WESTWOOD, CA – European club rugby is a spectacle to behold. The leaner, meaner evolution of the Heineken Cup has delivered on its promise to cut the fat from European competition, creating scintillating matchups week after week and a competition that has the pace and skill of test-match rugby. The 2016-17 edition of the European Rugby Champions Cup promises even more action and thrill than the last one, and with teams like Wasps, Exeter, Montpellier, and Connacht regaining traction in the wake of successful European and domestic season’s last year, there is sure to be a good number of close and counters.
With Round 1 coming up this weekend, several questions hang in anticipation for the continental season ahead. Can Saracens retain the crown that, after long last, they finally earned? How will Toulon respond to last season’s disappointment? Do Clermont have what it takes to break out from their role as near-perennial silver medalists? Will the Irish provinces show up this season? All will be answered in due time, so before this weekend’s action get caught up with our preview of the matches to come and our Round 1 Expert Picks.
RugbyWrapUp Expert Picks Panel
Glasgow vs. Leicester
The Leicester Tigers were easily one
of the most exciting team in last year’s competition, busting out huge wins over competitive teams like Stade Français and rivals Munster thanks to outstanding performances from players like Vereniki Goneva and Telusa Veainu. With Goneva out of the picture (now with Newcastle Falcons), the Tigers have had to bring in new talent in the form of southern hemisphere stars JP Pieerson and Matt Toomua. They take on a surging Glasgow Warriors side boosted by a platter of international talent in new signings Corey Flynn and Leonardo Sarto. Gregor Townsend’s men look finely poised to take an extra step in European competition.
Racing 92 vs. Munster
Munster definitely drew the short end of the stick with their poor pool draw, and only have more to go up against when they travel to Paris to face last season’s runners-up Racing 92. The southern Irish province have struggled to break down teams over the last year, and new coach Rassie Erasmus has yet to get the full potential from his side. Peter O’Mahoney returns from a substantial injury break and will help develop a much depleted back row. Racing 92 will be on the revenge path following last season’s defeat in the final, and they have already put forward massive performances in the Top 14 to show they mean business. Racing mustn’t underestimate the Irishmen, but might not be too worried either.
Wasps vs. Zebre
Wasps could not have drawn a better opening pool match. The Italians come to the electric-charged RICOH Arena against a dangerously powerful Wasps side that made a run into last season’s European play-offs. Zebre have managed only one point in their last three seasons in the Champions Cup, and look no better than before. Wasps, however, have been on the hot path in the Aviva Premiership, busting out five wins from six, games they’ve made to look easy. They’ve only been bettered by off-season signings in Willie LaRuex, Kurtley Beale, Kyle Eastmond, and Danny Cipriani. Coventry has embraced this team from the brink of bankruptcy and has fostered a winning culture.
Connacht vs. Toulouse
New and old will face off in Galway when Pat Lam’s Connacht take on Toulouse in what is the Irish province’s first Champions Cup since the tournament’s rebranding. After a slow start in their domestic campaign, the boys in green have beaten Edinbrgh and Ulster on the drop and have shown that “us against the world” mentality that won them the Pro 12. Bundle Aki has been outstanding as ever, and will be a big challenge for the visiting Frenchman. The four-time champions have steadily created a better team from where they were five years ago, adding Gael Fickou, Toby Flood, and Yoann Huget, but still lack precision and power dynamism. This match will be the best of the day for Pool 2…Prediction: whoever wins this game also makes the knockouts behind Wasps.
Toulon vs. Saracens
Talk about monumental matchups? Saracens will travel to the French Riviera to take on Toulon in a rematch of the 2014 final at the Principality Stadium. The defending champions have already been in good form in the Premiership thus far, matching Wasps with five wins from six. Undoubtedly, the Londoners will have a weight of expectations. but with big men like Schalck Burger ready to play and new wonder fly-half Alex Lozowski playing exceptionally well in the absence of Owen Farrell, they’ll have plenty to be confident about. On the other side of the ball, the star-studded Frenchmen can never, ever be underestimated, especially when playing at home. But, without the Armitage brothers and Bakkies Botha, even their new signings might not be enough to propel them pass the champions.
