Saracens’ 35-point deduction for breaching Premiership salary cap rules has dominated the news in recent weeks and I think it will have a big knock-on effect in the Champions Cup, which starts this weekend.
After Sarries’ impressive away win at Gloucester at the weekend, head coach Mark McCall said that he would prioritise league games in order to try and avoid relegation.
That is understandable because they have to act on the assumption that the punishment will stand, but their actions could come as a serious detriment to the Champions Cup.
Pool 4, which contains Saracens, Munster, Ospreys and Racing 92, looked a mouth-watering prospect, yet if the defending champions are going to field a significantly weakened side they might not be able to compete properly.
Saracens travel to Paris to play Racing on Sunday and it will be a real test of the club’s culture. If they were able to block out all the noise off the pitch and start the tournament with an away win it would be some achievement.
Gloucester kick off Pool 5 against Toulouse at Kingsholm tomorrow evening and I think they have a real opportunity to make their mark in Europe this season.
The West Country side are inconsistent but they have the potential to reach the knockout stages. They have Toulouse and Montpellier in their group and French sides traditionally don’t travel well, so Gloucester’s home form will be crucial to their chances.
More so than any other English side, though, this is a huge year for Exeter Chiefs. Rob Baxter’s side have made the quarter-finals only once in their last six European campaigns, despite excelling in the Premiership.
But having been drawn in a relatively easy group alongside La Rochelle, who they travel to face on Saturday, Glasgow and Sale, who might be overstretched across both competitions, they need to make it count.
Exeter’s domestic success has been built upon a dogged work-rate and battering-ram approach, but you need extra creativity to break down sides in Europe. Stuart Hogg, who has joined from Glasgow, could provide that spark, while the likes of Jack Nowell and Henry Slade should be raring to go after the World Cup.
Northampton have a decent opportunity in Pool 1, too. They have started the season brightly in the Premiership, despite being without players like Dan Biggar, and come up against Benetton and Lyon, who might well prioritise the Top 14.
Saracens have won three of the last four Champions Cup titles and, with them focused on other issues, there is a real chance for others to step up.
Leinster, the 2018 winners, are an obvious challenger, but many of their best Irish players aren’t in great form following a disappointing World Cup.
I think French rugby could be coming up, with Fabien Galthie now in charge of the national team and Shaun Edwards on board as defence coach.
Four-time champions Toulouse look strong, but I fancy this year could provide a new winner and both Clermont and Racing have a good opportunity to put their names on the trophy for the first time.
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