Cardiff and Munster’s youngsters and fringe players may be dreaming of famous upsets this weekend in the Champions Cup but, for me, the situation has tainted European club rugby’s big kick-off slightly.
It’s nobody’s fault that the two teams have dozens of players unavailable after being caught up in the omicron breakout while playing in South Africa last month – that’s just the world we live in now – but it is disappointing for the competition.
Cardiff have cobbled together a side made up of academy players and semi-professionals for their home fixture against holders Toulouse, while Munster have called up 22 kids to bolster their ranks for the trip to Wasps.
It’s better that the games are going ahead rather than being forfeited, like Scarlets’ match with Bristol, and if there is a silver lining then it’s that young players will get some valuable experience.
When I was coming through I was hugely pumped at any chance to show what I could do because I thought I was invincible.
The problem is that the Champions Cup is the closest thing club rugby gets to the intensity of the international game, and if you’re not on it you get schooled – and not in a good way.
There is also a safety element that has to be considered. Toulouse visiting a full-strength Cardiff just before Christmas could have been a really interesting match. Now it has the potential to be a hiding and for someone to get hurt.
It’s not befitting of the competition, but Wasps may not mind too much. Normally Munster would be daunting visitors but this time the home side will fancy their chances of starting with a win.
Toulouse still Champions Cup favourites
Toulouse remain the favourites for the trophy, for all that, along with Racing 92 and Leinster. French rugby is buoyant at the moment, as the autumn showed, while Leinster are formidable and have pedigree in the Champions Cup.
I don’t think English clubs will be up there this year. Harlequins play a great brand of rugby that works in the Premiership but gets rumbled in Europe.
French clubs have an advantage in that they can spend more and attract better players, while Irish sides have greater freedom to rest their stars in domestic competition so that they peak in Europe.
The Premiership is so competitive that English teams have to peak every week and then go up another level when the Champions Cup comes around.
That said, I am intrigued to see how Leicester get on. They are playing with a steely edge reminiscent of Tigers sides of old that might see them mix it in Europe.
Saracens are team to beat in Challenge Cup
Saracens have a tough opening game at home to Edinburgh but they are clearly the team to beat in the Challenge Cup.
They have quality, discipline and a point to prove following their year in the Championship. I don’t see other teams being able to live with them.
If there is a challenge it will probably come from Toulon – if they can be bothered. The French teams don’t seem to fancy this competition until the knockout rounds.
Gloucester may be the most dangerous of the other English clubs. They have a good history in the Challenge Cup and are starting to play some good rugby. London Irish are also building confidence and are the others to watch.
Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.