Scarlets vs. Sale
Pool 3’s undercard matchup sees two sides on the slow rebuild face-off in Wales. For the Sharks, injuries have been a plague already this season, sidelining scrum-half Peter Stringer and hooker Rob Webber. However, new signings Mike Phillips and AJ MacGinty certainly have the talent to plug the missing gaps. Phillips will need to facilitate the transition from Sale’s mediocre forwards to their young, boisterous backline if they’re to put points on the board. Scarlets have done some rebuilding of their own, spending big amounts in the off-season to try and appease there frustrated fan base. Jonathan and James Davies now have the opportunity to play brother-style rugby a la les Vinupolas, while Johnny McNicholl of Super Rugby’s Crusaders provide a sizeable speed boost at fall-back. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not these new signings actually make an impact, though, as they haven’t seemed to have done much so far domestically.
Leinster vs. Castres
These two sides were paired together in the pool stage in 2014, Leinster coming away the better on points through both encounters. Leinster, the three times champions, have seen the return of Johnny Sexton and a new injection of life after two years of relative struggle. Robbie Henshaw, Josh van der Flier, and Gary Ringrose have all been superb through their opening Pro 12 fixtures, and is now the province has something to be excited about again. They’ll play host to an interesting Castres team mixed with smashing defensive talent but a floundering attacking presence. They’ve shown a lot of promise in the Top 14 this season but have still yet to find the killer instinct their fans have wanted them to have for years.
Northampton vs. Montpellier
I’ve not been a fan of George North recently, but there is no doubt that the Welshman has finally been finding the form that made him so dangerous in the past. But, despite North’s form, the Saints have been disappointing to say the least, dropping four from six in the Premiership and losing the edge that they once had at Franklin’s Gardens. Northampton will play against a surging Montpellier team that have an amazingly talented backline in Alexandre Dumoulin and Joe Tomane. Although Montpellier’s upper management has drawn a lot of hatred for signing no less than a quarter to a half of South Africa, the presence of these international has made Montpellier an optimistic side with a lot of potential. At the moment, especially with Northampton’s form, Montpellier certainly seems to have the upper hand.
Bordeaux vs. Ulster
Pool 5 is almost exactly the same as last year, except that Ulster replaces Ospreys in the group alongside Bordeaux and Clermont. Ulster finally look to be a potent side for the first time since they made the Heineken Cup final in 2012. Paddy Jackson looks fit as ever and is making a good case for at least one of the spots on the Irish fall tour, and Piutau is making his signing worth the price. Their forwards have been touch and go, but not bad overall. The French side, however, is much harder to gauge at the moment. Ian Madigan has been great since signing from Leinster and the Australian Adam Ashley-Cooper has returned to his usual form, but even then they don’t have a lot of top-flight European experience outside of France. It’ll be interesting to see how both red-hot backlines face-off against each other.
Exeter vs. Clermont Auvergne
Many regarded it as the moment that the Chiefs would breakthrough to bigger and brighter things, while in mainland Europe the French media gave an absolute pounding to the perennial second-placers. I’m talking of course of last year’s second match up at Sandy Park between Exeter and Clermont. The English side ended up beating the French 31-14 thanks to monster performances from Thomas Waldrom and Gareth Steenson who scored 10 and 11 points, respectively. Rob Baxter’s men have had their struggles closing out games this season, but remain largely intact (minus Jack Knowel out with injury). For Clermont, it’s almost as though the Twilight Zone theme song ominously looms in the background whenever they enter European competition. They’ve started on fire again this season domestically, but don’t they usually? Thankfully for them, Noa Nakaitaci, Remi Lamerat, Nick Abendanon, and Wesley Fofana are all playing more confidently than usual, so we’ll see where that puts them in the competition. No doubt they’ll be strong, but they need to finally break out.
Make sure to keep up-to-date with this weekend’s games. Try your hand here at picking the weekend’s victors with our RugbyWrapUp SuperBru picks game!
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