Another Champions Cup and another tweaked, imperfect format. But compared to the pandemic-induced, sticking plaster solution comprising two conferences of a dozen teams apiece, this season’s revised multi-pool set-up might at least be easier to follow, and if nothing else the rugby takes over for the next two weekends with some intriguing ties.
This season’s competition has been divided into four pools of six, featuring two teams apiece from the URC, Top 14 and Premiership. No sides from the same league can meet, so each play four opponents from the rival leagues, as opposed to a brace of home-and-away meetings.
As an example, Connacht play Bordeaux-Bègles at home on Friday night, before facing Saracens away next weekend and then a trek to Lyon in January followed by the visit of Bristol and their former messiah Pat Lam a week later in their final pool game. The Bulls complete Pool 1.
It’s still a relative sprint of four matches to the knock-out stages, again only guaranteeing two home ties, whereas until the pandemic all participants could count on three home games for 23 seasons running.
This is offset by the Round of 16, meaning that the top two finishers in each pool will have an additional home tie at that juncture. In the heel of the hunt, the pool stages will not have the jeopardy of the old format when the pool winners and two or three best runners-up advanced to the quarter-finals. So, as in the last three seasons, there will be 48 pool matches to eliminate just eight teams, meaning that the tournament is liable to drag a little before the knock-out stages.
There’s still no guarantee that clubs won’t be able to field a weakened selection, take a 57-0 away defeat and still progress to the Round of 16, as Gloucester did last season with two wins, while Ulster advanced with just one victory in four matches.
Even so, the tweaked format should ensure more meaningful matches through the pool stages. The four pool winners will be ranked one to four based on their final tallies, and thus ensured of a rewarding and lucrative home tie in the Round of 16, as well as the carrot of a home quarter-final.
The four pool runners-up will be ranked five to eight, and will also have a home tie in the Round of 16, which will be based on seeding, ie the team ranked first will host the 16th-ranked side, and so on.
It could again well be the case that the usual suspects – La Rochelle, Leinster and Toulouse – will still be standing at the business end. They are once again the top three in the betting, but form lines have been impacted by the World Cup. While Leinster lead the URC by three points, in the Top 14 and Premiership, three points cover the top five in the table.
So, perhaps this season’s Champions Cup may veer away from the normal script, and even though it’s still imperfect, as is invariably the case the rugby will win out.
Pool 1: Saracens, Bordeaux-Bègles, Bulls, Bristol, Connacht, Lyon
Boosted by some astute signings such as JJ Hanrahan, and with their strongest squad in years, Connacht return to the big time after a season’s absence intent on at least making the Round of 16, as they did two seasons ago.
Their inventive ball-in-hand game suits the 4G pitch at the Sportsground, which they’ve made into an almost impregnable fortress in 2023, and the return of Bundee Aki adds to last week’s stunning return of the Mack. But following on from the departure of Kieran Marmion, Colm Reilly’s injury heightens the load on Caolin Blade, whose running game, support play and eye for the tryline is such a key weapon.
Friday night’s tie also looks a must-win opener. Yannick Bru has taken over as head coach of a Bordeaux-Bègles team that has reached three French Championship semi-finals in a row, and marquee signing Damian Penaud has scored seven tries (including four by half-time on his home debut) to add to the stardust of fellow French World Cup squad members Maxime Lucu, Jalibert, Yoram Moefana and Louis Bielle-Biarrey.
This has contributed to their World Cup hangover, but last week’s win at Oyonnax, their first on the road this season, was a second in a row and they were close to beating La Rochelle away a week before, suggesting Les Girondins may have turned a corner.
The haste with which Saracens’ English contingent returned for duty barely a week after the third-place playoff in the World Cup was questionable but it underlined their unstinting club loyalty. They play more adventurously now and after five wins in a row, last week’s off-colour display at home to Northampton was probably a blip.
The strengthened Bulls in Pretoria – where they look unbeatable – is a testing opener, albeit the fit-again Owen Farrell et al have travelled, and the three-time winners still look like the English standard bearers.
While Bristol can be porous defensively, true to Pat Lam’s philosophy, they’re at their best when it’s fast and frenetic, are capable of scoring rapidly in patches and will be good to watch.
