The new, improved (?) European Cup kicks off this weekend after a saga that makes the works of Tolkein seem like a light bit of bog reading by comparison. With a due sense of excitement and trepidation, RuckedOver runs the rule over Europe’s revamped Premier competition:
· There’s no Heineken in the name. Bizarrely, the presence of semi-decent brand of Euro p*ss became a household name in rugby families. They’re still sponsors in the shape of a ‘founding partner’ but it’s not yet known if the title of the tournament will ever change.
· There’s 20 teams instead of 24. The top 6 from the English and the French leagues all qualify. The top side from each of the four nations represented in the Pro 12 also qualify, with the highest-ranked three sides outside these four also getting places. Which means that there’s no automatic spot for both of the Italian/Scottish sides. The final (20th) team this year was decided by a playoff between the 7th placed teams in the English and French leagues, but going forward these two sides will be joined by the next highest two sides from the Pro 12 who have not already qualified. Oh, but one of the playoff spots mentioned will be replaced by the second-tier ‘Challenge Cup’ winners (who will take the spot of the side from their league) if they have not already qualified by virtue of their domestic league position. Simple.
· There are 5 groups instead of 6. Divide 20 by 4, duh.
· Quarter finalists are the winners of each group, plus the three best runners up. Previously the number of groups meant that only 2 sides qualified as best runners up (6 winners + 2 best losers). This time, three of the five runners up will qualify, meaning that there is perhaps not quite as much pressure to finish top of the pile as there is usually.
· And the rest is pretty much the same....
Prospects: They remain class but they’re millennia-old home record has been broken and their defence has looked vulnerable away from home. Should win the group though and mount another challenge for the title. Topping the Top14 currently.Key Player: Wesley Fofana. Philipe Saint-Andre may like to p*ss about with him on the wing but he is a world class centre who can glide through the slightest of gaps.
Prediction: First in group. They were unofficially the best side in Europe from 2011-13 but they have a knack of failing when it matters. I think they’ll fall in the semis again.
Prospects: They have a fine European pedigree and even non-vintage Munster sides seem to be there or there abouts. This isn’t a vintage a Munster side but they’ll still compete hard – especially at Thommond Park. They may be outclassed away from it, though.
Key Player: Ian Keatley. Sits comfortably behind a powerful and aggressive Munster pack. May not be flash but he can drive the big boys where they need to be with an accurate and intelligent boot.
Prediction: Third in group. They’re still a quality side and I’m sure writing them off will bite me in the backside, but I can see them losing out on bonus points/points difference.
Prospects: Looking ominous in the Premiership, they’ve shown over the last two years that they are one of the most ruthless sides in Europe. Apart from when it comes to finals.Key Player: Will Fraser. When he stays fit he his one heck of a competitor, combining a tenacious ability over the ball with an aggressive defence.
Prediction: Second in group. They’ll rate their own chances – and quite rightly too – but for me there is lack of incision in the three quarter line which may cost them in the latter stages...especially an away quarter final.
Prospects: Not so long ago the Sharks were languishing after one of the worst starts of all time in the Premiership, so just being in the tournament will be a bonus. They will turn some heads in Salford but struggle to compete away from home.Key Player: Danny Cipriani. Love him or loathe him, D-Cipz (as the kids would say seems to have calmed down and focused his game. His decision making and skillset make him lethal on front foot ball.
Prediction: Fourth in group. This is no disgrace to them, but they are in a cage with three of Europe’s finest.
Prospects: In 2013, Castres hoisted the Top 14 title before falling agonisingly short of retaining it last year. Now, they are languishing in 12th place with just 3 wins from 9 games. Even their reliable home form is backfiring on them at the moment.Key Player: Sitiveni Sivivatu. Apparently not needed by Clermont any more (I’d love to see their wingers). Still got the x-factor and ability to turn a game on its head, despite some aging All Black limbs.
Prediction: Fourth in group. They are a quality side riddled with international and French stars, but they’ve been a typical French side in never really bothering with Europe. And with their domestic struggles, you can bet this won’t be a priority.
