Following Saracens’ fine and points deduction in the Gallagher Premiership, the London club are unlikely to be able to compete on both domestic and European fronts this season. They will most likely to also not feature in the Champions Cup next season. Therefore, it is time for a new winner in the Champions Cup 2019/20 and perhaps beyond.
James Barker looks at the main favourites for the tournament, and predicts who will emerge from the pool stages in this extra-intense season of European competition.
Curtain raiser at Kingsholm for French favourites
The tournament begins this Friday at Kingsholm, where EPCR must be hoping for a similar spectacle to the last time Gloucester and Toulouse met under the Friday night lights.
The Gloucester team, led by their speedy backs Johnny May, James Simpson-Daniel and Charlie Sharples turned on the style and inspired the Cherry and Whites to a bonus point victory over the French champions. The Toulouse side including Thierry Dousatoir, Louis Picamoles, Yannick Jauzion and Lionel Beauxis saw a 17-7 lead become a 24-17 deficit, before finally losing 34-24.
Toulouse have a had a few poor years in Europe now but are looking like real contenders again. They are also playing some very attractive rugby and are led by some of the best, young French talent.
Toulouse are a R I O T ⚫️🔴pic.twitter.com/zH2CfuKXtc
— The Rugby Paper (@TheRugbyPaper) November 10, 2019
Gloucester were beaten at home by Saracens last weekend so Toulouse will surely fancy their chances there too. They are the team to beat in this pool but Gloucester, Connacht and Montpellier are all more likely to prioritise their league campaigns. Saying that, les rouges et noirs have ground to make in the Top14 having lost several players to the World Cup.
Can Leinster and Munster overcome Irish World Cup disappointment?
The bulk of the Irish team that represent Munster and Leinster will now be back with the provinces and you would expect them to use their World Cup disappointment to inspire victories in Europe. These two perennially reach at least the semi-finals and this will be the minimum requirement again.
Last year’s beaten finalists Leinster have to contend with in-form Lyon and Northampton Saints, as well as an ever-improving Benetton; playing the Italians at home first up will be much welcome as their large international contingent re-integrate into the squad.
For Munster, a potentially weakened Saracens team is good news in a Pool also containing Racing 92 and Ospreys. Whether they can secure a home quarter final and use the Thomond Park fortress is not so clear. However they sit top of their PRO14 conference with five wins out of six, and internationals like Andrew Conway and Peter O’Mahony have already returned to the starting team.
Clermont’s time must come soon
Returning to the Champions Cup 2019/20 is the Challenge Cup holders Clermont Auvergne. Having won the junior European competition, they will now be desperate to win the ultimate prize. Les Jaunards will certainly be confident, and indeed be expected, to top a pool containing Ulster, Harlequins and Bath.
If they can get themselves into the top two qualifying seeds, they should be able to plot a path to the final via home knockout games. With the final also in France, it couldn’t be lined up much better for a team who have major issues living up to expectations in latter stages of tournaments.
Heineken Champions Cup 2019/20 Pool predictions
EUROPEAN RUGBY IS BACK 👊
The 2019/20 #HeinekenChampionsCup gets underway on Friday night, before a super Saturday and a trio of treats on Sunday 😍
Which games will you be watching?? pic.twitter.com/1sB0Lo5zGY
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 11, 2019
Pool One – Leinster, Lyon, Northampton Saints, Benetton Rugby
Lyon have started very well in the Top14 but lost all six Champions Cup games last season. Northampton’s youngsters are playing some attractive rugby in the Premiership but have it all to prove at Europe’s top table. This Pool is Leinster’s to lose.
Pool Two – Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, La Rochelle, Sale Sharks
Probably the most open Pool of all. Expect all teams to notch up wins, especially at home, denying anyone a best runner up spot. A lot may depend on whether Exeter Chiefs can finally deliver in Europe and take control of the group, and also if Glasgow’s Scotland contingent can pick themselves up from underachievement in Japan.
Could this finally be the season @ExeterChiefs perform on the #HeinekenChampionsCup stage? 👊
Rob Baxter and @SamSk95 think so as they prepare to face @staderochelais in Round 1 ☝️ pic.twitter.com/GDlV53yErF
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 12, 2019
Pool Three – Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath
Good chance of two teams qualifying here, with Clermont heavy favourites to win the group. All teams will expect to win their home games so away victories will be decisive, and perhaps more achievable with two English sides involved. Ulster are due a strong run in Europe.
Pool Four – Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys
The standout contender for the ‘Pool of Death’ title, regardless of what squad Saracens field. All sides have been weakened considerably during early league rounds due to the World Cup, so hard to judge on form. Munster and Racing 92 will surely fancy their chances of topping the Pool now Saracens’ focus is elsewhere?
Pool Five – Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier
Toulouse should finish top but all four teams are dangerous. Gloucester and Montpellier look capable of beating almost anyone on their day, but lack credentials in this top tier. This is Connacht’s first Champions Cup campaign since 2016/17 but they have started the season well.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images