Sara­cens again lead English into Europe but Scar­lets could lift Welsh

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Robert Kit­son

There is a fresh feel to this year’s Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup as the con­ti­nent’s glad­i­a­tors strap on their body ar­mour. First and fore­most, the fi­nal will be staged in Spain next May, with Bil­bao’s San Mamés sta­dium and Guggen­heim mu­seum promis­ing a very dif­fer­ent cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence. And why not? End­lessly do­ing the same old things is not the way ahead for an am­bi­tious pro­fes­sional sport.

From the Basque Coun­try to Bath this is also a cam­paign full of other en­tic­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. Not so long ago it was widely felt that dig­ging in for the odd los­ing away bonus point was vi­tal to even­tual qual­i­fi­ca­tion. In­creas­ingly, more sides are un­der­stand­ing that try bonus points, par­tic­u­larly at home, make an even big­ger dif­fer­ence. Sara­cens, the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons, have scored 46 pool tries en route to suc­ces­sive ti­tles; their three tries against Cler­mont Au­vergne in last year’s fi­nal com­pared with Owen Far­rell’s seven penal­ties against Rac­ing in 2016 fur­ther un­der­lined their pos­i­tive in­tent.

A hat-trick of Cham­pi­ons Cups for the dom­i­nant north Lon­don side would cer­tainly es­tab­lish them among the great­est club sides of all time. The omens are de­cent: they start their de­fence against Northamp­ton on Sun­day hav­ing pre­vi­ously stuck 50 points past the star­tled Saints at Twick­en­ham on the do­mes­tic sea­son’s open­ing week­end. If there is to be any Basque bask­ing next May, how­ever, they will need to off­set the loss of the in­jured Billy Vu­nipola in the pool stages and pray their other in­ter­na­tion­als stay fit.

Last sea­son their Euro­pean exer-

tions ar­guably cost them the Premier­ship crown, Ex­eter catch­ing them nap­ping in Devon within days of their op­po­nents’ Mur­ray­field tri­umph over Cler­mont. It would make much more sense for the Euro­pean fi­nale to be the of­fi­cial cli­max to the do­mes­tic sea­son but the French and English league moguls have other pri­or­i­ties. The best of the best get min­i­mal rest as a con­se­quence.

This, then, looms as a sea­son of op­por­tu­nity for those pre­pared to take a risk or three. What is the point of qual­i­fy­ing for Europe if you fail to give it a lash? Into this dan­ger­ous cat­e­gory could fall the Scar­lets, whose open­ing two games, away at Toulon and at home to Bath, prom­ise to set a vivid tone. Last sea­son’s Pro12 cham­pi­ons have com­mit­ted to an ex­pan­sive style that suits them; on pa­per Toulon pos­sess ridicu­lous op­tions but their Welsh vis­i­tors will travel with gen­uine be­lief. In the equiv­a­lent round-one fix­ture three years ago, the mar­gin at Stade Félix Mayol was just 10 points, with Toulon sub­se­quently win­ning that year’s ti­tle. Scar­lets are more con­fi­dent, am­bi­tious op­po­si­tion now.

Ev­ery­where you look, in fact, there are pools stocked with peck­ish pi­ra­nhas. Nowhere is more un­for­giv­ing than Pool Two, where Sar­ries and Cler­mont are float­ing along­side Ospreys as well as Northamp­ton. Should the Miche­lin-backed French gi­ants make a fast start in Swansea, their back-to-back games against Sar­ries in De­cem­ber will be mon­u­men­tal. Sara­cens’s re­mark­able 18game un­beaten run may even be tested at Franklin’s Gar­dens this Sun­day, where Northamp­ton are fi­nally start­ing to em­brace the joys of of­fload­ing and play­ing with the hand­brake off.

Aside from Sara­cens, though, it is hard to fore­see the English en­trants hav­ing a ma­jor tilt at this year’s ti­tle. Wasps’ con­fi­dence has gone miss­ing at the worst pos­si­ble mo­ment, Ex­eter will do well to es­cape a truly hor­ren­dous pool, Le­ices­ter are still in a re­build­ing phase and Bath, al­though tough to beat un­der Todd Black­ad­der, do not have lim­it­less depth in all ar­eas.

The same ap­plies to Har­lequins, who will also need some­thing ex­tra to win in Ul­ster and La Rochelle. Their big op­por­tu­nity will come at the Ri­coh Arena next week, where they have al­ready de­feated an of­f­colour Wasps this sea­son. Should they do so again hav­ing downed La Rochelle in a high-scor­ing thriller at the Stoop this Satur­day, the ag­gre­gate out­come of their back-to-back fix­tures with Ul­ster in De­cem­ber will shape their last eight fate.

Then again, Ul­ster have Charles Pi­u­tau to sup­ply the dou­ble shot of at­tack­ing cre­ativ­ity ev­ery se­ri­ously good side needs. Le­in­ster are al­ways en­joy­able to watch, too, and have too many Lions to be idly dis­missed. Glas­gow, with Dave Ren­nie in charge, will be a match for any­one at home and their open­ing fix­ture at Sandy Park could be another mini-clas­sic de­spite the in­hos­pitable late kick-off time and the War­riors’ re­cent re­turn from Bloem­fontein.

The odds on two sides qual­i­fy­ing from such a deathly pool, how­ever, are lengthy, un­less Mont­pel­lier start to show more of an ap­petite for win­ning away un­der Vern Cot­ter’s stew­ard­ship. Pool Five, which con­tains Tre­viso, is more likely to sup­ply two quar­ter-fi­nal­ists, al­though the Ital­ians – with just two Cham­pi­ons Cup wins in their last 27 at­tempts since Jan­uary 2013 – have added in­cen­tive this time. Next year an Ital­ian club will no longer be guar­an­teed au­to­matic en­try un­less the league stand­ings de­mand it or they qual­ify via the newly re­vised Pro14 play-off.

The book­mak­ers, for their part, have in­stalled Sara­cens as ti­tle favourites, fol­lowed by Toulon, Cler­mont and Le­in­ster. Sev­eral oth­ers will be tempted by the vi­sion of a grand Span­ish fi­esta but the book­ies are not a mile off. It might also be worth adding Scar­lets, Le­ices­ter, La Rochelle and Ul­ster to the last eight ros­ter and putting a few eu­ros on Cler­mont to be cov­ered in Bil­bao ticker tape next May. Be warned, how­ever: the 2017-18 Cham­pi­ons Cup will be nei­ther dull nor en­tirely pre­dictable.

Sara­cens cel­e­brate af­ter their vic­tory against Cler­mont Au­vergne in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup fi­nal at Mur­ray­field in May. Pho­to­graph: David Rogers/Getty Im­ages

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