TEAM-BY-TEAM, POOL-BY-POOL GUIDE
Pool One Leinster
Coach: Leo Cullen. Last season: Champions. How they qualified: EC champions and Pro14 champions. Top tier. Recruitment: Joe Tomane (Montpellier) is the main signing, and there have been more promotions from within. Jamie Heaslip, Isa Nacewa and Richardt Strauss have retired, while Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy were relocated. Key man: Johnny Sexton. Best outhalf in Europe and now even more influential as captain. This season’s formguide: WLWWW.
Prospects: Have lost proven campaigners, and have to replicate the same hunger after completing last season’s historic double – hardly unrepeatable. They have a tough pool, but have the all-court, all-weather game to do so and be contenders again. Pool winners.
Coach: Dai Young Last season: Pool exit. How they Qualified: Third in Premiership.
Recruitment: All Blacks outhalf Lima Sopoaga was the marquee signing from the Highlanders to replace Danny Cipriani. James Haskell also moved on.
Key man: Sopoaga. Smooth distributor and goal-kicker, whom Wasps employ further out in strike moves.
This season’s formguide :WLWWW. Prospects: Third again domestically after 42-31 defeat at home to Exeter in round three. But three wins out of three away suggests they’re fixing some of last season’s flaws (they lost all three in Europe). Potent attacking game could make them Leinster’s most dangerous rivals. Pool runners-up.
3/10 Leinster 6/1 Toulouse 7/1 Wasps 10/1 Bath Toulouse
Coach: Ugo Mola. Last season: Didn’t qualify. How they qualified: 3rd in Top 14, 5th ranked qualifier after play-offs. Recruitments: Jerome Kaino has signed and Maxime Mermoz has rejoined, but they lost Gael Fickou and Yoann Maestri to Stade Francais. Key Man: Scrumhalf Sébastien Bézy. Proper, heads-up, playmaking, quick-witted and quick-footed Toulouse half-back. Watch out for classy 19-year-old French under-20 World Cup winner Romain N’tamack. This season’s formguide : D W W W L L. Prospects: Absent last year when they reverted more to homegrown roots, and style, after the leaden years. Four-game unbeaten start ended with weakened side losing 66-15 in Montpellier but they also lost at home to Castres last week. Not the class of yore.
Coach: Todd Blackadder. Last season: Pool exit. How they qualified: 6th in Premiership. Recruitments: London Irishwinger Joe Cokanasiga looks a like-for-like signing for Matt Banahan, gone to Gloucester. Jamie Roberts has also joined. Key man: Sam Underhill. The 22-year-old made a huge impression last season, despite being restricted to just eight games for Bath and two for England last season, primarily due to concussion issues. A modern-day, physical backrower. This season’s formguide:LDWWL Prospects: With Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph injured, Bath have been slow out of the blocks. Back-to-back games against Leinster look pivotal.
Pool Two Castres
Coach: Christophe Urios. Last season: Third in pool/12 points. How they qualified: Champions of France.
Recruitments: Ex-Clermont fullback Scott Spedding and Toulouse centre Yann David from Toulouse have been added to settled squad.
Key man: Mathieu Babillot. The ball-carrying 24-year-old assumed captaincy from Rodrigo Capo-Ortega whenever he was rested and broke into the French team, impressing on NZ tour.
This season’s formguide :WWLWLW.
Prospects: Won the Bouclier with 10th highest budget (at ¤23.7million, this is relative), and won seasonal opener at Montpellier, and last week in Toulouse, from 22-3 down, to stand fourth. But domestic priorities have led to 13 pool exits in 14 campaigns.
Coach: Rob Baxter. Last season: Pool exit after three wins from six. How they qualified: 1st in Premiership and beaten finalists.
Recruitments: Alex Cuthbert is the only signing to a settled squad, with Thomas Waldrom heading back to NZ.
Key man: Don Armand, their captain and big-tackling, ball-winning, ball-carrying standard-bearer in a cast of back-rowers which, alas, is now without Sam Simmonds for the season due to his ACL injury.
This season’s formguide :WWWWW. Prospects: Like Sarries, they have continued where they left off last season. The Stranglers in opposition 22, where they just grind teams down with their maul or pick-and-jam. A machine, and due a good Euro run. Pool runners-up.
