The European Champions Cup kicks off this weekend as rugby union’s answer to the Champions League again looks to make its mark on the global sporting audience. The competition still doesn’t feel like it has the gravitas that the Heineken Cup once did, and to get back to those glory days a strong start to the competition in 2017-18 would be ideal.
Saracens are the two-time defending champions of the cup, having beaten Racing 92 in 2016 and Clermont in 2017, but there is a host of top teams from around Europe with their eye on the trophy this season.
Here are three games that will be worth watching in the first round of fixtures this weekend:
Ulster vs. Wasps (Pool 1)
This is an interesting match because it features two clubs in very different form heading into their showdown at the Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster has been on fire in the Pro14 so far this season. They have won five games and lost only one – to Zebre in Italy – and they have been putting in impressive performances on a weekly basis. The Irish team excels in attack and they are especially dangerous at home where they put 42 points on the Southern Kings and 52 points on the Dragons in runaway wins in September.
Wasps, on the other hand, have been perhaps the biggest disappointment in the Aviva Premiership. After a couple of wins to open the season against Sale and Worcester, the wheels seem to have completely fallen off. The West Midlanders are winless in their last four and have slipped to tenth in the Premiership after losing 38-19 to Saracens at the weekend.
Wasps’ Achilles heel is that their vaunted attack just isn’t working properly. It could be that this escape into Europe to face teams that aren’t as familiar with their attacking pattern is just what the English club needs to get out of its funk. If they lose to Ulster by a big scoreline – something that is a possibility – then it could be a long season for the two-time European champions in all the competitions they are competing in.
Leinster vs. Montpellier (Pool 3)
Leinster are one of the biggest names in the history of this competition (in its various forms) and the province is once again looking to make its mark continentally.
The Eastern Irish side has been in fine form to open the Pro14 season, with five wins in six games. The only reverse so far this year was on the road in South Africa against the Cheetahs while a huge derby win over Munster last time out will send Leo Cullen’s men into this battle against Montpellier with all the confidence in the world.
It is hard to know year in and year out which of the French teams will stand up and stake their claim as the best in the Top 14. The amount of money in the game in France means that any club willing to spend big can rise from relative obscurity to be a contender. That is exactly what Montpellier have done for 2017.
New head coach Vern Cotter may be in charge of a team that has only progressed past the pool stages of this competition once, but his squad is littered with household names. The Ruan Pienaar-Aaron Cruden axis in the halfbacks is as good as any in Super Rugby, while the back line also features the likes of Francois Steyn, Jan Serfontein, and Nemani Nadolo.
This one is a clash between the old and new breeds, which should make for a very exciting 80 minutes of rugby.
Exeter Chiefs vs. Glasgow Warriors (Pool 3)
This is the second Pool 3 game on this list as the draw for the Champions Cup this season has thrown together perhaps the toughest single pool in the history of the competition. Exeter, Leinster, Montpellier, or Glasgow could theoretically win this whole competition, so getting off to a fast start in the first game will be vital for both these clubs.
The Aviva Premiership reigning champions were upset on the first day of the new season against Gloucester, but since then they have been in sparkling form. The Chiefs have suffered just one other Premiership defeat so far in 2017 – on the road against Leicester by seven points – and they have looked dominant in wins against London Irish (by 30), Worcester (by 31), and Wasps (by 14). A 10 point win last time out against Newcastle was enough to move the Devon outfit to second in the Premiership table.
As good as Exeter have been, Glasgow have been better. The Warriors are the only unbeaten team in the three major European leagues and they have already established an eight-point lead in Conference A of the Pro14. Glasgow are looking to improve on their quarter-final performance from last season and in fly-half Finn Russell they have an up-and-coming player who has the talent to break down any defensive unit the Warriors will face. The 2014/15 Pro 14 (then Pro 12) winners have achieved all this without inspirational fullback Stuart Hogg. The 25-year-old had surgery on an underlying shoulder injury over the summer after being forced out of the Lions tour with a facial fracture. This feat is all the more impressive for the Scottish side.
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