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Champions Cup preview: A look at all five pools as Leinster seek to retain European crown

By Brendan Gallagher

Can anybody stop Leinster and their new skipper Johnny Sexton? Historically there have been two great European Cup dynasties – Toulouse and Leinster with four wins apiece – but this could be the season that the Irish province put daylight between themselves and everybody else with a record-breaking fifth triumph.

Here is a look at the contenders Leinster will have to beat should they progress from Pool One of the Champions Cup.

Pool One

Leinster: Four-time champions in a pool laden with past winners. Took everything in their stride last season and have made a decent start in the PRO14 with just the one narrow defeat at Scarlets. Captained by Johnny Sexton this year, although the Ireland fly-half has been running every team he plays in for the last seven or eight years anyway. Start off with a bang on Friday night against Wasps, who will fondly remember their 33-6 win at the RDS three years ago.

Wasps: Two European Cups for Wasps, although not since 2007, Dai Young’s men just missed out on a quarter-final place last season when they finished runners up to La Rochelle in their pool. With all their big names firing they can damage any team and Leinster first up before the competition settles is as good a time as any to visit the champions. Premiership form has been erratic with plenty of firepower on view along with one or two defensive failings.

Toulouse: Like Leinster, Toulouse are four-time champions but the French giants have endured some quiet seasons with no appearance in the final since 2010, which they won. There were, however, definite signs of improvement last season in the Top 14 when they finished third in the regular season although their lack lustre European Challenge Cup resulted in just two wins. Quiet in the transfer market this summer with only Jerome Kaino, a really big name signing.

Bath: Champions just the once 20 years ago, the pressure will be off to a certain extent which could bring the best out of Todd Blackadder’s team. Performed very well in a tough pool last season although even four wins wasn’t enough to progress, finishing third behind Scarlets and Toulon. Will enjoy the advantage of opening at home to Toulouse and if they could nick a win the momentum could quickly build.

Prediction: Leinster to finish top but this could be much closer than some think.

Make their mark in Europe: Exeter Chiefs have reached the last three Premiership finals but are yet to replicate that success across the continent (photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Pool Two

Castres: French champions twice in the last six years and runners up on another occasion, but have yet to make the impact in Europe they should. Perhaps this year, skippered by the ageless Rodrigo Capo-Ortega they will let the handbrake off and really give Europe a rattle. A difficult opener at Gloucester will give us a strong clue as to their mindset this season. Some quality signings in the summer not least Scott Spedding from Clermont.

Exeter Chiefs: Have appeared in the last three Premiership finals, winning one of them, but have yet to take Europe by storm although they were one of the few teams to inconvenience Leinster last season, indeed they were unlucky not to win in Dublin. Feels like this side should now take their next step and mount a major European campaign. Home tie against Munster first up is a massive game. Win that and the Chiefs could be on their way.

Munster: The two-time European champions and semi-finalists last season, Munster have looked very good domestically, especially that 64-7 dismissal recently of Ulster. Incredibly experienced European warriors they have added two interesting “flair” talents to their squad in former Leinster fly-half Joey Carberry and lock Tadhg Beirne. The health and availability of Conor Murray and his rather mysterious neck injury could be a key.

Gloucester: It’s hard enough predicting how Gloucester will go in the Premiership let alone hazarding a guess as to their European prospects. They have the game to challenge the very best but consistency has been a big problem. Need skipper Willi Heinz fit and firing after injury, Danny Cipriani, left, will be hungry and Glos will be looking for a big impact from Springbok lock Franco Mostert when he arrives from the Rugby Championship. But will it be enough? Very much up against it.

Prediction: Exeter have served their European apprenticeship, it’s time now they started making some noise.

Bubbly in Bilbao: Challenge Cup victors Cardiff Blues had a tough Pool last year and now make the step up to the Champions Cup (photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Pool Three

Saracens: Two-time winners in recent seasons, Saracens endured a tough campaign last year with that extraordinary thrashing at the hands of old rivals Clermont at Allianz Park and then a tough quarter-final defeat at Leinster. Took those setbacks on board and came back even stronger and have started this season domestically like a train with Alex Goode, right, in fine form. No obvious weaknesses opposing sides have to match their 80-minute physicality to even get in the match.

Glasgow Warriors: At their very best a threat to any side, especially on their home 4G pitch, but have rarely put together a threatening run in Europe. Losing Stuart Hogg for the Autumn is a huge blow but they still have backs to cause most teams problems. Considerable contingent in the Scotland national team and you wonder just how that might play out in the pivotal rounds three and four in December when tired warriors return to club duty.

