The European Rugby Champions Cup is a bit of a strange concoction at times. The Irish sides buy into the tournament wholeheartedly, as do the bigger French and English sides, but many of the smaller Top 14 teams often decide to give up on the competition after shipping an early defeat.
No matter which way the tournament is structured this is going to be the case, as the Top 14 simply takes precedence over either European tournament.
When I was at the Leicester Tigers we took the competition very seriously. We saw it as the pinnacle and wanted to be competing at the business end each year. The same can be said for this Saracens team, and the likes of Toulon and Clermont.
These sides have tradition and aspire to being the best each season. In this respect, the European Cup is on a par with the Premiership and Top 14 for such teams.
However, for the likes of Sale, the bread and butter of domestic rugby remains far more important. Yes, it’s pertinent for clubs like Sale to set finishing in the top six as their end-of-season goal, but the issue of squad size then becomes a problem.
The last time the Sharks found themselves in a pool with Toulon they almost got relegated, so teams such as Sale have the difficult task of balancing the books and remaining competitive. You don’t want to overspend and find yourself exiting competition early, or limiting your spending and not being able to compete on both fronts.
Unfortunately for Sale, they lost a number of experienced players over the summer and will now have to deal with the rigours of playing week after week in the Premiership and Champions Cup.
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Last year Exeter seemed to find the right balance. Going into their final pool game, they were effectively out of the tournament. Even after 60 minutes it looked impossible for them to qualify for the quarter finals. Yet, due to a moment of madness from Morgan Para, the Chiefs found themselves qualifying from the pool.
It was completely unexpected, and they could have even made it to the semi finals had it not been for a touch line conversion from Jimmy Gopperth.
For sides like the Northampton Saints, the Champions Cup could act as a welcomed change. They’re struggling in the Premiership, and the change of pace can offer some relief from the pressure they now find themselves under. Saying that, starting your campaign against Montpellier is not easy.
If Jim Mallinder’s side kicked off against Castres and claimed a big confidence boosting win, then their season could have been invigorated.
I’m expecting some of the Pro12 sides to make an impression this season. The World Cup negatively impacted on Leinster and Glasgow in particular. The Irish side were without their international players before the Wasps game last season, and were blown out of the water.
This season Leinster look far stronger. Johnny Sexton has had the summer off and they’ve signed Robbie Henshaw. Graham Henry offered his experience during the summer months and Stuart Lancaster’s influence is already evident.
I know Leo Cullen really well from his days at Leicester, and he will benefit massively from Stuart. I think the make-up of the coaching team at Leinster is hugely exciting. Stuart will have picked up an awful lot from working alongside Andy Farrell in terms coaching defensive systems, and will also bring his own experience to the table.
You have to remember that Stuart’s strength as a coach lies in the fact that he can improve and upskill players. He might not be ideally suited to being a head coach, but on the training field he’s fantastic. In that respect, it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to see him taking a lead role in Leinster’s pre-match routines and drills.
For these reasons, I expect Leinster to win big against Castres and lead the Pro12 charge alongside Glasgow.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena
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