Ozer McMahon is here to profile the contenders for this year’s European Rugby Champions Cup, which kicks off this weekend.
Rejuvenation and regrowth are usually the hallmarks of spring, but it seems the seasons have been confused in the northern hemisphere this year, certainly in a rugby sense at least. A new streamlined European Cup is nearly upon us.
Thanks to vociferous protestations by the English and French clubs, some of the also-rans have been removed and the tournament shrinks from 24 clubs to 20.
At a time when we see Europe’s footballing governing body trying to expand the game by increasing the numbers in their flagship tournament, the powers that be in European club rugby look to be making the game more elitist, Hence widening the gap between the haves and have-nots of the European game. So as the Heineken Cup we have so fondly come to love has been reshaped and rebranded, here are the main contenders for the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup.
As back-to-back European Champions Toulon come into this new competition as favourites for the top prize. As befitting of their star-studded squad, the Southern French outfit have been hoovering up trophies in the past couple of years. They won the French Championship last season for the first time in twelve years to accompany their consecutive European Cup triumphs.
All the while their progressive owner Mourad Boudjellal isn’t resting on his laurels and has invested heavily in another close season shopping spree. Australian James O’Conner, Welsh kicking machine Leigh Halfpenny and Georgian behemoth Mamuka Gorgodze are amongst the stellar additions ahead of this campaign.
They have also shrewdly recruited Argentinian out half Nicolas Sanchez, who excelled in this summer’s Rugby Championship. Jonny Wilkinson is the standout summer departure and while his loss will affect the team’s style of play, his influence in the dressing room will be the most pronounced missing ingredient.
Aussie Matt Giteau who was hugely effective outside Wilkinson last season has been alternating with the mercurial Freddy Michalak thus far in the out half role but it would seem Sanchez will slot into the ten shirt once he gets up to speed, with Halfpenny taking over the kicking duties. Given the strength in depth available to Toulon they should have no issue navigating their group, and should they secure a top seeded spot for the knock-out stages no team will fancy heading to their back yard.
Steffon Armitage. The English back row won the European player of the year award last season and was a tireless worker both in attack and defence. Given his low centre of gravity he is an almost immovable object when he latches on at the breakdown, and his bustling carrying style makes him almost impossible to put down at the first time of asking.
Armitage is the perfect link man between Toulon’s power based forward unit and their silky backline operators. Any team looking to topple the reigning champions will have to first devise a plan to stop their wrecking ball flanker.
Last season’s beaten finalists will be out to prove a point this term, having fallen at the final hurdle both in Europe and domestically in 2013/14. Saracens have the strongest squad in the Premiership and have made a couple of astute additions over the summer. Jim Hamilton and Juan Figallo will add more ballast up front while they have retained all the players that served them so well last season.
Like Toulon, Saracens have also lost their captain Steve Borthwick to retirement but the former England locks’ powers had been on the wane in recent campaigns, which negates his loss somewhat, especially when coupled with the recruitment of Scottish international Hamilton.
The pool draw has been rather unkind to Sarries as they have been pitched in with Clermont Auvergne and perennial European contenders Munster. Throw in a couple of derbies against Premiership rivals Sale and Saracens will well and truly have their credentials tested early. Should they emerge from this group of death they will be seriously road tested and will fancy their chances of going one step better than last season.
Owen Farrell. The current England out half is key to any hopes Saracens have of progressing to the knock out stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup this season.
The London club play a very forward orientated game, which demands a solid out half who controls territory and takes his points when on offer. Unlike some of the other contenders to win in Europe, Sarries don’t possess a glittering array of game changers across the backline so Farrell’s ability to kick points from the tee will go a long way to deciding their fate.
A second French side in this competition that will heavily back themselves in the quest for ultimate glory are Clermont. Despite developing a reputation as ‘nearly men’ in Europe; on their day Clermont are arguably unbeatable. They failed to show up in Twickenham last season for their semi-final as they were mauled by this year’s pool rivals Saracens.
While they somehow managed to throw away the final in Dublin the previous year against Toulon. In a similar vein to Toulon, Clermont have vastly strengthened over the off-season and the signings of Jonathan Davies, Zac Guilford and Sebastien Vahaamahina are three of their standout arrivals. The prolific former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu has decamped to Castres but the fact this shouldn’t take away too much from their threat out wide merely enforces the considerable array of options they maintain.
The real issue with Clermont remains at out half where Brock James looks like he will again be trusted with the 10 shirt when it comes to the crunch fixtures. James has a habit of disappearing in games when the pressure comes on and the failure to secure a top quality out half could prove to be the French side’s downfall yet again, especially with tricky trips to Munster and Saracens in the offing.
Morgan Parra. Parra controls the team’s tempo, kicks the points and largely dictates how Clermont preform on any given day. The French international is so central to his side that you can often gauge how the game will pan out based on his early input. Parra’s temperament can be sometimes questionable which gives opposing defences a target by which they can disrupt Clermont’s startling array of attacking talents.
Northampton have been knocking on the door both domestically and in Europe in recent seasons without pushing through. Having finished runners up in the Heineken Cup in 2011/12 and in the Aviva Premiership in 2012/13, they finally made the breakthrough last year claiming the Premiership title in dramatic fashion.
They would have been disappointed by their Heineken Cup pool stage exit but rallied to claim the Amlin Challenge Cup via the back door, to complete a historic club double. The Saints squad doesn’t contain the same degree of global superstars that some of the other European contenders can call upon, but their starting 15 is as strong as any in the tournament. In George North, Luther Burrell, Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley Northampton can call upon a strong base of British players throughout the spine of their team.
Having been drawn in Pool five along with the only Italian team in this season’s tournament, Northampton will be heavily fancied to make it through to the quarter-finals unscathed. Treviso and the Ospreys should be dispatched with relative ease, which means the clashes with Racing Metro will offer a good insight into where the Saints currently stand in the upper echelons of European club rugby.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.
Still to come we have previews of the outsiders and the dark horses in this season’s newly-formed European Rugby Champions Cup.