4/7 Exeter 5/2 Munster 13/2 Castres 14/1 Gloucester Munster
Coach: Johann vanGraan. Last season: Semi-finalists. How they qualified: Pro14 semi-finalists. Recruitments: Joey Carbery, Tadhg Beirne, Mike Haley, Arno Botha and Alby Mathewson all look good business, albeit Simon Zebo is a huge loss. Key man: Joey Carbery. One suspects Munster’s season hinges largely on how well he adapts to them, and they to him. This season’s formguide: WLWLW. Prospects: Hmmm. Many of the old basic performance levels and virtues remain, and they have the most revered home venue in Europe. Exeter look ominous foes, but Munster have an exceptional Euro DNA, and all roads lead to Limerick on the final Saturday at tea-time. Pool winners.
Coach: Johan Ackermann. Last season: Didn’t qualify. How they qualified: 7th in Premiership and Challenge Cup finalists. Recruitments: Look the better for the arrival of Danny Cipriani, Matt Banahan, Jaco Kriel and Gerbrandt Grobler. Key man: Danny Cipriani. Has certainly lit up Kingsholm and the English press box – if not Eddie Jones, thus making him a cause celebre – with his inventive passing. This season’s formguide :WDWLL. Prospects: Should be improved on last season, but it would be a surprise if the Cherry & Whites were knockout contenders in either competition. Back-to-back meetings with the Chiefs liable to dilute their interest.
Pool Three Saracens
Coach: Mark McCall. Last season: Quarter-finals. How they qualified: Premiership champions.
Recruitments: The 35-year-old David Strettle has returned from Clermont, while Chris Wyles and Schalk Brits have retired. Settled squad.
Key man: Owen Farrell. A superb goal-kicker and director at outhalf, he also appreciates space like few others and now has an extraordinary CV. And, of course, a young enforcer in Maro Itoje.
This season’s formguide :WWWWW.
Prospects: The dethroned Euro champions and English champions have begun season ominously with five bonus-point wins out of five, and have now scored four tries or more in 11 consecutive Premiership wins. Pool winners and major contenders.
Coach: Dave Rennie. Last season: Pool exit, one win out of six. How they qualified: Conference A winners/semi-finalists.
Recruitments: Australian scrumhalf Nick Frisby has arrived in place of Edinburgh recruit Henry Pyrgos, and DTH van der Merwe will add tries.
Key man: The departure of the inventive Finn Russell to Clermont places a huge onus on talented 21-year-old outhalf Adam Hastings.
This season’s formguide :WWWLW. Prospects: Jury out on post-Finn Russell era, especially as Stuart Hogg’s injury is a huge loss. Failed to deliver when it came to the crunch last season and are almost in must-win territory at home to Saracens on opening weekend. Pool runners-up.
1/7 Saracens 6/1 Glasgow 12/1 Cardiff 20/1 Lyon Lyon
Coach: Pierre Mignoni. Last season: Didn’t qualify. How they qualified: 5th in Top 14 and semi-finalists.
Recruitments: Jonathan Wisniewski, Clermont winger Noa Nakaitaci and Waikato Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai (four tries in his last three games) signals their ambition. Key man: Wisniewski, who should have won more caps, pulls the strings with an understated, under-rated game. How often he plays in Europe will reveal much. This season’s formguide :DLWWLW. Prospects: The latest of the nouveau riche, big city clubs to add to the urbanisation of the Top 14, Lyon are likely to prioritise Europe for this season at any rate.
Coach: John Mulvihill. Last season: Didn’t qualify.
How they qualified: 4th in Conference A/Challenge Cup winners.
Recruitments: Moldovan tighthead prop Dimitri Arhip and US ex-Saints lock Samu Manoa, admittedly past his brilliant best, don’t seem to compensate for the retirement of Sam Warburton and departure of Alex Cuthbert.
Key man: Gareth Anscombe. Now their established 10, he brings quality, goal-kicking and self-belief and mental strength to drive this team, especially when they may be about to wobble.
This season’s formguide :LLLWW. Prospects: Talented but inconsistency remains and although they could well provide a scalp or two it’s hard to envisage them still standing after back-to-back meetings with Saracens.