LONDON, ENGLAND – A new era in European club rugby kicks off Friday afternoon, when Harlequins face Castres at the Stoop. After fifteen years of stability, everything came very close to falling apart last winter, when no union was able to agree on terms for a new European competition. After months of painstaking negotiation, things were finally worked out, and twenty teams will begin the journey to the next European club championship this weekend. RugbyWrapUp has all your needs covered, with our match previews, predictions, and pool previews.
Teams: Clermont, Munster, Sale, Saracens
One of the benefits of contracting the competition from twenty-four to twenty teams is the strengthening of the group stages. This is truly a group of death, and Sale may have difficulty scraping a win out of a group that includes three top quality sides. Clermont stand at the top of the table in France through the first seven rounds, while Munster has an unfortunate defeat to Edinburgh on their record. Both sides figure to be among the strongest in this year’s competition. Saracens are no slouches either, sitting in second in a very competitive Premiership. Sale have Danny Cipriani, who will be desperate to stake a claim to the England fly-half berth, but it may not be enough for the Manchester outfit.
1) Munster 2) Saracens 3) Clermont 4) Sale
Teams: Castres, Harlequins, Leinster, Wasps
Castres, Quins, and Leinster have all struggled in the early going, while Wasps are flying highest on domestic form. Few expect that to remain the case in Pool 2, which may be the most evenly matched in the competition. Castres and Quins face off this afternoon in an enormous fixture for both sides, with the opportunity to define their European seasons at stake. Leinster will probably heave a sigh of relief at their pool draw, but can take nothing for granted after having lost three out of the first six matches of the season in the Pro12. Wasps offer quality attacking rugby almost every time they play, but they will have to do more on the defensive side of the ball to remain competitive in their return to top-tier European competition.
1) Leinster 2) Castres 3) Quins 4) Wasps
Teams: Leicester, Toulon, Scarlets, Ulster
Another murderous pool sees three former champions drawn against each other. Scarlets are the odd side out, and possess an unusual 2-2-2 record in the Pro12 thus far. They played Munster to a thrilling 37-all draw early in the season, and have shown their ability to up their game when it counts. Leicester’s troubles have been well documented on this site and in other forums, but they are surely ruing a fixture list that sees them face Ulster in the first round. Ulster want to go further in this year’s competition after a devastating home quarterfinal defeat to Saracens last year. Toulon stand as reigning European champions, and are attempting to become the first side to win three consecutive European titles. They stand a strong chance of doing so, despite having lost Jonny Wilkinson to retirement. Toulon have had a solid start to their Top 14 season, and they possess unrivaled depth to allow the side to weather any injury storms that may come.
1) Toulon 2) Ulster 3) Leicester 4) Scarlets
Teams: Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier, Toulouse
The weakest pool on paper may be the most competitive when all is said and done. Bath have clearly arrived, and they have at least one major mid-season reinforcement on the way when Sam Burgess recovers from facial surgery. George Ford gets to play on a stage befitting his talent, after being largely wasted on the Amlin Cup last campaign. Glasgow have managed to claw their way to success in the Pro12, but have yet to see European results to match. They will hope that this season will mark a visit to the knockout stages, and have real hope of a home quarterfinal. Toulouse are unquestionably weaker than in years past, but if they can gel, they are a tough matchup for anybody. Montpellier look to be the odd side out, but they possess an enviable record this year which has seen them take six wins out of nine matches.
1) Glasgow 2) Bath 3) Toulouse 4) Montpellier
Teams: Northampton, Ospreys, Racing Metro, Treviso
One almost has to pity Treviso, who are almost certain to drop all six fixtures in their group. Ospreys have started the season on fire, winning six out of six in the Pro12, while Racing Metro have talent to burn. Northampton are in the process of establishing themselves as English powerhouses, and after a victory in the Amlin Cup last season, will want a more prestigious piece of silverware to add to their trophy cabinet. The Saints have the strongest forward pack in a strong pool, while Ospreys form cannot be discounted, especially in crucial early fixtures. Racing still have to get some of their British stars settled or moved, but once they establish a side, they are a danger to almost anybody.
1) Northampton 2) Ospreys 3) Racing 4) Treviso
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