Champions Cup Pool B preview: Plenty of flair on offer led by champions Toulouse

Munster and Cardiff sides will start on the back foot due to Covid issues

Teams: Bordeaux-Bègles, Bristol, Cardiff, Castres, CONNACHT, Harlequins, Leicester, MUNSTER, Scarlets, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Wasps

At face value this looks the more complicated and unpredictable pool, especially as several form lines have deviated since the draw was made.

Nonetheless, with newly crowned World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack pulling the strings, the reigning five-star champions Toulouse look well equipped to advance without undue bother and with a high seeding for the knock-out stages.

The Cardiff rugby public will no doubt rally around their cobbled-together Blues side at 1pm on Saturday and they’ll give it a blast, but the disruptions to their preparations and absence of all those who travelled to South Africa does seemingly make it an opportune time to face them.

Harlequins' success has meant more England call-ups and they face a tricky opener in Castres. But if they emerge triumphant on Sunday evening then the fearless and inventive brand of rugby which Marcus Smith and his swashbuckling team-mates play could see them storm into the knock-out stages.

No less than Cardiff, being caught in red-listed South Africa has presented Munster with a much more daunting assignment away to Wasps on Sunday than would otherwise be the case. They’ll pitch up and give it a rattle of course, which should also ensure the faithful rally around them next Saturday night for what will be a must-win game against a typically cussed Castres.

But five or six points from these two games should set them up for a final push for the knock-out stages in January.

A fast start is all the more imperative for Connacht given their first game is at home to Stade Francais, which appears to be their most winnable match with two matches against Leicester, unbeaten this season and atop the Premiership, to come.

It could be that two wins, all the more so with a bonus point or two, will be sufficient for Connacht to earn them a place in the round of 16, given the brutishly tough draws handed out to Scarlets, who’ve already forfeited a game, Castres, Wasps and Cardiff.

The rebuilt Leicester, helped by some good South African signings, are flourishing under Steve Borthwick, but their opener in Bordeaux, a meeting between the Top 14 and Premiership leaders, will be a heavyweight collision on Saturday afternoon.

Bordeaux are on the back of a big win over Toulouse, who ended their European hopes in the semi-finals last season, with Mathieu Jalibert in sparkling form. Both should advance, even if they might well take points off each other. So too Pat Lam's Bristol, even if their attack has been surprisingly blunt to date this season.

Projected qualifiers: Toulouse, Harlequins, Leicester, Munster, Bristol, Bordeaux-Bègles, Connacht and Stade Francais.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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