Prospects: They have the potential to tear up any side on their day, but that day doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon at the moment. Unusually blunt in attack, they need to find their attacking mojo again soon.Key Player: Mike Brown. I suspect he spends his Wednesday evenings drinking White Lightening outside Asda, but he remains a class act in a side that isn’t firing. Sets the tone with his physical counter-attacks from the back.
Prospects: Third in group. They could raise some eyebrows but with that currently can’t match up to others, they will struggle. Look short on confidence.
Prospects: They perhaps don’t look as formidable as the Dubliners from a couple of seasons ago, but they still know how to perform at the highest level and will be expected to challenge for silverware at the end.Key Player: Brian O’ Dri...oh, wait. Without the mercurial mastery and leadership of the legendary centre, Jamie Heaslip needs to step up and dominate those wider channels and prove himself as a skipper.
Prediction: First in group. They have a slightly kinder group when you look at the other pools, and I would expect them to finish top – but not without a fight. I don’t think they’ve got the class to go further than the quarters this year though, and the absence of Sean O’Brien will hurt them.
Prospects: A couple of months ago I thought they’d struggle because of the off-field rumours, despite having an exciting and physical side. But with their display against Bath after the mother of all bombshells last week, it seems to have galvanised them.Key Player: Nathan Hughes. Few people expected this guy to replace – or arguably improve on – the epically-sized Billy Vunipola, but he’s done just that. Powerful and with an explosive turn of pace, the Fijian-born 8 is some talent.
Prediction: Second in group. On current form they will turn some heads and they’re playing a good brand of rugby. Whether it’s enough to reach the knock-outs, we’ll have to see.
Prospects: Decimated by injury, the Tigers have been as threatening as a bag of bunnies in parts this season and been on the end of some hidings. But with some key men – with plenty of experience – returning, they could still mount a challenge.Key Player: Manu Tuilagi. Simply put, Leicester don’t seem to win without the England centre. Not even at the top of the game at the moment, he still provides plenty of go-forward in the middle and can turn a game on its head with his running ability.
Prediction: Third in group. When they get their big guns back, they look like a side that should be in the knockout stages. But in a hideously difficult group, the reinforcements will arrive too late.
Prospects: Looking a bit inconsistent in the Pro12, the Scarlets have struggled to maintain any rhythm, currently sitting in 7th place with an OCD-friendly 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses.Key Player: Rhys Priestland. Talisman and skipper Ken Owens is out for 12 weeks with a neck injury, and so Priestland will have to display plenty of leadership from fly half. He has the potential to do great things, but can crumble under pressure.
Prediction: Fourth in group. It’s not a kind group and I suspect they won’t travel well. In this pool, there’s no room for inconsistency.
Prospects: Looking solid domestically, sitting in third place, a thumping win over the Glasgow Warriors indicates that they’re hitting their straps at the right time. Will be very difficult to beat at Ravenhill, but may miss the injured Ruan Pienaar for the opening rounds.Key Player: Chris Henry. The flanker is a workhorse and a thorn in the side of any opposition team. A leader within a huge pack which, when they ‘get their mad up’ (as my old man says), can wipe the floor with anyone.
Prediction: Second in group. The loss of Pienaar and lock Dan Tuohy will hurt them in the opening rounds, but they have enough confidence and fear-factor at home to squeeze them through into the knock-outs.
Prospects: Sitting in second place and looking comfortable in the Top 14, the Toulon machine is showing no signs of slowing down. They had an ‘issue’ of determining their first choice goal-kicker for a while, torn between James O’Connor, Matt Giteau and Freddie Michelak. Before Leigh Halfpenny made his debut. #FirstworldproblemsKey Player: Steffon Armitage. There’s been noises made this week about the flanker returning to England for the season, but that ship seems to have sailed. There’s a slim chance that might happen, but for now the best openside in Europe will be plying his trade with the reigning champions and dominating the opposition breakdown.
Prediction: First in group. Even without old Jonny, they look a formidable prospect again this year and it would be hard to bet against them reaching another European final.
Prospects: Have lit up the Aviva Premiership with their attacking play and improved physicality up front. Wasps exposed some set piece concerns but should still expect a decent continental campaign this time around.Key Player: George Ford. With Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph on fire outside him, his ability to launch an attack isn’t in question – his ability to kick goals under pressure is. And there will be plenty of that in this tournament.