Lyon: No European pedigree to speak of, have bounced to and from the ProD2 in modern times, winning that championship three times in the last eight years. Managed an excellent fifth in the Top 14 last year and caused a major shock by defeating Toulon in the semi-final qualifier before losing to Montpellier in the semi-final itself. So they are no mugs but another solid Top 14 will surely be their priority. Rugged old pack and two big kicking 10s in Lionel Beauxis and Jean-Marc Doussain.

Cardiff Blues: Have never quite made the impact expected of them in this competition. But they produced a cracking campaign in the Challenge Cup last season which resulted in them winning the tournament and getting plenty of Euro miles under their belts – winning a pool including Toulouse, Sale and Lyon and then beating Edinburgh in the quarter-final, Pau in the semi-final before defeating Gloucester 31-30 in a thrilling final.

Prediction: Saracens all the way but good potential for a QF place for the runners-up.

Anyone’s guess: Leicester Tigers haven’t progressed from the pool stage in three of the last four seasons, but did reach the semi-final in 2016 (photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Pool Four

Scarlets: Four times semi-finalists if you include two appearances as Llanelli but haven’t yet made it into a final. Gave it a good rattle last season battling their way through a tough pool alongside Toulon, Bath and Benetton and then beating La Rochelle in the quarter-finals. Met their match in the semi-finals though when they lost 38-16 to Leinster. The return of Wales and Lions centre Jonathan Davies is a big plus, an injury to brother James a big loss.

Racing: Twice losing finalists in the last three years Racing are becoming a force to reckon with in Europe with their classic combination of piano shifting forwards and piano playing backs. Did brilliantly last year to defeat Clermont in the quarter-finals and Munster in semi-finals before going down 15-12 to Leinster in the final showdown. The summer signings of Finn Russell and Simon Zebo, below, demonstrate how they like to play given half a chance.

Leicester Tigers: Two times European champions and two other losing finals to boot but not quite the force in Europe they were, witness last season when they managed just one pool win. Can still be a tricky team to beat at Welford Road though which might count for something but generally seem to lack the grunt up front of old. A fit again Manu Tuilagi can press his claims for an England return against quality opposition

Ulster: Winners in 1999 and runners up three years later, Ulster can flatter to deceive on occasions and their domestic form in the PRO14 frustrates their fans – good wins one week, huge defeats the next. Claimed four pool wins last season but it wasn’t quite enough to advance to the quarter-finals. Skipper Rory Best has been much missed with his chronic hamstring injury, but it seems like he might finally be ‘good to go’.

Prediction: Scarlets and Racing will be neck and neck, Racing to nick it but Scarlets to also progress.

Double trouble: Montpellier, led by coach Vern Cotter, and Toulon are pooled with Newcastle and Edinburgh (photo: Getty Images)

Pool Five

Montpellier: Still a young club with limited European experience but have the strength in depth to do well. Very poor last season though with just two wins in an admittedly tough pool, lining up against Leinster, Exeter and Glasgow. Have the big hitters – Nadolo, Nagusa, Steyn, Bismark du Plesssis – to make a real impact and potentially could get away to a strong start with a home match against Edinburgh first up followed by a trip to Newcastle.

Newcastle Falcons: The Falcons have very little European Cup pedigree with just a solitary quarter-final appearance in 2005 although they did roll up their sleeves and have a crack at the Challenge Cup last season being unbeaten in their pool before losing at Gloucester in the semi-final. Dean Richards’ squad are still in the learning phase and the Premiership remains their priority but will be hard to knock over at Kingston Park.

Edinburgh: One quarter-final and one semi-final – against Ulster in 2012 – to date in Europe’s premier competition which is a modest record which needs some work on. Showed up well in the Challenge Cup last season with five pool wins before losing disappointingly in the quarter-finals to Cardiff. Daunting start though with Montpellier away followed by Toulon at home. Richard Cockerill will get them fired up… but that’s unlikely to be sufficient.

Toulon: Got the taste for Europe with two losing Challenge Cup finals and then, with Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau at the helm, went on a winning spree with three Heineken Cup titles on the bounce between 2013-15. Currently undergoing a transitional period but fought hard last year, finishing runners up to Scarlets in their pool and by common consent being distinctly unlucky 20-19 losers to Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter-finals.

Prediction: Montpellier to edge past Top 14 rivals Toulon who will also progress as one of the best three runners-up.

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