Connacht Rugby potentially could be the shakeup for the final best runner up spot, too hard to call.
Pool Winners: Leinster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Toulouse
Best Runners Up: Northampton Saints, Ulster Rugby and La Rochelle