There is a fresh feel to this year’s European Champions Cup as the continent’s gladiators strap on their body armour. First and foremost, the final will be staged in Spain next May, with Bilbao’s San Mamés stadium and Guggenheim museum promising a very different cultural experience. And why not? Endlessly doing the same old things is not the way ahead for an ambitious professional sport.
From the Basque country to Bath this is also a campaign full of other enticing possibilities. Not so long ago it was widely felt that digging in for the odd losing away bonus point was vital to eventual qualification. Increasingly, more sides are understanding that try bonus points, particularly at home, make an even bigger difference. Saracens, the defending champions, have scored 46 pool tries en route to successive titles; their three tries against Clermont Auvergne in last year’s final compared with Owen Farrell’s seven penalties against Racing in 2016 further underlined their positive intent.
A hat-trick of Champions Cups for the dominant north London side would certainly establish them among the greatest club sides of all time. The omens are decent: they start their defence against Northampton on Sunday having previously stuck 50 points past the startled Saints at Twickenham on the domestic season’s opening weekend. If there is to be any Basque basking next May, however, they will need to offset the loss of the injured Billy Vunipola in the pool stages and pray their other internationals stay fit.
Last season their European exertions arguably cost them the Premiership crown, Exeter catching them napping in Devon within days of their opponents’ Murrayfield triumph over Clermont. It would make much more sense for the European finale to be the official climax to the domestic season but the French and English league moguls have other priorities. The best of the best get minimal rest as a consequence.
This, then, looms as a season of opportunity for those prepared to take a risk or three. What is the point of qualifying for Europe if you fail to give it a lash? Into this dangerous category could fall the Scarlets, whose opening two games, away at Toulon and at home to Bath, promise to set a vivid tone. Last season’s Pro12 champions have committed to an expansive style that suits them; on paper Toulon possess ridiculous options but their Welsh visitors will travel with genuine belief. In the equivalent round-one fixture three years ago, the margin at Stade Félix Mayol was just 10 points, with Toulon subsequently winning that year’s title. Scarlets are more confident, ambitious opposition now.
Everywhere you look, in fact, there are pools stocked with peckish piranhas. Nowhere is more unforgiving than Pool Two, where Sarries and Clermont are floating alongside Ospreys as well as Northampton. Should the Michelin-backed French giants make a fast start in Swansea, their back-to-back games against Sarries in December will be monumental. Saracens’s remarkable 18-game unbeaten run may even be tested at Franklin’s Gardens this Sunday, where Northampton are finally starting to embrace the joys of offloading and playing with the handbrake off.
Aside from Saracens, though, it is hard to foresee the English entrants having a major tilt at this year’s title. Wasps’ confidence has gone missing at the worst possible moment, Exeter will do well to escape a truly horrendous pool, Leicester are still in a rebuilding phase and Bath, although tough to beat under Todd Blackadder, do not have limitless depth in all areas.
The same applies to Harlequins, who will also need something extra to win in Ulster and La Rochelle. Their big opportunity will come at the Ricoh Arena next week, where they have already defeated an off-colour Wasps this season. Should they do so again having downed La Rochelle in a high-scoring thriller at the Stoop this Saturday, the aggregate outcome of their back-to-back fixtures with Ulster in December will shape their last eight fate.
Then again, Ulster have Charles Piutau to supply the double shot of attacking creativity every seriously good side needs. Leinster are always enjoyable to watch, too, and have too many Lions to be idly dismissed. Glasgow, with Dave Rennie in charge, will be a match for anyone at home and their opening fixture at Sandy Park could be another mini-classic despite the inhospitable late kick-off time and the Warriors’ recent return from Bloemfontein.
The odds on two sides qualifying from such a deathly pool, however, are lengthy, unless Montpellier start to show more of an appetite for winning away under Vern Cotter’s stewardship. Pool Five, which contains Treviso, is more likely to supply two quarter-finalists, although the Italians – with just two Champions Cup wins in their last 27 attempts since January 2013 – have added incentive this time. Next year an Italian club will no longer be guaranteed automatic entry unless the league standings demand it or they qualify via the newly revised Pro14 play-off.
The bookmakers, for their part, have installed Saracens as title favourites, followed by Toulon, Clermont and Leinster. Several others will be tempted by the vision of a grand Spanish fiesta but the bookies are not a mile off. It might also be worth adding Scarlets, Leicester, La Rochelle and Ulster to the last eight roster and putting a few euros on Clermont to be covered in Bilbao ticker tape next May. Be warned, however: the 2017-18 Champions Cup will be neither dull nor entirely predictable.
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