The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.
While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.
Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton
Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.
Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale
Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.
Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath
Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.
Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys
Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.
Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier
Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.
So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:
Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse
Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster
Who do you think will make the knockouts?