Champions Cup: opening weekend preview and pool-by-pool guide

Paul Rees
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Fine is probably not the word to describe the current state of Saracens. The holders go into the opening round of the Champions Cup this weekend set to appeal against a sanction of £5m, and a 35-point deduction, for breaching the Premiership’s salary cap. They are likely to be relieved of £50,000 for failing to turn up for last week’s European Cup launch in Cardiff and as they have been considering fielding a weakened side in group matches, which could earn them a disrepute charge, the men in black may turn into the men in the red.

Saracens start their campaign at Racing 92 on Sunday, the team they defeated in the 2016 final in Lyon when they won the Champions Cup for the first time. The Paris side lost in 2018 to Leinster in Bilbao and their recent pedigree would make it a bold decision for Saracens to extend the rest of most of their returning England World Cup players, although Racing have only won one home match in the Top 14 this season and are 10th in the table, two points above the relegation zone but three off third place.

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Only two teams won the Champions Cup in between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups: Saracens three times and Leinster. If 2016 is taken as a template, this year should be dominated by the English and French who are better able to absorb the impact of reassimilating players who have been away for six months in a bid to conquer Japan than the Celtic nations, because their talent is spread far more thinly.

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Four years ago, four of the group winners were English and Racing pipped Northampton in the fifth on bonus points. The Pro14 did not provide a quarter-finalist, with Leinster propping up their pool with one victory and Munster finishing with a 50% record, like Glasgow. Their combined group record was 14 victories and 28 defeats while last season 15 losses were outweighed by 26 wins and a draw as the league supplied five of the last eight.

“I think that Saracens will use what has happened to them as motivation in Europe,” said the Leinster outside-half, Johnny Sexton. “It is not something that concerns us because it is a Premiership issue. There has been talk of them being stripped of titles, but for me their three European successes are set in stone because they were worthy winners.

“They are one hell of a team as they showed in the final against us in Newcastle last season. It was as high as an international game – in terms of physicality and intensity – can be and an outstanding team dominated us in the second half.”

With only two of France’s six teams in the tournament in the top six of the Top 14 after the first nine rounds, Lyon, the leaders, and Clermont Auvergne who are in sixth, it looks an open tournament. That is because Saracens are putting Premiership survival ahead of a fourth Champions Cup in five years, as well as the potential effect of the World Cup campaign on the Celtic sides.

<span class="element-image__caption">Jonny Hill of Exeter wins the ball in the lineout during the Premiership defeat to Bristol last Sunday.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images</span>
Jonny Hill of Exeter wins the ball in the lineout during the Premiership defeat to Bristol last Sunday. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Exeter have had a lot to say about Saracens, understandably given the finals they have lost to them in recent years, but their focus has to be on repairing a European record that is a stark contrast to the success they have enjoyed in the Premiership. In six Champions Cup campaigns, they have yet to finish the group stage in credit and have only once made the knockout stage, and then at the very last gasp.

They have yet to crack a key factor in Europe, doing well away: in 19 trips away from Sandy Park, they have recorded five victories, although it was their home form last season, when they drew at home to Munster and then lost to Gloucester, that ultimately cost them. They are in a group with Sale and Glasgow and start on Saturday at La Rochelle, where Ronan O’Gara joined the coaching team after two years in New Zealand.

An issue for Exeter in Europe has been a cutting edge in tight matches but this season they have Stuart Hogg at full-back. With the season now stretching until well into June, the Chiefs’ head coach, Rob Baxter, reckoned the attacking threat posed by the Scotland international would ultimately be worth more than an extra forward to get his side through the winter slog.

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“He can help give us that edge in big games where maybe we have come up a little bit short,” said Baxter. “We will have to battle our way through some games to get to the point where our match-winners can make a difference. Given our form so far this season, I do not know that we can say we are strong favourites for the group. We have to step up.”

Exeter’s chairman, Tony Rowe, has been the most vocal of Saracens’ critics following their salary cap hearing, even suggesting the Chiefs may call off next month’s meeting between the sides at Sandy Park unless Sarries accept their punishment. The best way for Exeter to take a stand would be to succeed them in the Champions Cup given that their failure in the tournament so far cannot be put down to their rivals having a different interpretation of the rules than the rest.

Pool 1: Leinster, Treviso, Northampton, Lyon

Leinster and Lyon have lost one league match between them this season while Northampton’s unbeaten record came to an end at Bath last weekend. Treviso, the first Italian team to qualify for the tournament on merit, are not the whipping boys of old but only Leinster have recent form in Europe. Lyon’s first taste of the Champions Cup last season saw them lose all six matches while the Saints have not gone beyond the quarter-finals since losing to Leinster in the 2011 final. Unless Leinster suffer a World Cup hangover, as they did four years ago, they should top the group.

Pool 2: Exeter, Glasgow, Sale, La Rochelle

The only group not to contain a previous winner of the tournament, or even a semi-finalist, looks the most open of the five. Exeter have modified their recruitment strategy in an attempt to crack the tournament while La Rochelle, whose only other Champions Cup campaign saw them reach the last eight two seasons ago, have won all their home league matches this season but have lost the lot on the road. Glasgow fell to Saracens in last season’s quarter-final but Sale may hold the key. They have only once made the knockout stage, in 2006, but when their catalyst Faf de Klerk returns next week, they will be making mischief.

Pool 3: Bath, Ulster, Harlequins, Clermont Auvergne

Clermont return after 11 successive campaigns in the Champions Cup ended last season when they took a sabbatical in the Challenge Cup, which they duly won after beating Harlequins at home in the semi-final. Bath have only got out of the group stage once in the last seven attempts, Harlequins have three quarter-final appearances in 13 campaigns and, like Bath, Ulster won the competition in the 1990s, although they reached the final in 2012. Clermont have a scattering of the current French squad, although their second row Sébastien Vahaamahina will miss the first four games after being sent off in the quarter-final against Wales for elbowing Aaron Wainwright in the face.

Pool 4: Saracens, Racing 92, Munster, Ospreys

Not quite the group of death given the poor start to the season made by Ospreys, Wales’s only representatives in the tournament this season, but potentially the most interesting given Saracens’ attempt to prioritise the Premiership this season in case an appeal against the 35-point deduction for salary cap offences fails. They will not willingly give up a trophy they have come to cherish and which no other English club has won since 2007, but much may hinge on how they fare in Paris on Sunday against a Racing side that has struggled at home in the league. Munster’s campaign has been ended by Saracens or Racing in the last three seasons; they have only twice failed to reach the knockouts in the 2000s – in the campaign after the last two World Cups.

Pool 5: Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Toulouse, the French champions, overcame a slow start to the season last weekend when they overwhelmed Clermont Auvergne, although the week before they crashed at Montpellier who have only won three games in nine. Gloucester’s form has also oscillated, winning their opening two league games then managing to lose at Leicester before finding that chastised Saracens had circled the wagons. Gloucester failed to play the percentages that day, a repeat of what happened at home in Europe last season when they went down to Exeter and Munster. Connacht will do more than make up the numbers: they have made a decent start to the campaign and have beaten Toulouse home and away in previous tournaments.

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