With Europe’s top rugby leagues still only getting into gear after a long summer break, it’s a good time to rank the continent’s top ten clubs at present.
There is Irish representation but our initial list is dominated by some massive English and French clubs.
The last few years have been painful for the three-time European champions, including losing out on the PRO12 title to Irish rivals Connacht last season. However, they still remain one of Europe’s elite names, and are always a tough team to beat.
9. Northampton Saints
Northampton have bad memories in the European Champions Cup, including a devastating final loss against Leinster in 2011. But, with their squad containing such star names and currently under the leadership of a great coach in Jim Mallinder, they can still be considered one of Europe’s top teams.
Former champions Leicester are once again going through a rebuilding phase, but have brought in big names similar to those that won them the tournament all those years ago. Nevertheless, their legacy and name keep them amongst the star names of European rugby.
Exeter’s rise from the bottom to the top is quite the success story. They have come up from the Championship to England’s elite, and instead of fighting for relegation, they were fighting for the Premiership crown five years later. Without a heart breaking last-minute try by Charles Piutau in their first European quarter final against Wasps, Exeter could have gone all the way to the final itself, and will look to improve once more this season.
Clermont topped the Top 14 at the end of the regular season last year, and if not for a miscommunication in the Champions Cup, they would have claimed a place in the quarter final. The French side are a huge name in the European game and continue to be a team that is feared by opponents.
Winners of the second string Challenge Cup last season, Montpellier showed huge maturity through their newfound South African influence courtesy of coach Jake White. Finishing third in the regular season of the Top 14, Montpellier look a new force that can excel at the top.
A resurgent Wasps under Dai Young have become arguably the most exciting attacking side in the continent. Last year they dazzled through the brilliance of the Piutau brothers, Christian Wade and Frank Halai, as well as Elliott Daly. This year, with the arrivals of Danny Cipraini, Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux, could see them storm to the title of European Champions once more.
Make no mistake, one disappointing season last year (resulting in runners up in the Top 14 and European semi-finalists), does not make Toulon a bad team, far from it. The Galacticos of rugby union have a squad to be feared and celebrated, and they will be back hungrier than ever, despite their poor start a the season.
2. Racing 92
To beat Toulon in the semi final of the Champions Cup, in a year that would have resulted in their fourth straight title, is no mean feat. They eventually lost to Saracens in the final, but won the Top 14 title, demonstrating that their improvement could see them win the European competition in the future.
Being double champions of England and Europe last year gives no doubt that the men in black are the best team in Europe right now. With their squad still young and with room to improve under the guidance of Mark McCall, they could well stay at the top for years to come.
Angus Cross, Pundit Arena