Paddy Jackson has begun his time at Lyon well, and with 105 points is the Top 14′s second highest points scorer, but having finished second last season they sit 12th after nine rounds this season.
What’s more, they seem to take a classically desultory French attitude towards ‘Europe’. In four previous Champions Cup campaigns, Lyon have won just three out of 18 matches on the pitch.
Opening weekend fixtures (all times Irish)
Friday: Connacht v Bordeaux-Bègles, Sportsground, 8.0 (TNT Sports 2). Saturday: Bulls v Saracens, Loftus Versfeld, 5.30 (TNT Sports 1); Bristol v Lyon, 8.0 (TNT Sports 1).
Pool 2: Toulouse, Cardiff, Bath, Racing, Harlequins, Ulster.
Ulster’s wobble in a rare home defeat at their Kingspan fortress last week against Edinburgh looked decidedly untimely or maybe, in tandem with Dan McFarland publicly calling out the quality of their training, it will sting them into life.
In his new guise as a pundit, Ian Madigan has spoken of last season’s changed emphasis from the expansive style of previous seasons to one more focused on winning the gainline, and now back to a mix of both, confirms the impression that Ulster are still searching for their real selves.
The continuing potency of their lineout maul has become even more important, but a quality backline should be capable of reproducing some of their previous brilliance. To that end, the return of Stuart McCloskey as the fulcrum of their attack is well timed.
They begin with a tricky tie away to Bath, where the feelgood factor has returned. Johann van Graan has presided over quite a turnaround. Bath have a solid scrum, breakdown specialist Sam Underhill has rediscovered some of his best rugby, and number eight Alfie Barbeary has been an astute signing from Wasps. And, of course, Finn Russell has quickly had a galvanising effect.
Bath host his old employers Racing in round three, as do UIster next weekend, and the Parisians have seemingly taken to Stuart Lancaster’s methods promisingly, as they set the pace in the Top 14, and where yet another gifted young French scrumhalf, Nolann le Garrec, is in red-hot form.
Ulster renew rivalries with Toulouse when also hosting that Top 14 outfit in what already looks like a pivotal third round in this pool. The five-time winners and reigning champions are suffering hangovers from both winning the Bouclier de Brennus and the World Cup, where they supplied 10 of the French squad, two Pumas and more.
Well beaten in Le Classico by Stade Francis last week, sitting sixth domestically and without Antoine Dupont for the second half of the season, Toulouse look vulnerable.
Like most of the Premiership sides, Harlequins’ form has been erratic, and suggests they will be hit and miss again. A five-game winning run ended when they were eviscerated by Saracens at home, but after losing a thriller away to Northampton they thrashed Sale last week.
But their scrum is very strong and, as ever, if Alex Dombrandt and André Esterhuizen can get them over the gainline, Marcus Smith can utilise his box of tricks.
Cardiff, whose results include a loss at home by Benetton and draw away to Zebre, are the sole representatives from the declining Welsh regions, and this looks a free hit.
Opening weekend fixtures (all times Irish)
Saturday: Bath v Ulster, The Recreation Ground, 3.15 (TNT Sports 1); Toulouse v Cardiff, 3.15. Sunday: Racing 92 v Harlequins, 5.30 (TNT Sports 1).
Pool 3: Munster, Bayonne, Glasgow, Exeter, Toulon, Northampton
By dint of their superb URC triumph, Munster earned a top seeding and thereafter, it would appear, the random draw has worked out promisingly. Though hit hard by injuries, Graham Rowntree’s side are again showing that they have added the kind of attacking dimension – not least tries from deep – and new generation of athletic forwards that can penetrate their Champions Cup glass ceiling.
This is especially true if Oli Jager proves to be a good signing, albeit with Joey Carbery sidelined Jack Crowley carries a big load.
They begin by welcoming tournament debutants Bayonne, who nearly became the first newly promoted side to reach the French Championship playoffs last season. This was thanks, in the main, to their unbeaten record at the Stade Jean-Dauger and the prolific Camille Lopez, at 34 enjoying a new lease of life back in his native Basque Country. But they have won once in 18 away matches.
