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French clubs likely to cook up a storm in Champions Cup

Ugo Mola

HAVING won three of the last four European Champions Cups, Saracens were always going to set the narrative for this year’s tournament and the finger-jabbing and bitter recriminations surrounding their huge fine and the docking of 35 points domestically for salary cap offences only heightens that.

Saracens’ non-appearance at the competition launch in Cardiff last week to face the flak may yet have disciplinary consequences from an organisation that take a dim view on such behaviour.

While we wait to see how all this plays out off the field – the lawyers are currently busy doing their stuff – on the field it would be surprising if the furore compromised their ability to compete for a fourth title in any way.

Saracens are as cussed and tight a team as any we have seen in 25 years of European club rugby and they will undoubtedly circle the wagons and play with even more determination and ruthlessness, if that is possible. They will bristle at accusations that their success over the last three of four years have been due to financial irregularities and will point to French teams with bigger budgets that nonetheless underperform woefully.

Some will have sympathy with that view, others none whatsoever. Rules are rules whether they are good rules or not. Without them you have anarchy.

Saracens, even before Premiership Rugby wielded the big stick, were up against it this season and I am not just thinking about untimely injuries to star men like Alex Goode and Liam Williams. No, we need to look at the potential effects of a long World Cup campaign on key international players who then have to ‘go again’ so soon after in the European Cup.

In fact let’s flip it the other way and return briefly to the 2015-16 tournament which got underway a couple of weeks after RWC2015. England, you will recall, were effectively out of the competition after three matches at the end of the second week. The final match against Uruguay was academic and many squad players were granted a run-out.

The point is that although perhaps emotionally distressed for a while, England’s top players were physically pretty fresh after the fitness camps of the summer and then, er, rather limited game time. The result? A record five Premiership sides swept into the quarter-finals and three into the semis. And, of course, Saracens won the Cup itself. It was a benefit season for English clubs.

Saracens
Last team standing: Saracens were the only English club to make it past the quarter-finals last season. Getty Images

This time around the boot is on the other foot. Many of England’s top players are returning from a tough campaign. Can they go to the well so soon?

Another fact of life after autumn World Cups is the delayed start to the European competitions with round one not kicking off until the third weekend of November. Those hard grounds and the nigh on perfect playing condition’s often afforded in October are gone, we are nearly in the depths of winter which can favour the sides who can call on really heavy artillery up front. In other words many of the French sides.

Who or what, specifically, should we be looking out for in this year’s competition? Let’s stay with France first. Montpellier have under-performed massively in Europe over the years but have just too much power and class not to make an impact in a year when some teams might be creaking a little physically.

Montpellier are in the same pool as Toulouse and I’m tipping Xavier Garbajosa’s side to top that group but don’t write off Toulouse for the Cup itself. Toulouse might take a while to hit their stride with so many World Cup tyros returning to action but are still good enough to get a runners-up spot if star players get a second wind.

Having won the T14 last year to finally flex their muscles domestically again, Toulouse will automatically set their sight on another European crown. The great legacy of the Guy Noves years is their untrammelled love affair with this competiton, they can’t help themselves and once it comes to the knock-out stages, wondrous match winners like Cheslin Kolbe and Antoine Dupont really come into their own.

Ditto Clermont, with their match winners out on the wing, and Morgan Parra – free of international duties and concerns – pulling the strings. It would frankly be surprising if one of this T14 trio didn’t reach the final.

The Irish could go well. They usually do anyway but their top players, more than most, will welcome the return to their provinces after a stormy ride in Japan. And those who missed out on RWC2019 will know there are Ireland Test places up for grabs as Andy Farrell gets his feet under the table. All to play for.

That’s the positive, glass half full, spin anyway. There is also a school of thought that Irish rugby could be struggling a little after years of plenty. That might be the case but it’s difficult to see Leinster having anything other than a strong run. They have a record fifth title in their sights, and you discount Munster at your peril.

As for the English clubs besides Saracens, the stars seem to be aligning a little for Northampton Saints after coming through a grim time while Sale are an interesting outside bet.

Saints have a proud European heritage but little recent success to reflect on but they are building an all-court game that could cause some damage. They have a nice mix of established older Test stars and a group of hungry young tryos all trying to make their mark together.

Exeter Chiefs? Not convinced. They don’t seem to have that extra gear for Europe yet although surely they will break through at some stage. Perhaps the arrival of Stuart Hogg can galvanise them.

Sale are my English bolters, a club with almost no European pedigree but a squad that could trouble the best. They have big names, big time players that might respond best to the shorter challenge of a European campaign rather than a war of attrition in the

Premiership although ultimately Steve Diamond wants to make an impact in both.

Glasgow Warriors will hope to fire a few shots for the Scottish and Benetton, qualifying as of right for Italy, have done well enough in the Pro 14 to suggest that even in a brute of a pool they might claim a few scalps. Italian rugby desperately needs that to be the case.

Ultimately though I am expecting a French winner at Stade Velodrome in Marseille in May and if push comes to shove I’m going for what could be the next vintage Toulouse side.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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