La Rochelle
La Rochelle celebrate their maiden Champions Cup victory in last season’s final

Europe’s premier tournament returns this weekend with wider horizons and fresh stars. Here is the lowdown on the Heineken Champions Cup.

What’s new?

No doubt about the headline news for the 2022-23 tournament.

The Sharks, Stormers and the Bulls will mark South Africa’s debut into Europe’s premier club competition.

If it goes as well as their introduction to the United Rugby Championship last year, they will be immediate contenders for the title.

Stormers
The Cape Town-based Stormers made an immediate impact on the United Rugby Championship, beating fellow South African side the Bulls to win the title

In their first season in the URC, the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks all made the end-of-season play-offs, with the Stormers beating the Bulls in the final.

The Champions Cup brings in the best of the English and French top flights and a new level of competition.

But the prospect of Springbok stalwarts Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Makazole Mapimpi facing off against Harlequins on the opening weekend shows the immediate glamour and intrigue their arrival brings.

How does it work?

The new normal is two 12-team pools, with each team playing two others, home and away, and then progressing to the last 16 if they finish in the top eight of the pool.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

The format was first introduced as a result of Covid, a fixture logjam and a need to condense the competition.

But it has proved a success, making the pool stages more punchy than the old format which involved four-strong groups in which everyone played everyone else home and away.

9 October London Irish v Montpellier
10 October Sharks v Harlequins
Racing 92 v Leinster
Gloucester v Bordeaux Begles
Clermont v Stormers
La Rochelle v Northampton
Bulls v Lyon
Castres v Exeter
11 December Sale v Ulster
Saracens v Edinburgh
Munster v Toulouse
Ospreys v Leicester

By the time the sixth round of fixtures rolled round, fates were already decided, stragglers had lost interest and there were plenty of dead rubbers.

Last season, the last-16 ties were played over two legs, with Ulster and Harlequins both missing out by a single point on aggregate after 160-odd minutes of rugby.

You can put away the abacus for this year though. We are back to straight one-off shoot-outs all the way from last 16 to the final on 30 May in Dublin.

The leading contenders

Leinster

Johnny Sexton and Josh van der Flier
Johnny Sexton (left) and Josh van der Flier are key men for Leinster

A team that goes deep more often than Jacques Cousteau.

Leinster are four-time European champions. Three of those titles came in a purple patch around a decade ago, but they are still thereabouts when it comes to the business end of things.

They have made the semi-finals at least in six of the last eight seasons.

They have the newly-crowned World Player of the Year – Josh van der Flier – in their ranks. Johnny Sexton, 37, is still pulling strings with precision. Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan and Garry Ringrose are another three of their regulars and first-choice picks for Test rugby’s top dogs Ireland.

They have the men. And they have the motivation after losing out to a last-minute try against La Rochelle in May’s final.

Toulouse

Another branch of European royalty with rich heritage. Toulouse have won a record five Champions Cup crowns, with their most recent coming via a 2021 win at Twickenham.

They have started this season like a train, opening up a five-point lead at the top of the French Top 14. They have some of the shiniest young stars in European rugby with France fly-half Romain Ntamack playing outside Antoine Dupont and Italian flier Ange Capuozzo lurking wide.

They also snared England back row Jack Willis in the aftermath of Wasps slip into administration.

Coach Ugo Mola is a wily operator who knows his way around the competition as well. He has been in charge for seven years and helped the club to their maiden Champions Cup success back in 1996 as a player.

Saracens

Look who’s back. After a demotion that took them from the bright lights to playing Doncaster Knights, Saracens return to the big league.

Their squad has remained deep and strong despite the two-year hiatus, with England keystones Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Billy Vunipola still in place.

They lost out to Leicester in last season’s Premiership final, but have won nine out of nine at the start of this campaign in an ominous statement of intent.

Pool stage fixtures against Lyon and Edinburgh should ease them back into European competition nicely.

Ones to watch

Kurt-Lee Arendse (Bulls)

Kurt-Lee Arendse
Arendse made his Springbok debut against Wales in July

A former Sevens specialist, Arendse has cut a swathe through the 15-a-side game since switching over in 2020.

He weighs in at only 12 and a half stone (79kg), but his fearless defence and blurring leg speed have meant he has carved a niche from himself in the Springbok side.

He has scored seven tries in seven Tests after making his debut earlier this year, including a scorching effort in the win over England at Twickenham.

Theo McFarland (Saracens)

Theo McFarland
McFarland previously played his club rugby for the Dallas Jackals in Major League Rugby in the United States

McFarland represented Samoa in basketball before turning his deft hands and all-court game to rugby.

His skyhook offloads and change of pace have added another dimension to Saracens’ game this season as the Premiership leaders show more ambition and adventure with ball in hand.

The 27-year-old can play in the second row or back row and has scored seven tries in 26 Premiership appearances for Sarries since signing in August 2021

Christian Wade (Racing 92)

Christian Wade
Wade has four tries in as many games so far at Racing 92

For much of the past four years, Christian Wade has been chasing his American dream of making it in the NFL.

But, after stints on the sidelines with the Buffalo Bills, he is back in the midst of the action with Paris glamour side Racing 92.

The 31-year-old, known for his startling acceleration and agility, is fifth on the all-time Premiership try-scoring list despite his time out of the sport and England.



Source link

Pin It on Pinterest