Rugby’s European club trophies have been monopolised by French teams for the last three years and it’s difficult to see that changing too much as we prepare for this season’s competitions to kick off at the weekend.
The most likely challengers look to be from Ireland and South Africa, a reflection of the countries’ current standing in the Test arena. France and Ireland are the two best northern hemisphere nations, while the Springboks just retained the World Cup.
In the Champions Cup French clubs still look head and shoulders above the rest. Of those, holders La Rochelle, Racing 92 and Toulouse are the teams to beat. From England, perhaps only Saracens can mount a serious challenge.
Leinster and Munster lead the Irish charge, but the biggest threat to sides across the Channel could come from South Africa. With all the issues facing Welsh rugby, I don’t see Cardiff being anywhere near the business end.
The matchups on the opening weekend are mouthwatering and remind me why I love European rugby. Hat-trick hunting La Rochelle, the team everyone will want to knock down, face Leinster, who they beat in last year’s final, first up in a blockbuster clash.
Top 14 leaders Racing will want to prove they can mount a Champions Cup tilt and face Harlequins, who can play amazing rugby on their day and sit third in the Premiership. Sale face Stade Francais in another Anglo-French showdown, while Leicester Tigers and Boks fly-half Handre Pollard welcome his compatriots the Stormers.
Toulon-Exeter is a fixture between two sides with plenty to prove, and I’m interested to see how Bath get on against Ulster. Second in the Premiership, can they step up in Europe? I think they could have a decent campaign.
Saracens, meanwhile, begin with an absolute pig of a game at the Bulls. They will have to overcome the travel and altitude, and that’s before contending with hosts who have physicality in spades. It’s a huge test to start the pool stage.
There’s no doubt that one of the South African sides could win the Champions Cup and the Bulls would be my favourites. Not only are they massive, they can also mix up their approach in Europe as required.
The pool stage comes thick and fast – blink and you’ll miss it. With just four rounds, teams can only really afford one defeat and will need a squad that is fit and ready to go. That’s where the French, South African and Irish sides’ depth and ability to rotate is a huge advantage.
In the Challenge Cup, the enormous European pedigree of Clermont and Montpellier make them the standout clubs. If anyone can topple them, it’ll probably be the Sharks, although I can see Edinburgh causing a few upsets along the way.
Lastly, it’s amazing to see Black Lion of Georgia make their debut. No one knows how they’ll get on and any win would probably be classed as a huge success, but part of the beauty of European rugby is visiting new places so they are a welcome addition.
Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips recently swam the English Channel to raise money for Head for Change, a charity aspiring to achieve positive change for brain health in sport. Follow Ollie on Twitter to donate.