Iain Morrison looks at the pools assesses the teams and picks the likely winners.
Harlequins, La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps
The weakest pool of them all… probably. Wasps have a long injury list and last year’s Aviva finalists only recently lost three league matches on the bounce for the first time since anyone can remember. La Rochelle are the wild card here, the surprise package in the Top 14 which they led for much of last season, but they may not buy into Europe with quite the same fervour they reserve for domestic competition. Quins can beat anyone when they click – and lose to anyone when they don’t – and Ulster’s ambition is threatening to lap their abilities, not for the first time.
Winner: If they can cobble a team together, Wasps. Maybe.
Clermont, Northampton Saints, Ospreys, Saracens
How the heck did both of last season’s finalists end up in the toughest pool of the lot? Sarries had the last laugh in last season’s Murrayfield final but a few cracks are appearing this season and a few injuries too. Everyone else will hope that Clermont and Sarries slug each other to a standstill and give someone else a tilt at the top prize. Saints top the Aviva as this is written, but the chances of England’s biggest underachievers staying there seem slight despite a budget that can afford a reported £600,000 for Dan Biggar who will move from the Ospreys next season. So those two ties promise to be feisty. The Welsh region will play some wonderful rugby and score some magnificent tries without, you fancy, packing the forward punch to worry the big dogs.
Winner: Clermont…for a change.
Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Montpellier
Another humdinger of a pool where you could make a good case for any one of the four competing clubs. Exeter Chiefs are the Aviva champions and England’s answer to the Glasgow Warriors, revelling in rugby at this level and determined to enjoy it. They have started this season as they left off the last one and will be hugely competitive. Leinster are perennial challengers and their young fly-half/full-back Joey Carbery is absurdly talented. Under “Stern Vern” Cotter, pictured left, Montpellier sit atop the Top 14 and the Kiwi has always given the European Cup his full attention in the past. Cotter called Glasgow one of the “big teams” in the competition in the French press. Warriors have tightened up under their new boss Dave Rennie, unbeaten in their first six matches, but only occasionally clicking all across the field.
Winner: Leinster, purely for their pedigree, but this one will come down to bonus points.
Castres, Leicester Tigers, Munster, Racing 92
Another more manageable pool, with Castres having won two Top 14 games from six as this is written and struggling domestically. The Tigers will give Europe big licks but the Midlands’ giants are in a rebuilding phase and probably don’t have the confidence or the personnel to challenge. In similar fashion, Racing 92 would love to do well on the international stage but they can manage no better than three wins from six in the Top 14 and Dan Carter is getting a little heavy-legged and long-toothed to carry the team very much further. Munster will be strengthened by the return of their Lions contingent, determined to give departing coach Rassie Erasmus the send-off he deserves.
Bath, Benetton, Toulon, Scarlets
Bath have been lacking consistency, losing to Newcastle at home and beating Wasps away, but there is nothing much wrong with their squad if Todd Blackadder can persuade them all to march in step. Toulon are still feeling their way under new boss Fabien Galthié but usually reserve their best for this competition, while Benetton will take a scalp or two at home but lack the depth and strike power to pick up points on the road, which you need to qualify. Scarlets are the form team, notwithstanding that early-season loss to Ulster, and they beat Saracens at home last season – no visiting side arrives at Parc Y Scarlets confident of victory.