Gerry Thornley’s Champions Cup pool-by-pool guide

Remorseless Saracens remain the team to beat but Leinster look equipped for long haul

Saracens once again look like being the team to beat this year. Photo: Getty Images

Saracens once again look like being the team to beat this year. Photo: Getty Images

 

Pool 1: Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps

After three pool exits in a row (losing 10 of 18 matches) Ulster should be better equipped this season, although they’d be a different proposition with Marcel Coetzee, but Wasps were missing 15 players last week when suffering a record beating by Saracens.

Harlequins remain inconsistent. With Danny Care pulling the strings, they returned to winning ways last week against Sale, though Jack Clifford suffered a dislocated shoulder.

La Rochelle, inspired by ex-All Black Victor Vito, could be interesting. They like Europe – witness last season’s Challenge Cup semi-final – when also first in Top 14. Currently fourth after five wins in seven; Rene Ranger and Tawera Kerr-Barlow arrive in December.

Fixtures

Friday, October 13th: Ulster v Wasps (7.45). Tomorrow: Harlequins v La Rochelle (5.30).

Sunday, October 22nd: La Rochelle v Ulster Rugby (4.15 local time). Wasps v Harlequins (5.30).

Sunday, December 10th: Harlequins v Ulster Rugby (1.00). La Rochelle v Wasps (2.00 local time).

Friday, December 15th: Ulster Rugby v Harlequins (7.45). Sun, Dec 17th: Wasps v La Rochelle (1.00).

January 12th, 13th and 14th: Harlequins v Wasps, Ulster Rugby v La Rochelle.

January 19th, 20th, 21st: La Rochelle v Harlequins, Wasps v Ulster Rugby.

Pool betting (all Paddy Power)

7/5 La Rochelle, 11/5 Wasps, 13/5 Ulster, 7/1 Harlequins.

Forecast

Anyone of four could top this unpredictable pool. Perhaps it will be Ulster, due a Euro run, but La Rochelle could be dangerous.

Sean Reidy with Jacob Stockdale during Ulster training ahead of their European opener. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Sean Reidy with Jacob Stockdale during Ulster training ahead of their European opener. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Pool 2: Clermont, Northampton, Ospreys, Saracens

Saracens have eased themselves to the top of the Premiership and are seeking to extend their unbeaten run of 18 matches in this tournament.

Their games with Clermont in a reprise of last season’s final look momentous and pivotal. Clermont lie ninth domestically and have yet to pick up a point from four away games. They’ll also be hit by French demands, but will target Europe.

Northampton have recovered from opening day mauling by Saracens and would be top of the table but for late call for obstruction last week in Gloucester.

The Ospreys are floundering afoot the Pro14, having managed one win (at home to Zebre) in six games.

Fixtures

Sunday, October 15th: Northampton Saints v Saracens (5.30). Ospreys v ASM Clermont Auvergne (5.30).

Saturday, October 21st: ASM Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints (4.15 local time). Saracens v Ospreys (7.45).

Saturday, December 9th: Northampton Saints v Ospreys (5.30). Sun, Dec 10th: Saracens v ASM Clermont Auvergne (3.15).

Sunday, December 17th: Ospreys v Northampton Saints (3.15). ASM Clermont Auvergne v Saracens (4.15 local time).

January 12th, 13th and 14th: Northampton Saints v ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys v Saracens.

January 19th, 20th and 21st: ASM Clermont Auvergne v Ospreys, Saracens v Northampton Saints.

Pool betting

4/9 Saracens, 17/10 Clermont Auvergne, 25/1 Northampton, 80/1 Ospreys.

Forecast

Saracens to top pool, with Clermont also qualifying.

Clermont and Saracens will meet once again after the English side came out on top in last year’s final. Photo: Getty Images
Clermont and Saracens will meet once again after the English side came out on top in last year’s final. Photo: Getty Images

Pool 3: Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster, Montpellier

A particular brute of a pool. Leinster, three-time winners and last season’s semi-finalists, have yet to hit last season’s heights but may be getting there, and are equipped for long haul.

Ambitious Montpellier probably have the most expensively assembled squad in the competition after acquiring Louis Picamoles, Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden, and will be vengeful for last year’s 57-3 embarrassment at the RDS.

Exeter, the English champions, lie second domestically and haven’t lost in the Premiership at Sandy Park since October last year.

Glasgow, who reached knock-out stages for the first time last season, have progressed under Dave Rennie, and are the only unbeaten team across all three leagues.

Fixtures

Saturday, October 14th: Leinster v Montpellier (1.00). Exeter Chiefs v Glasgow Warriors (7.45).

Saturday, October 21st: Glasgow Warriors v Leinster Rugby (1.00). Sun, Oct 2nd: Montpellier v Exeter Chiefs, (2.00 local time).

Friday, December 8th: Glasgow Warriors v Montpellier (7.45). Sun, Dec 10th: Exeter Chiefs v Leinster Rugby (5.30).

