As Gerry might say, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The brand-new European rugby tournament is here, and it’s … err .. completely different. For example, it’s got a better TV deal – oh no, wait, just a French domestic one and a UK/Ireland one where fans aren’t sure what package they need to see their team on a given week – ok, more commercial clout – wait, off that, same sponsor – better governance? – same staff, but in non-cowboy country – well, that’s something. Phew!
On field, we’re down from 24 to 20 teams, having chopped some of the chaff (Connacht, Cardiff, Embra and the Zebras) and that’s no bad thing. We’ve been left with a couple of stonking pools (1 and 3) but, to be fair, there are also a couple of duds in there (2 and possibly 4). We still see three teams as going oh-from-six (Treviso, Scarlets and Sale) and three others as having essentially no chance of progression (Wasps, Castres, Racing Metro) – meaning an expected knockout stage lineup as very similar to the last couple of years. We reckon you’ll have 6 of last years quarter finalists back in April for the runoff and, presumably much to McCafferty’s chagrin, three of them will be Irish! Whoop-de-whoop. So here goes this year’s flight of fancy (or maybe not, we got seven right last year):
Pool 1 (Globo Gym, Munster, Clermont, Sale Sharks):
Three of last year’s four semi-finalists – this is one tough pool. Saracens and Clermont are top of their respective leagues, and Munster will need all of their fabled Europan cup nous to get out of this one. When two of the three met last year, Saracens made mincemeat of Clermont, winning by 40 points. That could be relevant here as Clermont are not the strongest mentally. It’s hard to see the Sharks winning a game – they are languishing in the Boshiership and are a clear level below the rest. They aren’t an intimidating presence, even at home, and are bonus point fodder. This could easily see the big three trade home wins with two qualifiers decided by bonus points. Saracens look to have the best recent history here (runners up in HEC and Premiership last year) and are the easiest to back as the most likely to win at Munster or the Marcel Michelin. After that, if it came down to a Munster vs Clermont HEC-off in front of teary, rabid fans, we’d back Munster. Just.
Prediction: Saracens to win (70% confidence level), Munster to qualify as runners-up (50.01% confidence level)
Pool 2 (Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps):
An utter dud of a pool – Leinster are playing like drains and struggling with a gameplan, on-pitch direction and a lengthy injury list. If they had Munster’s draw, we’d give them virtually no chance of making it through, but they don’t – they have a bit of a gimme. Castres are in the Top14 nether regions, and rarely give a hoot about Europe, and Wasps will be playing in front of zero fans and are reliant on Andy Goode – those two are out. Quins have something about them and are a tough nut to crack at the Stoop, but it’s hard to see them doubling up on the bunnies. They haven’t quite pushed on since their glorious championship-winning season, though any team with Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back has to be at least useful. If Leinster can win in Castres in round two then they are on the path. Where Quins will be dangerous is in the race for second place against Munster – if they win four games, they’ll be in the mix – the brave and the faithful should be cheering full-throated for a pair of Leinster whuppings. Leinster may not hit top gear but they have the experience to deal with this lot.
Prediction: Leinster to win (95% confidence level)
Pool 3 (Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets):
Pool of death! Scarlets are the bunnies here – they are <insert patronising platitude here> but are beatable at home and consider defence optional. They are capable of pulling one outrageous win out of the bag, but we’re expecting them to be whitewashed. Of the three remaining, one are double European and reigning Top14 champions, one have been bridesmaids so many times they are in danger of becoming the Northampton Saints, and one are an injury-addled shadow of their former selves. Toulon are deservedly tournament favourites, and they are unlikely to become unstuck here – they could field two teams that would win this pool, and are good enough to beat anyone. We have covered Ulster already, and first up is the best time to play Leicester away – Barnesy feels Ulster are tournament dark horses, and they have enough tough wins in the European locker (Leicester home and away, Montpellier away, Clermont home, Saints away, Munster away) to warrant some faith here. They have shown themselves adept at getting through the pool stages, but have lost their heads in knockout games with exasperating frequency. Time to deliver, boys.
Prediction: Toulon to win (80% confidence level), Ulster to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)
Pool 4 (Glasgow, Montpellier, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh Bath, Toulouse)
This is a very interesting pool – unlike the previous three, there is no standout team here, and you can make a coherent case for each to qualify. The least coherent case is probably the Montpellier one – they are down a couple of forwards from two years ago, and Francois Trinh-Duc is out until 2015 – they gave up on the HEC after losing to Ulster at home last year, and might not be bothered. We’d dearly love to tip Glasgow to make the breakthrough – great for the Pro12 and a very likeable team addicted to high-risk, watchable rugby – but they have three tough away games ahead, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to back them in any of them. Potential is there, and the pool is up for grabs, but they’ll need to show us something new. Bath are flying high-ish in the Boshiership, marshalled by the quicksilver George Ford, but one feels dirty mucky French packs won’t quite be to their liking – they looked primed to be arm-wrestled out of it. Which leaves European aristocrats ™ boring bosh merchants Toulouse. Which team will show up – the one who beat Saracens twice, or the one who lost at home to Connacht and bent the knee in Thomond? Either way, they have the quality in their squad and consistent experience of just topping the pool to prevail here.
Prediction: Toulouse to win (60% confidence level)
Pool 5 (Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Hairsprays, Treviso)
Let’s start with the easy bit – Treviso won’t win a game. The Saints look the best team here – they (finally) won the Premiership last year and are riding high again – in the last three years, they have come unstuck against Irish teams at home, this time around the draw is kinder and a quarter-final beckons. For the runners-up slot and (we reckon) the last place in the knockouts it’s red-hot young fearless Ospreys, with a pair of excellent halves, versus behemoth bosh-heavy moneybags Racing Metro. The Parisians are without Jonny Sexton for the opening rounds, and are really tough to have any confidence in – we’d like the Spreys to continue their recent form and get back to the knockout stages. Backing them to transfer their Pro12 form to Europe has been a losing trade in recent years, but maybe this time it will be different?
Prediction: Saints to win (90% confidence level), Ospreys to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)
So there you have it – out go Leicester and Clermont and in come the Saints and the Ospreys. The group winners are mucking in for the all-important home draw – and without knowing who has that prize in the bag, or the home semi-final draw, picking winners is a fools errand. We will say this though, given the Saints pool, and the guaranteed 10 points from Benetton, they will expect a home draw – and they are a decent bet at 13/2.