As the cold nights draw in and autumn takes over, it is time to turn our attention away from domestic affair and look towards the continent.
Brexit may be looming, but gaining success in Europe is now the key focus for the top teams in Northern Hemisphere rugby as the European Champions Cup gets underway.
Saracens are the reigning kings of the continent, but they will face a stern challenge from French Top 14 giants Racing Metro, RC Toulon and Clermont Auvergne, while Irish provinces Munster and Leinster have fine pedigree in Europe and will challenge, while there is little to offer from the Welsh and Scottish contingent at this level.
Mark McCall’s Sarries are England and the Aviva Premiership’s best hope of success, but reigning domestic champions Exeter Chiefs will be relishing locking horns with Europe’s top clubs, while Wasps and Leicester Tigers remain eager to rediscover their heydays of yesteryear.
After snapping up the final Champions Cup qualification spot Harlequins have endured a mixed start to the 2017/18 campaign in the Aviva Premiership – winning and losing in equal measure over the opening six games. Although Quins hold the record for Challenge Cup wins, Europe’s second tier, with three triumphs they have never managed to translate their form onto the biggest stage.
One to watch: Marcus Smith and Danny Care, the Quins axis pairing, will be crucial in getting the flowing Quins rugby moving.
Before last season the question would have been, ‘La who?,’ but after stunning the Top 14 with a first-place finish in the league table, La Rochelle have suddenly become big players in the most lucrative competition of all. It could be argued an untimely red card was what cost them in the Top 14 semi-final against RC Toulon following a highly successful season, but this first entry to the Champions Cup gives La Rochelle a great opportunity to display their talent among the best and prove it was no flash in the pan.
One to watch: Alexis Bales is an eager and lively scrum-half, who will always be seeking quick ball and to dominate around the breakdown.
There has been change aplenty at Ravenhill over the close season and new head coach Jono Gibbes is making a fair job of acclimatising, yet a shock Pro14 defeat to Zebre provided a stern reality check. Winners in Europe in 1999, Ulster have never failed to reach the elite competition, but have been choked out in the pool stages for the past three seasons.
One to watch: All Black flyer Charles Piutau is keen to put his international days behind him and is relishing his new challenge, now for him to prove his credentials in Europe.
Last season saw Wasps over a glimmer of hope the heyday may be returning after topping the Aviva Premiership table at the end of the regular season and reaching the last eight in Europe, but having lost four of their opening six games this season, those success appear to be another distant memory. Wasps fans will warmly recall the early 2000s with two European triumphs, but recent years have been drab.
One to watch: Bustling No 8 Nathan Hughes is rapidly become a talismanic force in the Wasps line-up and will be key to laying the foundations up front.
PREDICTION: 1. Ulster, 2. La Rochelle, 3. Harlequins, 4. Wasps.
Reigning Top 14 champions and runner-ups in the Champions Cup last season, their third second-place finish, Clermont are increasingly be seen as always the bridesmaid and never the bride in continental competition. Four defeats in seven means they have made a slow start to the new campaign, but will be desperate to make a stamp in Europe.
One to watch: Morgan Parra is the French international at the heart of the Clermont side and will have to lead from the front.
A renovated Northampton Saints are abounding in hope as they head into Europe. An international quality backline offers promise aplenty and it is about time they challenged on the continent. Not since 2011 have Saints had a significant shot at the crown, when they lost to Leinster in the final.
One to watch: Tom Collins has made a flying start to the domestic campaign and will provide searing runs and cut defences open for Saints.
Welsh regional rugby is leaking quality away to other leagues, but a youthful Ospreys side are boosted by the likes of James Hook and Cory Allen’s availability after moving back from Cardiff Blues, although they prop up their conference in the Pro14 are struggling to get the season off the ground.
One to watch: Alun Wyn Jones remains the Ospreys stalwart and it will take some significant contributions from him if they are to make any progress.
Saracens are hunting a hat-trick of Champions Cup successes this season, an unprecedented feat, but not out of the reach for the Barnet-based juggernauts. With a ruthless squad and serious tenacity, Saracens are serious contenders as ever with the addition of Welsh flyer Liam Williams to an already glittering backs department.
One to watch: With Billy Vunipola sidelined, eyes turn to Maro Itoje, who will key to winning breakdown and turnover ball to set strong foundations.
PREDICTION: 1. Saracens, 2. Clermont Auvergne, 3. Northampton Saints, 4. Ospreys.
While Saracens reigned in Europe, Exeter Chiefs will the side to end their dominance on the English frontier as they took the Premiership crown last season and now Rob Baxter’s men must learn how to challenge on two fronts. With their remarkable rise to English champions, European success is the obvious next target for the Devon men.
One to watch: Henry Slade is redefining the No 13 jersey with excellent defensive skills, killer attacking plays and deft kicking touch – he will stun many on the continent with his flair.
Dave Rennie’s Glasgow Warriors are the only side who enter Europe unbeaten on the domestic front, with eight wins from eight so far this term, however, their quarter-final defeat to Saracens last season in the Champions Cup was their first foray out of the pools since 1998.
