By David de Winter – Sports Editor
This weekend marks the début of the new European Rugby Champions Cup. After intense negotiations the now-defunct Heineken Cup was panned and a new, improved version was approved. Not much has changed; there are now only 20 teams in the competition vying for the 8 quarter final slots instead of last season’s 24. This means fewer, if no easy games and intense competition from the off. So who are the favourites?
You can’t look beyond last season’s Heineken Cup winners Toulon. They might be Jonny Wilkinson-less but the team from southern France have a wealth of international talent at their disposal, not to mention exiled England flanker, Steffon Armitage, last season’s European player of the year. Last year’s beaten finalists Saracens might find it harder to repeat such a feat this season. Their Pool 1 contains perennial European stalwarts Munster, as well as French giants Clermont-Auvergne and Sale Sharks. With only the group winners and three best runners-up progressing to the knockout stages and without newly-retired inspirational captain Steve Borthwick, Sarries might struggle.
The biggest challenge from England looks to be coming from Bath. They have started like a train in the Premiership, thrashing an out-of-sorts Leicester Tigers 45-0 at The Rec and have really exciting squad at their disposal. Englishmen like fly-half George Ford, centres Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, and full-back Anthony Watson are all bristling with attacking verve. Add Rugby League convert Sam Burgess to that midfield and you have back-line to savour. They still lack a bit up front in the forwards compared to the big French teams but Bath will nevertheless be seriously entertaining.
It will seem strange to have a European rugby season without the great Brian O’Driscoll, but that is exactly what Leinster face going into their opener against Wasps. The great Irishman hung his boots up at the end of last season and Leinster have struggled somewhat without him, languishing 6th in the Pro 12 table. However, the three-time Heineken Cup champions are seasoned experts in the European game and have added former Rugby League forward Ben Te’o to their midfield ranks. The giant Jamie Heaslip marshals a pack that contains the likes of Ireland regulars Cian Healy, Mike McCarthy, Shane Jennings and Devin Toner.
Ulster are another Irish province with a strong European pedigree. They might not have the famous names of their more illustrious Irish rivals, but the Ulstermen have once again become a force to be reckoned with in recent years. Orchestrated by South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, Ulster will be looking to progress from a tough group containing Toulon, Leicester Tigers and the Scarlets. Rugged hooker Rory Best will be key for them this campaign, as will flanker Chris Henry at the breakdown. Ulster will be looking to Ireland wingers Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble to score the tries.
So what of the rest? Castres look strong – they have Scots Richie Gray, Max Evans and Johnnie Beattie in their ranks, as do European Rugby’s most successful team, Toulouse. They are having a bit of a nightmare in the Top 14 at the moment but a backline containing the likes of Luke McAlister, Toby Flood, Gaël Fickou, Florian Fritz, Vincent Clerc, Yoann Huget, Maxime Médard and Clément Poitrenaud has got to come good at some point. Northampton are my dark horses. They will think it realistic that they can qualify from a Pool containing Treviso, Ospreys and Racing Metro. With the likes of Stephen Myler, Luther Burell and George North in the backline, and Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood in the forwards they are going to be a formidable team.
I’m finding it very difficult to pick a winner this season. They revamped format means any team can qualify for the knockout stages. The big French teams like Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont will no doubt feature, as will the Irish provinces. All the sides are so evenly matched that games will hinge on an individual mistake or a moment of genius. Let’s hope there are plenty of both as the teams battle it out for the right to play for the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup at Twickenham in May.