Saturday, December 16th: Montpellier v Glasgow Warriors (2.00 local time), Leinster Rugby v Exeter Chiefs, Aviva Stadium (3.15).

January 12th, 13th and 14th: Exeter Chiefs v Montpellier, Leinster Rugby v Glasgow Warriors.

January 19th, 20th and 21st: Glasgow Warriors v Exeter Chiefs, Montpellier v Leinster Rugby.

Pool betting

6/4 Leinster, 13/8 Montpellier, 10/3 Exeter Chiefs, 9/1 Glasgow Warriors.

Forecast

Leinster to top pool, chased home by Glasgow (who are a tempting wager at 9/1 in their current form.

Montpellier will be eager to make up for last year’s hammering at the hands of Leinster in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Montpellier will be eager to make up for last year’s hammering at the hands of Leinster in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Pool 4: Castres, Leicester, Munster, Racing 92

Munster always add up to more than the sum of their parts in Europe, and have navigated through the pool stages 15 times in the last 18 seasons.

Castres, further denuded by Antoine Dupont’s departure to Toulouse, lie 11th after two wins in seven.

Meanwhile, Racing – who stand eighth – have been desultory, although their impending move to the state-of-the-art U Arena may be inspiring.

Leicester, with four Premiership wins in a row for the first time since March 2015, have shown signs of a resurgence under Matt O’Connor. George Ford is pulling the strings at out-half and new signing Jonny May has six tries in six games.

Fixtures

Saturday, October 14th: Racing 92 v Leicester Tigers (4.15 local time). Sunday: Castres Olympique v Munster Rugby (2.00).

Saturday, October 21st: Leicester Tigers v Castres Olympique (5.30). Munster Rugby v Racing 92 (5.30).

Saturday, December 9th: Castres Olympique v Racing 92 (6.30pm local time). Munster Rugby v Leicester Tigers (7.45).

Saturday, December 16th: Racing 92 v Castres Olympique (4.15 local time). Sun, Dec 17th: Leicester Tigers v Munster Rugby (5.30).

January 12th, 13th and 14th: Castres Olympique v Leicester Tigers, Racing 92 v Munster Rugby.

January 19th, 20th and 21st: Leicester Tigers v Racing 92, Munster Rugby v Castres Olympique.

Pool betting

Evens Munster, 9/5 Racing 92, 7/2 Leicester, 16/1 Castres.

Forecast

Munster to top pool, chased home by Leicester.

Tyler Blyendaal and Conor Murray play football during Munster training in Limerick. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Tyler Blyendaal and Conor Murray play football during Munster training in Limerick. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Pool 5: Bath, Bennetton, Toulon, Scarlets

There’s no more pro-European team in France than Toulon, three-time winners. They’re even more ambitious under Fabien Galthie and Fabrice Landreau, with Mathie Bastareaud inspired by the captaincy.

After 10 pool exits in a row, Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets look better equipped – witness 12 wins in their last 13 matches – despite Liam Williams’ departure.

Bath, though inconsistent, are progressing under Todd Blackadder. The mercurial Freddy Burns was sent-off on his debut last week, and they have an array of match-winners.

A revived Benetton, with two wins in their last 27 European Cup games (both at home to the Ospreys) could take scalps, and have won three of their last four in Pro14.

Fixtures

Saturday, October, 14th: Bath Rugby v Benetton Rugby (5.30). Sunday: RC Toulon v Scarlets (4.15 local time).

Friday, October 20th: Scarlets v Bath Rugby (7.45). Saturday, Oct 21st: Benetton Rugby v RC Toulon, (4.15 local time).

Saturday, December 9th: Scarlets v Benetton Rugby (1.00). RC Toulon v Bath Rugby (4.15 local time).

Saturday, December 16th: Benetton Rugby v Scarlets (2.00), Bath Rugby v RC Toulon (5.30).

January 12th, 13th and 14th: Bath Rugby v Scarlets, RC Toulon v Benetton Rugby.

January 19th, 20th and 21st: Benetton Rugby v Bath Rugby, Scarlets v RC Toulon.

Pool betting

4/6 Toulon, 15/8 Scarlets, 9/2 Bath, 500/1 Benetton Rugby.

Forecast

Toulon and Scarlets to advance, although this looks a pool which could throw up a surprise or two.

Scarlets will fancy their chances of improving their poor European record this year. Photo: Ian Cook/Inpho
Scarlets will fancy their chances of improving their poor European record this year. Photo: Ian Cook/Inpho

Final stages fixtures

Quarter-finals: 30/31 March/1 April 2018.

Semi-finals: 20/21/22 April 2018.

Final: Fri May 11th

Outright betting

23/10 Saracens, 15/2 Toulon, Leinster, 17/2 Clermont, 9/1 Montpellier, 14/1 La Rochelle, Munster, 20/1 Racing, Scarlets, 25/1 Wasps, 33/1 Leicester, Bath, Ulster, Exeter, 66/1 Glasgow, 100/1 Northampton, Harlequins, 150/1 Castres, 500/1 Ospreys, Benetton Rugby.

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