Prediction: First in group. They’ve been blessed with a slightly friendlier group and I expect them to take advantage of that and earn a home quarter final – but the semis is as far as I would expect this young side to go.
Prospects: Sitting pretty in second place in the Pro 12 and they were unbeaten before last weekend. They have game-breakers in their backline and a mobile pack which allows them to run teams ragged when given half a chance.Key Player: Nikola Matawalu. The Fijian international can slot in at 9 or on the wing, but wherever he is, the Warriors have to get him into the game. His dancing feet and lightening acceleration can unlock the stingiest of defences.
Prediction: Third in group. They could be a surprise package but I think they may struggle more than Bath on the trips to France. Have the potential to get through to the knock-outs but will just miss out.
Prospects: Another French club that seems to not be overly fussed about European success despite their domestic clout. They look solid in fourth place in the Top 14 but never hit their straps in Europe last season, despite a wealth of talent.
Key Player: Rene Ranger. The Kiwi centre/wing has recently made some mumblings about returning home to a challenge for an All Blacks spot, but for now he remains a potent weapon in the French club’s backline, possessing huge power and a lethal step.
Prediction: Fourth in group. They’ll turn over some sides at home but I suspect that their heart is not really in this competition, despite the obvious quality throughout their squad.
Prospects: Sitting in unfamiliar territory in the French league, languishing in 8th place and they were second from bottom until last week. It hasn’t clicked for them so far but – unlike Montpellier – they have huge European pedigree.Key Player: Yannick Nyanga. Louis Picamoles is out with a lung infection and so an extra-big shift will have to be done by the powerful and athletic flanker to compensate for the lack of thrust in the opening rounds.
Prediction: Second in group. They may be looking ropey domestically, but they still have enough quality and experience to be sniffing around the quarter final spots. I expect they will just miss out, though.
Prospects: Over the last couple of years they’ve been competitive. I don’t think they will this time around though – with talks of disbanding earlier on in the year, some of their best players have been pinched (mostly by the Leicester Tigers). As a result, they sit bottom of the Pro 12...without a win.Key Player: Simone Favaro. I’m a huge fan of the powerful flanker – aggressive in the loose and dangerous over the ball, he is one man the Italian outfit can rally around.
Prediction: Fourth in group. It’s looking like a long season on the domestic front and I suspect it will be the same in Europe.
Prospects: Eeesh, they are looking good this year. The Premiership Champions are wiping the floor in the English league and, of course, they are Challenge Cup champions as well. They now know how to win the key games – which is bad news for everyone else.Key Player: Samu Manoa. The big American has been a revelation over the last three seasons. He’s worked hard at his carrying but it’s his ability to obliterate opponents in the tackle that can swing the momentum of any game.
Prediction: First in group. I have a feeling that this could well be Northampton’s year – they have a relatively favourable group and they have all the talent and power you need to be pushing for the big’un at the end.
Prospects: A very decent start to the Pro12 season sees the Welsh region sitting pretty (now Adam Jones has left) atop of the league, with six wins out of six. Can they take that form into Europe?Key Player: Dan Biggar. Yes, he’s not the sexiest fly half around (in terms of playing style, of course) but he’s reliable, a superb kicker and he always makes the right decisions. When you do that consistently, you’re a top 10.
Prediction: Second in group. They look sharp this season and, although they may not have the quality of Northampton, I reckon they might just sneak a spot in the quarters.
Prospects: For a team which has such a ludicrous amount of talent, they imploded spectacularly last year. They’ve not looked great this season so far, either, middling about in 7th spot in the Top 14.Key Player: Jonathon Sexton. There are doubts about his fitness – and his passion for the cause (he’s returning to his beloved Leinster next summer) – but there’s no doubt he’s a world-class playmaker on his day.
Prediction: Third in group. This is a team high on quality and low on confidence – probably not helped by their owners and coaches openly slagging the players off in public. They’ll struggle again this year.
Quarter Finalists: Northampton Saints, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Bath, Leinster, Saracens, Ulster, Ospreys,
Semi Finalists: Northampton Saints, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Bath
Finalists: Northampton Saints (champions), Toulon