By Jeremy Guscott
THE European Cup is a tougher, harder tournament under EPCR than it was four years ago when the change of format happened. I like the way the competition has gone because you have almost got matches of quarter-final and semi-final quality in the pool stages. That’s a great achievement.
It’s hard-core stuff. Just look at Pool 2 where you have the two-time holders, Saracens, last year’s beaten finalists, Clermont, as well as Northampton and the Ospreys. It beggars belief that you have so much ability in one group.
At the same time the respective domestic leagues – the Premiership, Top 14, and Pro14 – are trying to prioritise their own improvements in order to keep up. The format, bar getting the ticket sale time between the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final extended, is looking very strong.
It could also do with a few more sponsors, but that is not as easy as it once was. In any case, it is hard to put a dampener on the European Cup. As a player I loved playing in it, competing against the best teams around Europe with their different styles. It’s a great experience.
A run through the pools suggests they will all be tight affairs. In Pool 1 Harlequins can be a bit indifferent, and at the moment they don’t make you stand up and shout – unless it’s for the wrong reasons! Although Wasps have done well enough reaching a quarter-final and semi-final over the last two seasons, their open style leaves them vulnerable.
I’m not sure that Wasps have the depth they need, and nor am I convinced that they are learning from their mistakes. Everyone in that side has got be fit and playing at optimum for them to progress, whereas with Saracens you get the impression that they are always dangerous – and can win even when they are not at their best.
Elsewhere in the group La Rochelle will be big, strong and aggressive, especially at home, while Ulster are also trying to get back as a major force.
Pool 2 is all about who can pinch the away games, and you’d say that the Ospreys and Northampton are the teams who have it all to do. Last year’s finalists, Clermont, will not think it’s brilliant to be in the same pool, but it’s great for rugby fans to see two outstanding sides like Saracens and Clermont going at it again.
One of them could go out in the pool round, but you would think that Saracens have the pedigree that might get them through. It will be a bunfight, and losing bonus points will – as always – be crucial in a pool that is this tight.
The downside is that it is going be a struggle for two teams to qualify out of such a competitive group. However, it does make every game mouth-watering, especially with Saints showing good signs after their early capitulation against Saracens in the first game of the Premiership.
Rob Baxter has said that Exeter are aiming for a big improvement now that they have had the time to get used to having to compete in Europe and the Premiership alongside each other. The Chiefs have not set the tournament alight, but Baxter is a very good planner, and if they want to progress this time they will have to win their home games in Pool 3 as well as nick an away game.
Glasgow are adapting to life without Gregor Townsend as coach, but his Kiwi replacement Dave Rennie is very experienced. Leinster are probably waiting to bring back their Lions, and a full strength Leinster have pedigree. They will be primed for this competition.
The team in Pool 3 that looks as if it means business is Montpellier. The French teams are very hard to beat on their own grounds, and English players who have joined French clubs say how cordial the home fans are when they win, and how harsh when they lose.
With Vern Cotter and Alex King back together at Montpellier as a coaching team, as they were at Clermont, the club are hitting their straps at the head of the Top 14. Montpellier look very strong, and they may be capable of providing the missing ingredient from Cotter’s CV at Clermont by winning the European Cup.
In Pool 4 the two French sides have started the season at a canter rather than a gallop. Racing are seventh in the Top 14, while Castres are tenth. Racing have been something of a glamour team, and with Dan Carter they were losing finalists against Saracens the year before last, but had the compensation of winning the French championship.
However, you do not get the impression that the vibe at Racing is buzzing even if they are side full of quality. Munster may not have quite as many star signings as the Paris club, but they were good last season and are never easy to shake off.
It used to be a given that Leicester would have a pack that could win quality ball, with the chanting from the Tigers fans usually loudest on the catch-and-drive. Now they have a backline that requires the ball, and this is a new, exciting European opportunity – although you sense that coach Matt O’Connor’s priority will still be a top four finish in the Premiership.
Pool 5 is likeliest to produce two quarter-finalists because of the presence of Italy’s Benetton, and the Scarlets cannot be underestimated. They are playing a great brand of rugby and fully deserved the PRO12 title last season after a fantastic run.
The Scarlets are a bit like Wasps – but with one difference. Unlike Wasps they have learned how to win big games, and if they back themselves and play to their very best in this tournament they could win the whole thing. Saracens had a tough task away against them in the pool round last season, and eventually got a draw at the Parc y Scarlets.
Toulon are not the side they used to be – they are currently sixth in the Top 14 – and even their president, Mourad Boudjellal, isn’t shouting too much these days. However, they have plenty of big names remaining, as well as bulk and experience, so cannot be underestimated.
Bath still haven’t got the ingredient they’ve been missing in the front five, and they will have to be much smarter to get anywhere. The Bath defence has been good this season, and they have been working hard on scoring tries from turnovers. That’s probably Todd Blackadder’s Kiwi influence – get the defence right, and then strike from deep.
Two sides should qualify from this group, but it will take winning home and away against Benetton, and then winning a couple of home games. The prize is that whoever wins the pool should be seeded at home in the quarter-finals – and whoever that is should be capable of reaching the last four.
Overall, my guess is that the likely winners will come from Clermont, Saracens or Montpellier – with the Scarlets as an outside bet.