Pool One – Bath, Leinster, Toulouse, Wasps
It says it all that Leinster are 1/5 to take this pool, which on a paper is by no means a walkover. However, the reigning Champions have won five of their six games so far and the core of their Irish contingent are ready, rested and raring to go again, having won all five of their games in the toughest pool last season.
Bath are missing Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Roberts, Kahn Fotuali’i and Aled Brew, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, giving the incentive to Wasps for a potential runner-up spot bid. That said, Wasps will miss Dan Robson and Joe Launchbury immensely although they might get the better twice of Toulouse. The four-time winners have had a lot of turnover but judged on a record of four wins from seven games this season things are working reasonably well, and the race for second could be close.
Pool Two – Castres, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, Munster
Exeter have made the quarter-finals only once but that’s not due to a lack of quality and they can make the last eight thanks to topping pool 2. Rob Baxter’s men have won their first six straight in the Premiership with five bonus points and face Munster at the perfect time – at home first up – and if they repeat their away performances at Montpellier or Leinster from last season then they can take a bonus point at least from Thomond Park. Castres will be fearsome at home and are making a strong defence of their Top 14 title, but a record of just four road victories in 40 attempts is miserly reading.
Advice: 3 pts Exeter (5/6 general)
Pool Three – Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors, Lyon, Saracens
Such is the strength of Saracens, who also have a 100% record in the Premiership, that they are 1/5 despite facing a strong pool including the Challenge Cup winners of last year (Cardiff), last year’s Pro 14 semi-finalists (Glasgow) and Top 14 semi-finalists (Lyon).
Saracens should be strong enough to top the section, but the fight for second ought to be brutal and it would be no surprise if two teams were locked together on points, making a route to the quarters look like a tall task.
Pool four – Leicester Tigers, Racing 92, Scarlets, Ulster
One of the pools of the tournament with last season’s beaten semi-finalists facing each other along with longtime stalwarts Ulster and Leicester. Racing and Scarlets look to be the strongest in the pool and the market has them about right, with today’s clashes likely to be of huge importance for respective visitors Racing and Leicester especially. This might not be the worst time for Racing to visit Scarlets, however, and this looks best left.
Pool five – Edinburgh, Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon
Montpellier went out at the first stage last season, but they faced Leinster, Exeter and Glasgow – scoring 18 tries in the process – and this season they ought to go through on top. They have an injury crisis of sorts – Nemani Nadolo, Timoci Nagusa, Aaron Cruden, Francois Steyn and Johan Goosen are out – but they still pack a huge punch especially with their pack. Louis Picamoles Fulgence Ouedraogo, Jannie du Plessis, and Bismarck du Plessis all start for them and if they can negotiate a tricky trip to Newcastle next week with a bonus point then they will feel set.
Toulon can’t be written off despite a slow start to the season – not helped by a pretty horrendous fixture list – but they appear to be in transition based on the previous teams’ meeting between them and when the two meet in December for a double header, Montpellier should be in better shape regarding injuries.
Edinburgh and Newcastle pack serious punches but Edinburgh are making their return to Europe after a long-time way whilst Newcastle are in a bad run of form after a nightmare start to the season.
Advice: 5 pts Montpellier (4/5 general)