TEAM-BY-TEAM, POOL-BY-POOL GUIDE

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY CHAMPIONS CUP -

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.

Wasps

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.

Bath

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.

Ex­eter Chiefs

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.

Gloucester

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.

Glas­gow

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.

Cardif­fBlues

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.

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