The Gain Line previews the 2015/16 European Champions Cup and tips Leicester to benefit from a favourable Pool draw but European superpower, Toulon, to make it four titles in a row.
After a thrilling World Cup which provided an exhibition of Southern Hemisphere rugby at its very best, the leading Northern Hemisphere club competition kicks off this Friday night.
I was fortunate to tip both Champions Cup finalists last year by heavily supporting the main French challengers. But what about this year? Well, to me, this year's winner looks more difficult to predict. Partly because of the increased competitiveness of the English clubs given the extent of their investment over the past 12 – 24 months (cue the debate over Salary Cap settlements). Partly due to an expected revival in Leinster after the return of prodigal sons, Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa. But mainly due to the competition’s format in which a reduced 5 Pools (from 6 in the Heineken Cup) makes qualification to knock-out rugby a major achievement in itself. Never mind securing a home quarter final (by being one of the top 4 Pool winners).
To briefly outline the competition format, each Pool winner and the top three runner-up teams qualify from the Pools to the quarter finals. The top four winning team secure all important home quarter finals against the bottom four in reverse order (i.e. first home to last, second home to second-from-bottom and so on). Given the relative strength of the Pools, every point counts. A win is worth 4 points, a draw 2 and there is a winning bonus point on offer for scoring 4 or more tries and a losing bonus point for losing by 7 points or less.
So let’s look at through this year’s Pools and try to pick out the winner of each and three likely runners up. The Pools this season feature:
Pool 1: Saracens; Toulouse; Ulster & Oyonnax.
Pool 2: Clermont; Bordeaux; Exeter & Ospreys.
Pool 3: Northampton; Racing 92; Glasgow & Scarlets.
Pool 4: Leicester; Munster; Stade Francais & Treviso.
Pool 5: Toulon; Leinster; Bath & Wasps.
Let’s start by ruling out Oyonnax. With all due respect to the club, they currently sit second-from-bottom in the Top 14 and will have all eyes focused on maintaining their divisional status. Finance simply dictates this.
I’m also tempted to put a line through Ulster. The longed awaited arrival of Les Kiss has only happened in the last few weeks (after Ireland’s exit from the Rugby World Cup) and, as he stated himself, “it's been a little bit difficult being right on board with it … my commitment was purely with the Irish team”. It will take him some time to translate his ideas and his cause won't be helped by injuries to Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe. I also continue to harbour reservations about Paddy Jackson at 10 (which seem to be shared by Joe Schmidt).
And that leaves two – Saracens and Toulouse. Both clubs sit high in their respective leagues and will also have ambitions for progression in Europe. I believe this Pool will produce two qualifiers but who will top it? In truth, very little separates them and I wouldn’t like to bet on it.
But if I was pushed to, Saracens would just about edge it for me. They have a sequence of games which has been beneficial for teams in the past (home, away, away, home, home and away) and are more settled than Toulouse. Long-term Toulouse coach, Guy Noves, has left to take up the French head coach role and Ugo Mola has taken charge. But with Toulouse seemingly desperate to secure some big name signings for next season (such as Taulupe Faletau and Simon Zebo), following the confirmed departure of Louis Picamoles in 2016, the appear to be targeting next season and beyond.
Top 3 Runner Up: Toulouse
If there is a bet for which Pool will have the most tries scored, this is the one. All of these sides know how to score a try and I expect to see some very decent Pool games.
But with the same surety that we ruled Oyonnax out of Pool 1 contention, let’s cut to the chase here. Clermont win this Pool. Home form, experience and a roster of players featuring Benjamin Kayser, Wesley Fofana, Nick Abendanon, Damien Chouly, Scott Spedding, Noa Nakaitaci and new Springbok signing, Flip van der Merwe, suggests little else.
Then the question becomes whether any of the other teams will qualify as a Top 3 runner up? Given all teams are decent at home and score tries, there is potential for the team finishing second to secure enough points to qualify as a top 3 Runner Up. But the issue for these teams is that I can see them all taking points from each other. Bordeaux will be very difficult to beat at home and have a habit of collecting bonus points away from home (note the 26-26 draw with Clermont earlier this season). Exeter are also very difficult to beat at home and their style of rugby could secure them an away win and/or bonus points. And Ospreys have experience in this competition – and a really strong home record – which could see a Dan Biggar led outfit pose difficulties for any visitor.
