It’s that time of the year again where Europe’s finest rugby teams come together to fight it out to be crowned top dog in the northern hemisphere.
This week Montpellier head coach Jake White compared Champions Cup rugby to test rugby, and with the amount of international stars from both the northern and southern hemisphere now on show in the competition it is hard to argue with that statement.
With fresh faces and new teams gracing the tournament it should be a competition to behold once again and one can expect it to be as highly competitive as ever. It is never an easy competition to predict a winner, with the same being said for the Challenge Cup, and without a single game played yet the winner can only be speculated upon.
However, here are five teams that we at Pundit Arena think could go all the way.
Last year’s winners cannot be ignored from this list and if one were a gambler it would not be a silly bet to suggest they’ll go all the way again. Sitting on top of the Premiership and with one of the strongest and most gelled squads in Europe it is easy to see why Saracens could, once again, challenge in the Champions Cup.
With some extremely savvy signings over the summer, Schalk Burger and Alex Lozowski to name but two, their squad has only improved further. Traditionally playing a forward dominant game, with the likes of the Vunipola’s, George Kruis and Maro Itoje this is understandable.
Saracens have really developed their backline play over the last two seasons. With an excellent set-piece and a world-class goalkicker in Owen Farrell (provided he is fit) one can expect Saracens to make their way out of the group and through to the latter stages of the competition without too much difficulty.
Sitting joint-top of the PRO12 currently, Ulster are looking in good form this season and a European challenge doesn’t look out of the question. The 2012 finalists are in a tough group with Exeter Chiefs, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux Begles, but provided they can get out of the group it wouldn’t be out of the question that they could make it far in the competition.
Their squad possesses a healthy blend of youth and veterans, all of whom have experienced playing at this level over the last couple of years. With Paddy Jackson looking a calm, matured playmaker now and the experienced heads they have in their pack, not to mention the superb home support they receive at Ravenhill, Ulster could be a real surprise finalist.
Despite a slight bump in the road with a loss in the league last weekend stunting their momentum slightly going into their first round fixture with Bordeaux, expect Ulster to put up a good contest in the Champions Cup.
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Last year’s European Challenge Cup winners this year take the step up to the top tier of European competition. With a distinctly South African flavour to their forward pack they certainly have a set-piece to be wary of and in the backline they have the mercurial talents of Francois Steyn, Jesse Mogg and new highlight reel signing Nemani Nadolo, which can be released off of the back of front foot ball.
In a tricky pool against Castres, Northampton and Leinster, they will face tough competition in the group but one should expect them to make it out and into the quarter-finals still considering the strength of their squad.
A few wins on the road would certainly help them build confidence and with their first match away at Northampton they get a perfect chance to prove that their form in the Top 14, where they sit in second place, is no fluke.
One of the most improved teams in Europe over the last three seasons, do not be shocked to see Wasps do well in the Champions Cup this year. With an easy first fixture at home to Zebre, expect to see Wasps’ full arsenal of attacking talent on display. Already lighting up this season’s Premiership, last year’s semi-finalists are looking high on confidence despite a loss at the weekend away at Saracens.
Without even having been able to unveil summer signings Kurtley Beale (injury) and Willie Le Roux (international duty) Wasps have been tearing teams apart already this year. Danny Cipriani’s return along with the form of a resurgent Jimmy Gopperth has seen their backline firing behind a pack that is going from strength to strength despite injuries to James Haskell and the loss of George Smith.
Do not be shocked to see Wasps make the final, and they may even be winners if injuries do not persist within their squad.
1. Clermont Auvergne
If ever there was a rugby team that you could depend on to make the latter stages of a competition, Clermont Auvergne are it. Twice beaten in the final of the Champions Cup over the last few seasons (to Toulon twice), Clermont are looking superb in the Top 14 this year and this can be expected to translate into the Champions Cup too.
After a disappointing return in last season’s competition, not making it out of a pool which contained two of the same opponents they’ll face in this term’s pool stages, expect them to come back firing and pushing for that coveted top spot in Europe.
Following some high profile exits during the summer, with club stalwarts Brock James and Jamie Cudmore along with Welsh centre Jonathan Davies leaving, Clermont could have been forgiven for losing some impetus this season. Instead they’ve come out firing and lead this season’s PRO12.
Wingers David Strettle and Noa Nakaitaci have ten tries between them in the league already and you can expect them to continue to receive top service behind a pack that contains Damien Chouly, Fritz Lee, Benjamin Kayser and Flip van der Merwe to name but a few.
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena
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