The significant question in European rugby ahead of the start of the Champions Cup this weekend is: how do you stop Leinster from sealing a record fifth title?
The draw has placed the Dublin side with three former winners of the cup, including four-time champions Toulouse, two-time winners Wasps and 1998 champions Bath, all of whom are class acts in their own right but will do little to stem the Blues’ momentum.
Already, Leo Cullen and Co appear to be back firmly in their stride again with five wins from six in the PRO14 and it will be interesting to see how their form is when they take on Wasps at The RDS on Friday night. The home side have had a formidable start to the season – with four wins from six – but should serve as an indicator of Leinster’s current position this early in the campaign.
The Irish province looked a class apart for large parts of last term, but it will be a considerable test to go out and do it all again, with contenders Saracens and Exeter stepping up in the early parts of the Premiership season. With all their key protagonists returning to action, it is set up to be another scintillating year of European rugby.
Leinster out-half Johnny Sexton turned 33 in July and still remains the leading light of the Blues’ back-line. For a player edging towards the end of his career, burnout will not be a factor, playing just 22 games for his province over the last two campaigns. In contrast, Saracens star Owen Farrell has played 17 more matches since the 2016-17 season.
The elusive Englishman will be bidding to lead his side to a third title in four years after their poor finish to last term. They were beaten 30-19 by Leinster in the quarter-final in April, but early-season form suggests they could be slowly getting back to their best. They are in a group that includes Lyon, Cardiff and Glasgow on this occasion.
Exeter, like Saracens, are the only unbeaten Champions Cup teams at the end of the first month of the season. On this occasion, however, they look to have a more favourable group, with Castres, Gloucester and Munster in the mix. Munster may be the pick of the teams to assert some level of resistance, but reigning Top14 champions Castres have past prioritised on domestic matters ahead of the Champions Cup in recent years, winning just two out their 33 away matches since 2002.
Remarkably, the two top teams in the Top14 table – Clermont Auvergne and Stade Francais – will be plying their trade in the Challenge Cup this term, meaning French hopes hinge on 2017-18 finalists Racing 92 once more. Toulon, of course, are three-time winners but are lacking form this campaign, with just two wins from their first seven domestic games.
Racing, though, are bolstered by the additions of Simon Zebo and Finn Russell this season – two players who could add serious firepower against Scarlets, Leicester and Ulster in the group stages and beyond. If Leone Nakarawa and Teddy Thomas can stay fit and firing, then expect the Parisians to storm into the knock-out stages again.
It’s a long year with many domestic matches and international commitments wedged in between, but the best team always prevails in the Champions Cup. Leinster are front-runners again and it is their ability to retain possession, minimise mistakes and thrive in the tight areas that has set them apart from their rivals over the past 12 months.
But replicating their brilliance all over again will be the litmus test, especially with the Premiership teams seeking some atonement for just one quarter-finalist last season. The French too will be hungry for success, but that may only fall in Racing and Montpellier’s hands.
So, will Leinster be lifting the cup again in Newcastle next May or will the ominous threat of Saracens and Exeter have their say over the next seven months?
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