If I was pushed, I’d side with Bordeaux. But not enough to stake any money on it.
Pool Winner: Clermont
This is an incredibly difficult Pool to call and I don’t see too much at all between Northampton, Racing 92 and Glasgow. I do, however, believe Scarlets can be disregarded from potential qualification despite the addition of DTH van der Merwe.
For me, the larger clubs of Northampton and Racing 92 will edge out an improving Glasgow. Just. There's not much evidence to support this - other than looking towards their larger squads - but I expect both to have enough nous to qualify despite Northampton starting their league campaign poorly and Racing being unable to call upon All Black, Dan Carter, until Round 3.
If I was pushed to call the Pool winner, which I’d also be reluctant to bet on, Northampton would edge it.
Pool Winner: Northampton
Top 3 Runner-Up: Racing 92
Without any doubt, this is the easiest Pool of the five as the inclusion of an Italian side almost guarantees two teams will qualify from the Pool. But which two?
The bookmakers have Stade Francais priced as favourites to win the Pool but I just can’t see it. Stade are poor enough travellers at the best of times but to back them to take points from Thomond Park and Welford Road – two of the toughest grounds in European rugby – is nothing less than speculative.
I can, however, see Munster and Leicester taking something (even a bonus point) from Paris. Between Munster and Leicester, I think the Tigers may have the edge. Munster are without Paul O’Connell (departed), Peter O’Mahony (out until March at least) and Felix Jones (retired) and, despite the growing stature of CJ Stander, its simply too much experience and talent to replace at relatively short notice. By contrast, Leicester ooze experience (and no little talent to go with it) from players in key positions like Tom Youngs, Marcos Ayerza, Tom Croft, Jordan Crane, Ben Youngs, Jean de Villiers, Manu Tuilagi and Mathew Tait.
In my book, Leicester are the team to beat in the Pool and 12/5 is my standout bet of the Champions Cup Pool stage.
Assuming Leicester emerge as Pool winners, and given there’s an Italian club, they should secure a home quarter-final against one of the “bottom 4” qualifiers. And Leicester can beat anyone at Welford Road. Which, to me, leaves their outright price of 50/1 for the Cup excellent each-way value coming into the tournament (to hold or lay later in the competition). Particularly when you consider that some clubs at far lower odds may struggle to even qualify from their Pool (Leinster, Bath, Ulster etc).
Pool Winner: Leicester
Top 3 Runner-Up: Munster
The Pool of death. Certainly for European heavyweights Leinster, Bath and Wasps.
Mourad Boudjellal has, quite simply, assembled the greatest ever club squad at Toulon. Littered with internationals and former internationals, the Toulon roster includes household names everywhere such as Salesi Ma'afu, Matt Stevens, Samu Manoa, Paul O'Connell, Mamuka Gorgodze, Juan Smith, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Steffon Armitage, Duane Vermeulen, Sébastien Tillous-Borde, Quade Cooper, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Ma'a Nonu (when registered), Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell and Leigh Halfpenny. And the others in the squad aren’t half bad either!
So let’s put this tournament in very, very straightforward terms – it’s Toulon’s to lose. But if they are to lose it, it may well be in the Pool stages where they’ve a history of stumbling before being clinical in knock-out games.
Assuming Toulon win the Pool (which they may have to due to the new format affording little room for error), can any of the others qualify alongside? My own view is that it's unlikely as I believe Leinster, Bath and Wasps will take points off each other to prevent any accumulating enough to secure a Top 3 finish.
Pool Winner: Toulon
Let’s start with the obvious question; which teams have the talent and experience in this competition to potentially win it. Clermont and Toulon undoubtedly remain the strongest contenders and most likely winners. Of the two, I’d side with defending champions Toulon every day of the week. They're proven competition winners and, when you look at their personnel, it's difficult to see who can beat them. I can't see the 4/1 on offer with Skybet last past Sunday.
Those with most potential to break into this group are Saracens, Toulouse, Northampton and Racing 92. But all have too many questions hanging over them to support. Leinster are proven in this competition and Bath are an emerging force but both may fail to qualify from their Pool. Certainly the risk is too great to back them.
Which leaves me looking again and again at Leicester. I’m not sure if they can win it – they have the players to challenge but maybe not the squad depth – but what they have is a very favourable draw to the semi-final stages. And from there, who knows? At 50/1 with BoyleSports, the price more than compensates for the risk as an each-way proposition.