A lot has been going on with politics and other stuff, but I couldn’t miss out on the glorious spectacle that is European Rugby, so here’s a quick and dirty guide to the Champions and Challenge Cup.
Winner: Saracens would have been the clear choice before a sanction of £5m and a 35-point deduction for breaching the Premiership’s salary cap suddenly gives them a major dilemma for which competition to target, especially as there is no guarantee they will win their appeal. Their change side will still take a lot of beating, but being Racing 92 and Munster is possibly the worst draw they could have had with regards to having two away trips.
Leinster may have had a disappointing World Cup with Ireland but only two teams in the competition could really have lived with New Zealand and there’s been no domestic hangover, with six straight Pro 14 wins to top conference A. Lyon, who have lost just once game in the Top 14, will be a difficult contender but they beat last season’s Top 14 winners Toulouse in the pool stages at the RDS and before they made it to the final when only Saracens were too good.
Leo Cullen has no major injury problems with Jordan Larmour, Jordan Larmour, Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, and Johnny Sexton all starting in the backline against Treviso and in the pack he can count on Cian Healy. Devin Toner, James Ryan and Josh van der Flier to boo. They should prove to be too strong for their pool opponents and if they have a home quarter-final they’ll be favourites to beat pretty much any side.
Toulouse couldn’t live with Leinster during the semi-final but they were a true delight through the competition last season and were impressive in then bouncing back to win the Top 14 title too.
Ugo Monye’s careful cultivation of youth has worked wonders and Toulouse provided much of the French side that was unlucky not to beat Wales in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Thomas Ramos,Yoann Huget, Sofiane Guitoune, Romain Ntamack, Maxime Médard, and Sébastien Bézy are all first choice backline choices and Joe Tekori, Charlie Faumuina, and Cyril Baille are other top names.
Toulouse needed a bit of luck to win at Bath last season but they were deserved winners against Wasps on the road last season and they look the right favourites to top their pool, which should hopefully give them a chance at a home quarter-final, for all that they were impressive winners at Racing 92 in the quarters last season.
Others: I love watching my adopted side Clermont play but a poor final record is offputting at the prices. Exeter will have a chance if they can get a home quarter-final but their collapse against Bristol last week was worrying and one wonders if the Premiership is the bigger target for them.
Munster and Racing 92 would appear to be overpriced if either of them got out of their pool with Saracens – it might be worth seeing the second round of fixtures.
3 pts Leinster (9/4 general)
2 pts each/way Toulouse (15/2 general)
Challenge Cup: Cardiff won this in 2018 and appear to have fallen in love with the competition and they didn’t disgrace themselves in the Champions Cup last season. They take the competition seriously on that evidence and when they won the title, they managed to beat Toulouse, Sale and Lyon in the pool, before winning at Edinbrugh in the quarter-finals.
Bristol reached the quarter-finals last season when they finished ninth in the Premiership and they could well do better this season. They bumped into La Rochelle (eventual runners up) last season and their pool is reasonable with Stade, Brive, and Zebre not presenting intimidating opposition by any stretch and if Pat Lam plays a strong team they should feel confident of making the quarters.
Wasps, Edinburgh and Bordeaux make for a tough pool to figre out and Toulon’s recent disappointment in Europe makes them unattractive favourites.
1 pt each/way Cardiff (14/1 Betfair)
1 pt each/way Bristol (11/1 Sportingbet)