Each year when the draw is made for the pool stages of the European Champions Cup, fans and pundits alike gasp at the competiveness of each pool. Outside of the Italian clubs there isn’t a weak team in the tournament. It’s for this reason that the European Champions Cup captures the imagination more than any other club rugby competition in Europe. It’s also for this reason that picking a potential winner of the competition is so difficult.
The 2017-18 competition is still a few months away, but we’ve taken a look at some of our early favourites to lift the trophy.
Last season’s champions will be hoping to make it three in a row in this season’s competition. They’ve lost Europe’s all-time top try scorer in Chris Ashton who’s making his way across the channel, but Lion Liam Williams is a worthy replacement, although he does not boast Ashton’s strike rate. Saracen’s route to the final will be hampered as they try to negotiate their way out of a tough pool that also includes three time finalists Clermont Auvergne, as well as Northampton Saints and the Ospreys. They are experienced campaigners though and will go all out to secure the top spot in the pool. Most bookies have Saracens as strong favourites, get them at 5-2 with Sky Bet.
For my money Leinster possess the strongest squad in the Pro12 and one of the strongest in Europe. They’ve just added Kiwi James Lowe, one of Super Rugby’s form players, and experienced Australian international Scott Fardy to their ranks.
A trophy-less season in 2016-17, in which they bowed out in the semi-finals of both the Pro12 and European Champions Cup, will be seen as a major disappointment. They will expect to qualify from a pool that features English Champions Exeter, along with Glasgow and Montpellier. However, they’ll have to get through the early stages without their first choice centre partnership of Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw who both face long injury layoffs. This may make it difficult for them to secure a home quarter final. If they can get through the pool, the two time champions have more than enough about them to go the distance. 13/2 with Sky Bet does feel a little short given their injury woes.
The big spending French club is a team in transition following the retirement of Drew Mitchell and the transfers of the outgoing Matt Giteau and Maxine Mermoz among others. But such is their way, Toulon has bought some big name replacements, the signings of Chris Ashton, Malakai Fekitoa, JP Pieterson, Luke McAllister, Facundo Isa and Hugo Bonneval show that Toulon still mean business. The three times European Champions were knocked out in the quarter finals of last season’s competition and lost out in the Top14 play off final in 2016-17 which meant they finished the season without any silverware. They’re comfortable favourites to win their pool which includes Treviso, Bath and Scarlets and if their superstar signings can click quickly then odds of 8-1 with Sky Bet looks like an attractive proposition.
Any team that wins the Top14 has to be taken seriously. The three time finalists have finished as runners up on all three occasions and will be hoping to go one better this time. First up they have a tough pool to negotiate, but they will want to get one over on Saracens. Unlike many of their counterparts, Clermont don’t rely heavily on Southern Hemisphere talent. They’ve added the experienced Greig Laidlaw to their ranks along with Rabah Slimani. They know how to reach the final, but do they know how to win it? There are stronger squads on paper but they may be worth a look at odds of 8-1.
After the tragic passing of coach and Munster stalwart Anthony Foley mid-way through last season Munster rallied to produce a magnificent season that saw them reach the final of the Pro12 and the semi-final of the European Champions Cup. They have a talented squad that includes the likes of Lions CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray but they do lack the depth of some of the big spenders in the competition. However, Munster love playing rugby in Europe’s premier competition.
You have to go way back to the 1997-98 competition to find the last time that Munster failed to qualify from their pool. In that time, they have reached the final on four occasions, winning the competition twice, although their last competition win came in the 2007-08 competition. BetStars is offering odds of 14-1 which feels a little short. But if Munster qualify from their pool which includes Castres, Leicester Tigers and Racing 92 with a home quarter final then they may be worth considering.
Two outsiders to consider
Consistency is key for Bath this season. A 5th place finish in the Aviva Premiership, seven points adrift of the play-offs was a disappointment after such a promising start to the season. Before Christmas Bath defeated both Exeter and Saracens demonstrating that they do possess pedigree and that they can compete with Europe’s elite.
They have real firepower in their squad including the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Taulupe Faletau and Anthony Watson, but perhaps lack a little depth, particularly up-front. Having said that, Bath will be confident it can qualify from a pool which includes Toulon, Scarlets and Benneton Treviso. Odds of 50-1 are available with Betway which could be worth a punt for anyone who likes to back an underdog.
Exeter Chiefs are the Aviva Premiership champions, they have reached the final of that competition in the last two seasons, yet they are priced as long as 25-1 by the likes of PaddyPower and Betfred. They will have been devastated not to qualify from their pool in last season’s competition, only managing two wins and will go all out to prove they can compete this time round. Exeter do have to negotiate a very difficult pool which includes Montpellier, Leinster and Glasgow but they are more than capable of doing so. Unlike a number of their rivals, many of their squad had a full off-season after not being required for international duty, so they will be fresh and raring to go. Back them.