Next weekend, Munster are in Exeter, the most recent English champions four years ago, but for financial reasons that team was broken up at the end of last season by a flight of wild geese proportions. Three wins in their opening four games during the World Cup (including an opening day 65-10 win over Saracens) initially defied expectations and narrow wins over the bottom two have kept the Chiefs in the top half. But Rob Baxter has a huge rebuilding job and this still looks like a season of transition.
Sandy Park could still be tricky and thereafter danger lurks in a visit to Toulon before Munster host Northampton. Toulon, three-time winners, rediscovered their taste for trophies with that rip-roaring 43-19 Challenge Cup final win over Glasgow in the Aviva last May. Their blend of power and pace has made them the most potent side in the Top 14 this season (particularly at the Stade Feliz Mayol, which is rocking again), and four wins on the spin has taken them to second in the Top 14.
Northampton are possibly the most improved side in the Premiership, retaining their cutting edge with a backline full of attacking quality, while new defence coach Lee Radford has had a big impact.
Glasgow’s presence adds to the competitiveness of the pool, while it’s perhaps no harm that their feud with Munster won’t be fuelled by another meeting. But Munster must have a chance of earning a home Round of 16 tie, and maybe even a quarter-final in Thomond Park, which no visiting side would fancy.
Opening weekend fixtures (all times Irish)
Friday: Glasgow v Northampton, Scotstoun, 8.0 (TNT Sports 1). Saturday: Toulon v Exeter, Stade Felix Mayol, 1.0 (TNT Sports 3); Munster v Bayonne, Thomond Park, 5.30 (RTÉ 2 and TNT Sports 3)
Pool 4: La Rochelle, Stade Francais, Leicester, Stormers, Leinster, Sale
If nothing else, Sunday’s repeat of the last two finals should help Jacques Nienaber to acclimatise himself pretty quickly. Nor will Ronan O’Gara’s absence from the sidelines and the, ehm, dressingroom area diffuse the enmity which is an inevitable byproduct of the last three meetings.
Collectively Leinster haven’t been quite themselves yet, not least in failing to execute from close-range set pieces, save for those inventive tap penalty variations. But players such as Dan Sheehan, Joe McCarthy and Hugo Keenan appear to have taken their form to another level, and if they haven’t been at their sharpest, who has?
Certainly not La Rochelle, who no less than Toulouse appear to be suffering a post-World Cup hangover to compound their own crushing disappointment in missing out on a first Bouclier by Roman Ntamack’s late stroke of genius in the final last June.
La Rochelle lost five of their first eight matches before O’Gara unloaded some heavy hitters off the bench to eventually overpower a struggling Perpignan at home last week. Will Skelton also returned, which may be a sign that they are about to kick-start their season, although the influential Grégory Alldritt is taking a break until January or so.
Whoever loses on Sunday will have little elbow room, certainly in pursuit of a home Round of 16 tie.
The sense of this being the pool of sharks is not just due to the presence of Sale, whom Leinster welcome to the RDS next weekend. They retain much of the direct, South African-infused power game as last season, while adding some diversity. But despite leading the Premiership, Sale were blown away 36-3 by Harlequins last week, demonstrating that they’re another unpredictable English team.
Leinster have instead moved their January home game against Stade Francais to the Aviva. The Parisians have maintained last season’s upturn in fortunes and returned to winning ways last week with a commanding win in front of a full house at home to Toulouse in Le Classico. With Paul Gustard aboard, Laurent Labit’s team also have the best defence in the Top 14.
A vengeful Leicester, whom Leinster have beaten in the quarter-finals for the last two seasons, will be the final pool opponents for Leo Cullen’s side. Disrupted by the World Cup, the Tigers have since won three on the spin, with Handrè Pollard demonstrating what a good playmaker and passer he can be, as well as a metronomic goalkicker.
And with the Stormers to add to the mix, Pollard’s potential head-to-head against Manie Libbok at Welford Road on Sunday adds to the intrigue in this pool.
Opening weekend fixtures (all times Irish)
Sunday: Sale v Stade Francais, Salford Stadium, 12.0 (UTV and TNT Sports 1); La Rochelle v Leinster, Stade Marcel Deflandre, 3.15 (TNT Sports 1); Leicester v Stormers, Welford Road, 3.15 (TNT Sports 2).