A weird quirk of top flight European rugby is that in the big three leagues – England’s Premiership, France’s Top14 and Scotland, Italy, Ireland and Wales’s United Rugby Championship – every northern hemisphere team gets continental action.
For the sides who finish in the bottom half of their league, except those who are relegated, are awarded a spot in the Challenge Cup – Europe’s second tier.
Much like the Europa League, the winner of this competition is granted a place in next year’s Champions Cup if they haven’t already qualified domestically. And this year could be one of the most hotly contested seasons of the competition in recent years.
It’s fair to say that this year’s Premiership is looking tighter than ever. Though Leicester remain an unbeaten side, it feels very wide open.
With this in mind, and Saracens’ determination to prove that they’re back, the north London club could look to rout their way through this competition to earn themselves a trophy.
Saracens’ squad is of a high standard and they’ll no doubt fancy themselves against first Edinburgh and then Pau.
The side have been given one of the lowest seeds due to being a newly promoted side but they no doubt have the power and quality to breeze through the competition’s earlier stages should they target this competition.
Hit or miss
The Challenge Cup can really provide some blockbuster fixtures but it can also feel like a graveyard of second string sides at times.
For those clubs who are struggling in their domestic competition, Europe can provide the chance to try something new and experiment.
Likewise, for some sides Europe is an obsolete annoyance for teams looking to survive a long season in their league.
That said, two of the three major leagues operating in the competition this season do not have relegation – one permanent and one temporary – so there really shouldn’t be too much experimentation.
Many Premiership sides, though, have given their players this week off training so expect a few new names in and around the squads.
Saracens are 8/13 favourites for the title – unsurprisingly – with French sides Lyon and Toulon close behind at 11/2 and 13/2 respectively.
Behind those three, however, the next best placed side is Edinburgh at 20/1 and then Gloucester at 25/1.
As is the squad depth of the top clubs in this competition – clubs who you wouldn’t expect to feature in the Challenge Cup – many of the 15 clubs taking part have been somewhat written off already.