The opening weekend of the Heineken Cup is upon us and Jacob Whitehead highlights some key questions for this season’s tournament
Five things to watch in the European Champions Cup
Will Exeter show any signs of snapping their European hoodoo?
The Champions Cup has not been a happy hunting ground for Exeter Chiefs. In six European appearances, all they can show for their efforts is a solitary quarter-final in 2015-16, failing to emerge from their group on every other occasion.
Seeing as their form has been so dominant in the Gallagher Premiership over recent seasons, this discrepancy is deeply puzzling. This week will see an early test as they travel to the Bay of Biscay to face La Rochelle, a freewheeling side who haven’t quite hit their straps yet this season.
The danger for Exeter is that they tripped up last season in a similar situation, losing 29-25 to Castres in their second pool game – a result which was the difference as they failed to escape the group.
Exeter signed marquee players such as Stuart Hogg in part to give them European X-factor – will he inspire them out of their pool? Or will La Rochelle’s all-star back-line, comprised of Kiwi, Fijian and French talent, ambush the Chiefs?
What sort of side will Saracens be this season?
The punishment given to Saracens this week for breaching the salary cap rules is one of the biggest stories in rugby this decade. Fined more than £5m and docked 35 points by Premiership Rugby, it looks as if survival will be the name of the game for the men in black this season.
Indeed, the defending champions failed to send any representation to last Wednesday’s Champions Cup launch, which came the day after the sanctions were announced. Director of rugby Mark McCall admitted that avoiding Premiership relegation was the club’s priority, and that they may have to sacrifice any continental ambitions.
However, there is hope for Saracens. A young side, shorn of international talent and led by Manu Vunipola at fly-half, has performed impressively with their backs against the wall. First the academy graduates won with the last kick of the game against London Irish, before claiming a stunning win against a full-strength Gloucester at Kingsholm, cursed all the way by a raucous Shed stand.
This week’s challenge will be even tougher, with Saracens expected to play the same group of players in Paris against Racing 92. The new La Défense Arena is one of the most intimidating venues in club rugby, while Racing themselves were Champions Cup finalists as recently as 2018’s showpiece. A chastening Sunday afternoon could await.
Can a French club challenge?
Speaking of Racing, they will be one of the two prime French contenders in the competition this year. Finn Russell will be more settled in his second year at the club, whilst Virimi Vakatawa was in the form of his life at the World Cup. Juan Imhoff, Teddy Thomas and Simon Zebo are a box-office back three.
However, the best performing French side in Europe last year were Toulouse, who have spearheaded the current youth movement in French rugby. They sensationally defeated Leinster away, and although they fell to the same side in the semi-finals, will back themselves to be potential winners this year.
Romain Ntamack was in ominously good form in a 34-8 win over Clermont Auvergne this week, whilst Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune and Antoine Dupont (probably the best scrum-half in the northern hemisphere right now) should all start for France. With the glue of New Zealanders Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina in the forwards, they are approaching completeness as a team.
They will travel to Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester on Friday night in the pick of the weekend’s games. Pass that tough test, and they’ll be favourites to win Pool Five.
Will the Ospreys fly the flag for Wales?
This year the Ospreys are the only Welsh team competing in the Champions Cup, after they beat the Scarlets 21-10 in the play-off between the two fourth-ranked teams in the Pro14.
However, European competition seems to have arrived at the worst possible time for the region, who have lost five of their last six games. Southern Kings won away in Swansea this weekend – so how will Ospreys cope with being in a tough group with Munster, Saracens and Racing 92?
They have a massive injury list, including long-term absentees Gareth Anscombe and Cory Allen, but it will be interesting to see how some of the region’s young stars will cope at the highest level of club competition.
Centre Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler is tipped for the highest honours, whilst scrum-half Harri Morgan is a real livewire. Could they save Welsh face and shock Munster this weekend?
Related: Hotshot Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler
Northampton and Lyon are both in brilliant domestic form – who will crack?
When running through French contenders for the European Cup I omitted one team – Lyon – whose recent performances in the Top 14 have seen them top the table with only one loss all season.
They face Northampton, who suffered their first loss of the season last weekend away at Bath, and have looked like the early Premiership pacesetters. Saints have uncovered a golden generation of young talent, which included giant prop Ehren Painter, scrum-half Alex Mitchell, stand-off James Grayson, centre Fraser Dingwall and full-back George Furbank.
This group of players showed a small taste of what they were capable of in last year’s Premiership, but seem to have come into their own after a whole pre-season of working with Chris Boyd, who showed his penchant for youth development at both New Zealand U20 and the Hurricanes.
Lyon’s doughty forwards were fairly untouched by the World Cup and have new signing Demba Bamba back from a thigh injury, ready to show why he’s one of the most highly-rated talents in French rugby.
Josua Tuisova and Taqele Naiyaravoro may face off on opposing wings – imagine the impact that could result in. This weekend an unstoppable force will meet an immovable object (at least based off domestic form) and one will have to give.
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