One to watch: Finn Russell has proven his worth as a Scotland No 10 and will be pivotal to European success.
Dublin-based Leinster have been bereft of silverware since 2014, but remain traditional heavyweights in Europe and their strong start to the Pro14 season bodes well for them. Three time winners of Europe’s elite competition, Leinster are never a side you back again.
One to watch: After success with the British & Irish Lions Johnny Sexton remains the heart of this Leinster side and will be out to kick teams to death.
We all know there is serious cash in the Top14, but the amount of riches at the disposal of new Montpellier head coach Vern Cotter is simply embarrassing, but money does not always buy success in Europe. Since qualifying for the first time six years ago, Montpellier have only left the pools once.
One to watch: Louis Picamoles continues to be one of the best loose forwards in European rugby and will have plenty to say on the field for Montpellier.
PREDICTION: 1. Leinster, 2. Exeter Chiefs, 3. Glasgow Warriors, 4. Montpellier.
Despite being regulars at Europe’s top table, Castres lack the stardust of their French Top14 counterparts and will need to discover a significant new level of performance if they are to succeed at any degree in Europe, especially given their lacklustre start to the domestic campaign. They have made one knockout appearance in 13 attempts.
One to watch: Alex Tulou is a hard-hitting New Zealander who brings some power to the Castres pack at No 8.
Leicester Tigers travel to Europe on the back of successive defeats in the Aviva Premiership, but on paper have reason to hope. Matt O’Connor has built a fine squad, but having been pooled with Munster and Racing Metro, the odds stack heavily against them in Europe this term, but let us not discard their European credentials, being the first club to retain European title in 2002.
One to watch: George Ford has all eyes on him as England’s first-choice fly-half and he must be at the helm of Leicester’s plays in Europe too.
Munster are monsters of Europe, steeped in pedigree with two wins in 2006 and 2008, runners-up in 2000 and 2002 as well as semi-finals in five of the last nine years. After an emotional and turbulent campaign last year, Munster will be back with a vengeance and defeat to rivals Leinster on the eve of European rugby will only be fuel to their fire.
One to watch: Peter O’Mahony is a talismanic leader on and off the field and will drive this Munster side to success.
After winning the Top14 and reaching the Champions Cup final the previous year, last season was a disappointment for Racing Metro and their modest start to the domestic campaign is not inspiring people to back them, but they remain a serious threat.
One to watch: French flyer Virimi Vakatawa is one of the most exciting backs in European rugby and is certain to chalk up tries.
PREDICTION: 1. Munster, 2. Racing Metro, 3. Leicester Tigers, 4. Castres Olympique.
After a significantly poor season last year, Bath have made a fine start to the Premiership campaign, using just two in six leaving them four points behind the top of the table. However, despite being the first British club to win in Europe back in 1998, Bath have only progressed to the semi-finals once since in 2006.
One to watch: England winger Semesa Rokoduguni is tearing up the Premiership and will seek to do more of the same in Europe. A potent threat.
Although entering the competition as one of the least likely candidates, form has come at just the right time for Benetton, winning three of their last four games in the Pro14, but they face a stern challenge if they are proceed beyond the pools for the first time.
One to watch: Flanker Robert Barbieri has plenty of European experience, something Benetton must draw on if they are to have any success.
After booming the first club to win a hat-trick of European titles, reigning from 2013 to 2015, Toulon have endured a rough ride as Top14 runners-up last season and three defeats so far this term have seen them slip to six. After bowing out in the last eight for the past two seasons in Europe too, hopes are dwindling.
One to watch: Mathieu Bastareau is a force of nature who continues to wreak havoc and you can expect nothing less from him in Europe this term.
Scarlets are top of their conference in Pro14 rugby having won five out of their opening six games and Europe arrives as they are on the crest of a wave. Of all the Welsh regions, Scarlets are the only ones who offer anything of hope in continental matters, but the have only once made it beyond the quarter-finals in 2007 and have exited at the pool stage for the previous five seasons.
One to watch: Full-back Leigh Halfpenny is back in Wales from Toulon and will have a point to prove against his former employers in the pools.
PREDICTION: 1. RC Toulon, 2. Bath, 3. Scarlets, 4. Benetton Rugby.
We spoke to Unibet – who will provide our odds for all our Champions Cup coverage – about the new season
As is the case in the Aviva Premiership, it is very hard to look past Saracens in this year’s European Champions Cup. As they look to make it 3 in a row, it is easy to conclude that they have an even stronger team this time round! At 9/4 they are considerably shorter than the next in the market, RC Toulonnais at 6/1. But, again much like the Premiership, punters don’t seem put off by this at all and the largest chunk of the money taken is for Mark McCall’s side, with well over 35% of the total taken.
RC Toulonnais are slightly short of support in the market at Unibet, and it seems the patriotic Brits are propping the market up slightly. Munster, installed at fairly generous 14/1, have seen the second most money, followed by Harlequins, although it should be noted that Quins are playing considerable catch up in terms of support compared to the top 2, as expected installed as a 125/1 shot. Overall, for anyone who does fancy the unenviable task of taking on Saracens, there is a lot of value right down the market.