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European Rugby Champions Cup Preview – The Dark Horses

The European Rugby Champions Cup kicks off this weekend and Ozer McMahon is here to profile the dark horses of this year’s revamped tournament.

Munster

So long as night follows day, Munster will continue to be a force in Europe. They may not contain the same standard of player that brought them two victories in the middle of the last decade, but they will never lose the desire and commitment that will ensure they will always be a player at Europe’s top table.

With a new indigenous coaching ticket led by former captain Anthony Foley, the players will certainly not be lacking any insight into the Munster zeitgeist. Ireland’s Southern province have a pack that can mix it with the best, as they showed in their past two semi-finals away to Clermont and Toulon in successive seasons.

It’s behind the scrum the question marks are raised in regard to Munster, without a settled or threatening centre combination or a dominating out half it’s hard to see Munster claim the crown. The failure to lure any big name back to the province over the summer could come back to bite them.

et, Munster thrive as underdogs and they will undoubtedly carry that tag into their pool this season. Few people will expect them to emerge from the trickiest group in the competition ahead of either Clermont or Saracens, both of whom are amongst the favourites the win the tournament outright. Should they manage to scrape through this pool, they will be buoyed, and confident of their ability in one off games they could then mount a realistic run for the title.

Key Man: Peter O’Mahony

Few players would feel comfortable taking on the captaincy of a team once led by Paul O’Connell. Even fewer would be comfortable doing so while the legend that is POC is still in the team. Then again few men are Peter O’Mahony.

The Cork tyro embodies everything that is good about Munster and his ferocious work at the breakdown sometimes has to be replayed again and again to be believed. Having just returned from a lengthy spell on the side-lines with a shoulder problem O’Mahony will be chomping at the bit to get back in the swing of things and lead from the front.

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Racing Metro

Like Toulon and Clermont, Racing have invested heavily in their playing squad over the past couple of seasons, but are yet to reap the rewards of the aforementioned duo. Metro haven’t scaled the heights many expected of them, and they haven’t taken to Europe in the same manner as some of their domestic rivals.

In their past couple of campaigns they have failed to emerge from their Heineken Cup pool. Having recruited a base of British & Irish Lions such as Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips, Racing’s appreciation of European competition should increase. Furthermore the presence of Treviso it makes it a virtual guarantee that two teams from this pool should emerge and make the quarter finals.

Metro’s squad has a more balanced feel to it this year than in previous campaigns, and Sexton’s departure at the end of this term gives him an individual target to aim for. He will want to go out with a bang before heading back home to Leinster. It all depends on Metro’s mentality. Should they prioritise their domestic competition they will continue to fall short in fulfilling their potential in Europe, should they take the European Cup serious however, they can make waves.

Key Man: Jonathan Sexton.

Currently side-lined with a broken jaw, the Irish pivot will miss at least the first two pool games of this year’s tournament. Should Metro maintain an interest in the competition after his return he could have a defining say in their progression. Having experienced winning the Heineken Cup on three occasions, the Dubliner knows what it takes to win the big prizes. Having taken time to adjust to a new style of play after his arrival last season, Sexton eventually got Metro moving in the right direction. Much of the Parisians hopes will rest on the Irishman’s shoulders.
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Bath

Bath were once the dominant side in English club rugby but in recent years the balance of power has shifted away from the Rec. The squad has been overhauled and instead of relying on highly paid overseas journey men, Bath have built from the bottom up. Investing time and money in young, upcoming and bright English players. This policy appears to be paying dividends as Bath have made a flying start to the Premiership season with the likes of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond in scintillating form.

They may be a bit lightweight to take on the cream of Europe’s crop up front, but with a less than daunting pool Bath could easily progress to the quarter finals. Once the ground starts hardening up in the spring and the much heralded Sam Burgess starts to find his feet in Rugby Union, Bath could threaten the very best.

The squad isn’t the deepest so it depends on whether the coaching staff tries to fight fires on both fronts, or prioritises looking to win the Premiership over a good European run. There is a buzz around Bath at the minute and the English selectors are starting to take notice of a side backboned by young English talent. Should Bath lose too many to the England set up it may check their momentum, and the most important thing in cup rugby, particularly for a young side is momentum.

Key Man: George Ford.

The young out half may be small in stature but he has as big a rugby brain as any player out there. He controls this exciting backline expertly and is really putting his hand up as a viable contender for the England number 10 shirt. Ford joined Bath from Leicester at the start of last season having become frustrated at the bit part role he was playing at Welford Road. Since teaming up with his father Mike at Bath, the 21 year old has gone from strength to strength. The bigger the occasion the better the player and Ford will relish the trip to Toulouse and pitting his wits against the man that kept him confined to the bench at Leicester, Toby Flood.

Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.

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