As the European Rugby Champions Cup gets underway later this month, we’ve taken a closer look at the pool stages, potential quarter and semi-final fixtures and predicted a winner for the final next May…
Wasps have an incredibly strong side this year and will be a prominent figure throughout Europe and the Aviva Premiership. Their pool could arguably be considered as an easy group, with Connacht not producing their form of last year, Toulouse still on the mend and Zebre, who are simply a side making up the numbers. Wasps should top the pool, with plenty of try-scoring bonus points accompanying their wins.
Reigning champions Saracens are again favourites to win the tournament this year, having retained most of their double-winning side. Their pool, however, is far from easy, with three-time winners Toulon looking to bounce back from their disappointments last year domestically and in Europe. One would think whilst just losing out to Saracens, they will be one of the best runners up and qualify for the quarter finals. Scarlets’ rebuilding phase is in full swing with the resigning of Jonathan Davies and despite an average start to the Guinness Pro 12, they will be tricky customers. Sale are known for producing the occasional fantastic performance and will need to be sensational to make an impact in this group, which has not been the case so far this season.
Last years losing finalists Racing 92 are expected to top their pool and perhaps go one step further than last year and win the competition, following their Top 14 triumph at the climax of the 2015/2016 season. However, it will not all be fun and games from the Paris-based side. Glasgow are looking very dangerous in the PRO12, with Leicester growing better with every game, following an impressive victory against Bath. Munster’s history, despite not repeating the heights of old in previous years, speaks for itself. I believe Racing 92 will top their group with Glasgow qualifying as one of the runners up.
The Exeter Chiefs grow stronger and stronger with each coming season and this year is no different. Despite a heavy loss to Saracens, they have impressed – with a number of senior England players leading the charge. Despite having a difficult group on paper, I’m backing them to just top it over the impressive Ulster, former European force Clermont, and Bordeaux. Clermont are a very hit and miss team, and they will be hoping they can improve on last season’s embarrassments. Ulster are the form team in the PRO12 at present and will be looking for the same calibre of results in Europe.
Former champions Leinster will top their group this year, doing just enough to squeeze through a tough group. Northampton will be one of the best runners up, with Castres just going short of the mark as well as the much improved, South-African influenced Montpellier. Make no mistake though; this will be a brutal, physical group, which will really test every team involved.
Quarter Final 1: Wasps v Northampton
Quarter Final 2: Saracens v Glasgow
Quarter Final 3: Racing 92 v Toulon
Quarter Final 4: Exeter Chiefs v Leinster
Wasps have beaten Northampton already at Franklin’s Gardens and whilst being a very strong contest, Wasps were clearly the dominant side. With home advantage in such a big game, you would expect them to sweep Northampton aside and advance to the semi finals.
You would expect Saracens to beat anyone at Allianz Park and despite being up against a very strong Glasgow team, you get the feeling that despite the odd loss here and there, Saracens are near on unbeatable – even when they are not on top form.
Racing 92 and Toulon met each other in last year’s incredibly tight semi final and are on course to meet in the previous stage in this year’s competition. Again, with home advantage, Racing 92 would just about down the Galacticos of their French counterparts and advance to the semi finals.
Exeter Chiefs v Leinster is a more difficult game to predict, with each team being absolutely brilliant on their day and both feeling they have a point to prove. Home advantage, as previously said, is a huge factor in these European knock out rounds, and if Exeter play their best and stick to their guns, I back them to beat Leinster, but very narrowly so.
Semi Final 1: Wasps v Saracens
Semi Final 2: Racing 92 v Exeter Chiefs
Yet again old rivals Wasps and Saracens may meet in a European semi final. Last year, despite a poor start, Saracens beat their former London counterparts to go on and win the competition and Wasps, no doubt, believe that if they had advanced, they too would have beaten Racing 92.
Wasps are much improved in the time since though, and look to have a settled team with stand out names such as Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux yet to come in. However, with their full squad available, Saracens only lost one game last year and one this year so far, both against Harlequins. Their squad togetherness is unrivalled by any in Europe, and even though they may struggle, that spirit carries them through games, and I back them to make the final for the third time in four years.
Exeter Chiefs, if they make the semi final, would have done brilliantly and would be hailed across Europe, but beating last year’s runners up is perhaps one step to far this year. Racing 92 have world-class players all over the field, and fuelled with desperation to right last years wrongs, they will beat Exeter and reach the final.
Final: Saracens v Racing 92
So that brings us to a repeat of last year’s final, London v Paris. Will it be a first time champion or a second win in two years? Saracens figured out Racing 92 last season, and controlled the game from start to finish. With the same squad available, and the inclusions of quality players, I back Saracens to win the Champions Cup for the second successive season. What an achievement it would be, and there is no reason they cannot do it.
2016/17 Champions Cup winners: Saracens
Angus Cross, Pundit Arena
Recommended Read: Chris Ashton Linked With Shock Move To Toulon