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The Champions Cup begins with the expected leaders, but there is still much to look forward to | By Robert Kitson

One of the critiques of the current Champions Cup is that the excitement of the elimination rounds is not as widespread in the earlier rounds. The organizers themselves seem to be motivated to increase this ratio, as the powerful teams of La Rochelle and Leinster are set to face off on the first weekend of the season. These two teams, who have competed in the last two finals, are also being tasked with setting the pace in the beginning.

The message being conveyed is clear to all other participants. The previously known Heineken Cup, now renamed as Investec, loses its appeal if only a few teams have a chance of winning. France has also dominated the past three championships, with La Rochelle’s consecutive wins following Toulouse’s triumph over the same team.

Can we expect significant changes this time around? With the increasing popularity of the French Top 14, financial struggles in the Premiership, and current logistical challenges for South Africa’s top teams, it seems unlikely that there will be a sudden upheaval. If there are new contenders aside from La Rochelle, Leinster, and Toulouse, they are probably located in England, such as Racing 92, Toulon, or Bordeaux.

Including the experienced players from Saracens and Munster, the list of eight teams expected to compete in the quarter-finals is likely already set before you finish your breakfast. While the lower ranked teams may still put up a good fight on their home turf, the Champions Cup effectively separates the top contenders from the rest, similar to the knockout rounds in a Rugby World Cup.

Reworded: It is impossible to win this competition without having a strong team, solid defense, and the skill to score tries against any opponent. In the past 15 seasons, only six clubs have emerged victorious, with Exeter currently in a rebuilding phase and Saracens facing challenges due to their salary cap issues.

The small number of potential winners is causing discussions about changing the format of the competition. Is it fair for the Premiership to have eight teams in a top-tier event when there are only 10 teams in their league? With Gloucester and Newcastle already struggling, it’s easy to predict the top eight finishers with half a season left to play.

Is it fair to have a 24-team tournament with four groups of six teams, where two teams will not face each other? Additionally, the Stormers may be at a disadvantage on Sunday if they are missing key players. In the past, a team earning a bonus point in a loss could have a big impact on the overall competition. However, with only four group games, even three losses could still be enough to advance, as Ulster showed last year after starting with a 39-0 defeat against Sale Sharks.

La Rochelle celebrate with the trophy after victory in last season’s final

It’s not surprising that there have been talks about a potential 16-team tournament that focuses on quality and minimizes filler. Those who saw the thrilling end to last season’s match at the Aviva Stadium can attest to the fact that club rugby is just as exciting as international rugby when top teams are playing.

However, at this time, it is possible that this season will have a combination of both successful and unsuccessful outcomes. This will be determined by two rounds before and after Christmas, which will determine the final 16 teams. It is important to note that the format of the competition means that any team who does not finish in the top eight will face challenges in advancing as the away team in a single round of 16 match. Last year, no team was able to do so, although Exeter managed to secure a spot based on their try count after an exhilarating 33-33 tie with Montpellier.

Beginning strongly is crucial. Despite the addition of Jacques Nienaber, a coach who led the South African team to a World Cup victory, to Leinster’s team, it is still likely that they will advance, given their record of not losing a pool game since 2018-19 (excluding a forfeit due to Covid). However, even without Grégory Alldritt, who will be resting, the defending champions led by Ronan O’Gara will not take it easy on the Atlantic coast this Sunday. They have upcoming trips to Cape Town and Salford, which will certainly be eye-opening experiences.

Please also consider the situation of Harlequins. In one week, they will be playing at the advanced La Défense Arena in Paris against the dominant Racing 92 team, and the following week they will host the French champions Toulouse at the Stoop. It’s safe to say that their chances of success will become clear long before Santa starts his Christmas journey. Saracens, who have been dealing with injuries, have also faced tough challenges with a match against the Bulls in Pretoria and a visit from the resilient Connacht in north London.


The top teams from England, Scotland, and Wales will all need to improve their performance. Glasgow Warriors, who are doing well in the United Rugby Championship, will face Northampton in their opening match at Scotstoun. However, it remains to be seen if they will have a better record than Toulon and Munster in their pool, and secure a home draw in the last 16. Cardiff will have to travel to face Toulouse and Racing, but they also have the advantage of playing at home against Bath and Quins.

With hope, this tournament will have an appeal that goes beyond just national borders. Will Henry Arundell represent Racing and Jack Willis do the same for Toulouse? Nienaber with Leinster, Siya Kolisi with Racing… if the weather is decent and post-World Cup exhaustion isn’t too much of a problem, there are some interesting opportunities.

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Be on the lookout in the Challenge Cup for Black Lion, as they will be the first Georgian team to compete in this tournament. Gloucester may expand their perspective during their match in Tbilisi this weekend. However, the champion club team for this season will most likely come from the usual group of contenders. It is predicted that a French team will once again claim victory and lift the trophy at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 25th.

Five standout athletes to keep an eye on

Finn Russell (Bath)

Bath has not won the European Cup in 26 years and has only advanced past the pool stages once since 2009. A better performance is desperately needed and Russell has been brought on as a potential game-changer. Working with scrum-half Ben Spencer, he has already helped Bath become a more strategic and dynamic team. They are now looking to immediately make a mark in the Champions Cup as they prepare to face Ulster at home this weekend.

Henry Arundell (Racing 92)
Even though he is young, Arundell is already enjoying his new experience in Paris. And who could blame him? He is on a team with many talented players, given the freedom to attack, and able to play a more exciting style of rugby than he typically does when playing for England. With Bath showing interest in signing him for the next season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him excel in the beginning matches, despite Steve Borthwick also assessing his defensive abilities.

Henry Arundell of Racing 92 gathers a high ball

Owen Farrell (Saracens)
After stepping down from consideration for the English team, the former national captain is determined to make a strong impression for Saracens. Starting his new chapter on a summer evening in Pretoria, high up on the Highveld, will not be easy. However, his goal kicks are likely to travel far. Leading Sarries to the quarter-finals would be the ultimate validation of his fierce determination.

Handré Pollard (Leicester)

South Africa has relied heavily on Pollard’s exceptional kicking skills during the World Cup, and it is expected that Leicester will also require his precision on French territory in the coming months. The team will face challenging away matches against both Stade Français and La Rochelle, and will also be facing several of Pollard’s fellow countrymen when the Stormers come to Welford Road this Sunday. If he maintains his current level of success, it will greatly benefit Leicester.

Blair Kinghorn (Toulouse)
One of the most interesting cross-border transfers in recent weeks has been Kinghorn’s switch from Edinburgh to Toulouse. The versatile full-back has long been a quality player but here is an ideal chance to measure himself alongside some of the best players in Europe on a weekly basis. If the 26-year-old responds well to his new surroundings, both his new club and Scotland will reap the benefits.

Source: theguardian.com