The more things change, the more they stay the same. The pinnacle of European rugby, the Heineken Cup was renamed the European Champions Cup, but the great tournament reverts to its classic name this year and we should expect more classic action.
Northern Hemisphere rugby has arguably never been more fun to watch, and we head into this year’s tournament with the competition as fearsome as ever, so it is a sign of the level both Leinster and Saracens are at when both are the only clubs shorter than 8/1.
And it’s understandable too, with the last three having gone to Saracens and Leinster between them and going back through the last eight seasons only three clubs have won, with Toulon joining Saracens and Leinster.
Given the incredible way Leinster completed a European and Domestic double last year, it’s understandable that they’re favourites but there’s an argument to suggest that Saracens should be closer in the market and they can take back their title this season.
They were beaten 30-19 in the Quarter-Finals last season, when Saracens fought hard until the second half before tries from Dan Leavy and James Lowe saw them eventually pull away, but that came in the middle of their mid-season slump, the only period in which they’ve not been at their best during the last two seasons.
Two losses to Clermont and a draw with Ospreys saw them knocked into the lower seeds, whilst the bulk of their side had their worst 6 Nations campaign as England lost three in a row for the first time since 2006 ahead of their trip to the Aviva.
They were beaten fair and square then but went onto wreak their vengeance on the Premiership; In the four games since then and before their semi-final with Wasps, they won their four remaining league games by an average of 43 points, scoring a total of 31 tries and conceding five. They would then go onto beat Wasps 57-33 in the Premiership semi-final and beat Exeter 27-10 to take the title, and this season they’ve won their six games to start their title defence.
This year’s pool, with Glasgow next in the market at 10/1, looks more straightforward than last season’s and a home quarter-final will be the aim from the seedings. With a home-semi-final almost guaranteed in the Premiership based on their strength in depth and average performance, Europe can get full attention this season and that could bring Saracens back to the exalted levels that saw them retain the title.
It will be difficult, albeit not impossible, to beat a Leinster side which not only did the domestic double last season but also then went onto conquer Australia – they provided the backbone of the squad for Ireland’s 2-1 victory – and their position as favourites is understandable after the Irish recruits have come back and bedded in with a particularly impressive 30-22 win over Munster at the Aviva stadium.
However, the target is now surely going to be on their backs and whilst retaining is not beyond them, there might be better ways to support the outright favourites who are only 2/1 in places.
It’s 8/1 bar the pair which allows for some good each/way bets and Racing 92 have made appeal for a long time. They were beaten finalists last year – the second time in three years they’d made the showpiece – and gave Leinster the toughest game they’d faced all season, going down by just three points in Bilbao as An Isa Nacewa penalty with just 90 seconds remaining gave them victory.
They led on four separate occasions, but it is impossible to tell what would have happened had half-backs Maxime Machenaud and Dan Carter made the final or had fly-half Pat Lambie not injured his right knee in the first outside break of the match.
Another summer has passed, and Jacky Lorenzetti has added super fullback/wing Simon Zebo and Scotland fly-half Finn Russell to a team that was already bursting with backline talent and they supplement a pack with tons of power. Names like Camille Chat, Donnacha Ryan, Leone Nakarawa, Wenceslas Lauret, and Antoine Classen will start their opener away at Scarlets tomorrow and on the bench, they can call upon Eddy Ben Arous, Census Johnston, Boris Palu, Teddy Iribaren, Ben Volavola, and Virimi Vakatawa.
They are seventh in the Top 14 at the time of writing but only seven points separates the first seven teams in France and Racing are the only team to have beaten Stade Francais on the road. Indeed, their record when travelling is strong in Europe; They have won knockout games on the road in two of the last three seasons on their way to the final.
The downside to backing them is a strong pool with The Scarlets, Leicester and Ulster in opposition but they took losing bonus points at least on two of their three away trips last season and they are probably taking on the Scarlets at a good time on the first weekend, whilst this is Ulster’s first season back in Europe to boot. Double figure odds are all fair but the 16/1 with Betfred stands out.
Exeter have not made it to a semi-final before in Europe, but they have been either Champions or runners up in the last three Premiership seasons and they had the toughest pool by miles in last year’s competition, facing Leinster, Montpellier and Glasgow. It should be remembered that they beat Glasgow Warriors (home) and Montpellier (away) before successive defeats to Leinster and they arguably have only one trip as tough as going to Glasgow this season – their trip to Thomond Park.
This year’s pool isn’t much easier as a whole, but they should feel confident in aiming to top their pool with Munster, Gloucester, and Castres and a home quarter-final – a stretch but realistic for a team of their ability would make them incredibly tough to beat although the loss of Sam Simmonds for the whole season is a bad blow with Thomas Waldrom having moved on.
However, they still pack plenty of power. Against Munster Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Dave Dennis, Sam Skinner, Dave Ewers, Don Armand and Matt Kvesic will all start and that eight can go toe to toe with any side in Europe. In the backs, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Santiago Cordero all provide line breakers that Gareth Steenson can hit and there’s nothing not to like about the Chiefs.
Montpellier have an even easier pool than Exeter, and really ought to give themselves a strong shot at a home quarter final facing an out of sorts Toulon, Newcastle and Edinburgh in their pol. They will be difficult to beat in the quarter-finals but they are not infallible at home as Exeter and Leinster showed last season whilst Castres have already pulled a raid off them during this campaign. The 4/5 on them taking the pool makes much more appeal than the 8/1 outright, although they are strong contenders.
There are several Premiership contenders who must be respected, but Saracens and Exeter are already 10 points clear of the field domestically after six games and third placed finishers Wasps finished eight points behind the top two at the end of last season.
Dai Young’s men ought to provide plenty of entertainment, but injuries have struck at the worst possible time. Dan Robson is out until 2019 with an ankle injury, and Joe Launchbury is out for the same amount of time roughly following a knee injury.
They look more well equipped as a whole to take on Europe than other sides, with Leicester possibly still struggling in the pack under new head coach Geordan Murphy, Bath struggling with injuries and Newcastle having a difficult second season after making the semi-finals in the Premiership and Challenge Cup. Gloucester have the names to turn games in their favour, but this is a swift return to the top table and Johan Ackermann may need more time.
Munster have made more semi-finals than anyone and have a fine European pedigree even under new coach Johan Van Grann, who is leading a side that lost to Racing 92 last spring. They have signed very well over the summer but the influence of Erasmus will still be missed at crucial moments and their away form so far this season – three defeats, including two hammerings at Glasgow and Cardiff – are a worry ahead of their trip to Exeter.
Scarlets found only Leinster too good last season, and that came in the semi-finals at the Aviva, so Wayne Pivac’s team are worthy of huge respect. However, they are weaker without Scott Williams (despite the replacement of Kieron Fonotia) and Tadhg Beirne despite Blade Thompson’s arrival, and this season bookmakers are more aware of their talents this season.
Cardiff, European Challenge Cup winners last season, will be a fearsome opponent at the Arms Park but they might still be a work in progress and already this season a couple of strong winning positions have turned into losses this season.
Glasgow, who also play on an artificial pitch, will fancy their chances of taking some scalps although it will be hard to get much out of their games with Lyon, which could decide a runner up spot.
3 pts win Saracens (10/3 Betfred)
2 pts each/way Racing 92 (16/1 Betfred)
1 pt each/way Exeter Chiefs (11/1 Boylesports)