Daniel Rey picks his eight teams to emerge to the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The European Champions Cup is one of the most exciting tournaments in world rugby. Nothing exemplifies this more than the battle to get out of the pools, and if possible, secure a home quarter-final. With Europe’s premier club rugby competition about to kick-off, which sides are best-placed to be playing elite European rugby come Spring 2017?
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First, a quick reminder of the pools:
Pool 1: Glasgow Warriors, Leicester Tigers, Munster, Racing 92
Pool 2: Connacht, Toulouse, Wasps, Zebre
Pool 3: Sale Sharks, Saracens, Scarlets, Toulon
Pool 4: Castres, Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton Saints
Pool 5: Bordeaux-Begles, Clermont Auvergne, Exeter Chiefs, Ulster
This writer would argue that there is a marginal favourite in each of Pools 2-5 who we should expect to earn a home quarter-final. Of course, these are not necessarily the best teams in Europe, but the ones who did best out of the draw. With their domestic form and European pedigree of recent years, they are Wasps, Saracens, Montpellier and Clermont.
Pool 1 is fiendishly difficult to call, but because I think they have the right combination of a daunting home record, and proven success in big matches on the road (such as at Thomond Park last season), Leicester will be the fifth team into the knock-out hat. But given the difficulty of Pool 1, and the fact its victors are likely to have fewer points than those in easier pools, they will have an away day in the last eight.
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As for the best runners-up, I don’t see one coming from Pool 1, again because the teams are so well-matched. To qualify from second in the group requires a side to face one or two comparatively weak teams from Europe’s elite. As a result, I see Toulouse, despite being a shadow of their former selves, emerging into the quarters.
Toulon have too much class and experience in Europe to miss out on the knock-out stage, which leaves the eighth lucky loser coming from either Pool 4 or Pool 5. I regard Pool 4 as tighter, so will opt for my second-placed side from Pool 5. Exeter edge it on the back of their experience from last term, when they were second in the Premiership, and minutes away from a Champions Cup semi-final berth.
There’s so much to look forward to on the opening weekend of the Champions Cup, but early signs are that the Anglo-French dominance of the tournament will continue for another year. Expect four teams from each country to make to the competition’s quarter-finals.