>> Gus­cott: Euro­pean Cup will be hard core

The Rugby Paper - - Front Page - JEREMY GUS­COTT

“Un­like Wasps, Scar­lets have learned how to win big games and could go all the way”

THE Euro­pean Cup is a tougher, harder tour­na­ment un­der EPCR than it was four years ago when the change of for­mat hap­pened. I like the way the com­pe­ti­tion has gone be­cause you have al­most got matches of quar­ter-fi­nal and semi-fi­nal qual­ity in the pool stages. That’s a great achieve­ment.

It’s hard-core stuff. Just look at Pool 2 where you have the two-time hold­ers, Sara­cens, last year’s beaten fi­nal­ists, Cler­mont, as well as Northamp­ton and the Ospreys. It beg­gars be­lief that you have so much abil­ity in one group.

At the same time the re­spec­tive do­mes­tic leagues – the Premier­ship, Top 14, and PRO14 – are try­ing to pri­ori­tise their own im­prove­ments in or­der to keep up. The for­mat, bar get­ting the ticket sale time be­tween the quar­ter-fi­nals, semi-fi­nals, and fi­nal ex­tended, is look­ing very strong.

It could also do with a few more spon­sors, but that is not as easy as it once was. In any case, it is hard to put a damp­ener on the Euro­pean Cup. As a player I loved play­ing in it, com­pet­ing against the best teams around Europe with their dif­fer­ent styles. It’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence.

A run through the pools sug­gests they will all be tight affairs. In Pool 1 Harlequins can be a bit in­dif­fer­ent, and at the mo­ment they don’t make you stand up and shout – un­less it’s for the wrong rea­sons! Although Wasps have done well enough reach­ing a quar­ter­fi­nal and semi-fi­nal over the last two sea­sons, their open style leaves them vul­ner­a­ble.

I’m not sure that Wasps have the depth they need, and nor am I con­vinced that they are learn­ing from their mis­takes. Ev­ery­one in that side has got be fit and play­ing at op­ti­mum for them to progress, whereas with Sara­cens you get the im­pres­sion that they are al­ways dan­ger­ous – and can win even when they are not at their best.

Else­where in the group La Rochelle will be big, strong and ag­gres­sive, es­pe­cially at home, while Ul­ster are also try­ing to get back as a ma­jor force.

Pool 2 is all about who can pinch the away games, and you’d say that the Ospreys and Northamp­ton are the teams who have it all to do. Last year’s fi­nal­ists, Cler­mont, will not think it’s bril­liant to be in the same pool, but it’s great for rugby fans to see two out­stand­ing sides like Sara­cens and Cler­mont go­ing at it again.

One of them could go out in the pool round, but you would think that Sara­cens have the pedi­gree that might get them through. It will be a bun­fight, and los­ing bonus points will – as al­ways – be cru­cial in a pool that is this tight.

The down­side is that it is go­ing be a strug­gle for two teams to qual­ify out of such a com­pet­i­tive group. How­ever, it does make ev­ery game mouth-wa­ter­ing, es­pe­cially with Saints show­ing good signs af­ter their early ca­pit­u­la­tion against Sara­cens in the first game of the Premier­ship.

Rob Bax­ter has said that Ex­eter are aim­ing for a big im­prove­ment now that they have had the time to get used to hav­ing to com­pete in Europe and the Premier­ship along­side each other. The Chiefs have not set the tour­na­ment alight, but Bax­ter is a very good plan­ner, and if they want to progress this time they will have to win their home games in Pool 3 as well as nick an away game.

Glas­gow are adapt­ing to life with­out Gre­gor Townsend as coach, but his Kiwi re­place­ment Dave Ren­nie is very ex­pe­ri­enced. Le­in­ster are prob­a­bly wait­ing to bring back their Lions, and a full strength Le­in­ster have pedi­gree. They will be primed for this com­pe­ti­tion.

The team in Pool 3 that looks as if it means busi­ness is Mont­pel­lier. The French teams are very hard to beat on their own grounds, and English play­ers who have joined French clubs say how cor­dial the home fans are when they win, and how harsh when they lose.

With Vern Cot­ter and Alex King back to­gether at Mont­pel­lier as a coach­ing team, as they were at Cler­mont, the club are hit­ting their straps at the head of the Top 14. Mont­pel­lier look very strong, and they may be ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the miss­ing in­gre­di­ent from Cot­ter’s CV at Cler­mont by win­ning the Euro­pean Cup.

In Pool 4 the two French sides have started the sea­son at a can­ter rather than a gal­lop. Rac­ing are sev­enth in the Top 14, while Castres are tenth. Rac­ing have been some­thing of a glam­our team, and with Dan Carter they were los­ing fi­nal­ists against Sara­cens the year be­fore last, but had the com­pen­sa­tion of win­ning the French cham­pi­onship.

How­ever, you do not get the im­pres­sion that the vibe at Rac­ing is buzzing even if they are side full of qual­ity. Munster may not have quite as many star sign­ings as the Paris club, but they were good last sea­son and are never easy to shake off.

It used to be a given that Le­ices­ter would have a pack that could win qual­ity ball, with the chant­ing from the Tigers fans usu­ally loud­est on the catch-and-drive. Now they have a back­line that re­quires the ball, and this is a new, ex­cit­ing Euro­pean op­por­tu­nity – although you sense that coach Matt O’Con­nor’s pri­or­ity will still be a top four fin­ish in the Premier­ship.

Pool 5 is like­li­est to pro­duce two quar­ter-fi­nal­ists be­cause of the pres­ence of Italy’s Benet­ton, and the Scar­lets can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. They are play­ing a great brand of rugby and fully de­served the PRO12 ti­tle last sea­son af­ter a fan­tas­tic run.

The Scar­lets are a bit like Wasps – but with one dif­fer­ence. Un­like Wasps they have learned how to win big games, and if they back them­selves and play to their very best in this tour­na­ment they could win the whole thing. Sara­cens had a tough task away against them in the pool round last sea­son, and even­tu­ally got a draw at the Parc y Scar­lets.

Toulon are not the side they used to be – they are cur­rently sixth in the Top 14 – and even their pres­i­dent, Mourad Boud­jel­lal, isn’t shout­ing too much these days. How­ever, they have plenty of big names re­main­ing, as well as bulk and ex­pe­ri­ence, so can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

Bath still haven’t got the in­gre­di­ent they’ve been miss­ing in the front five, and they will have to be much smarter to get any­where. The Bath de­fence has been good this sea­son, and they have been work­ing hard on scor­ing tries from turnovers. That’s prob­a­bly Todd Black­ad­der’s Kiwi in­flu­ence – get the de­fence right, and then strike from deep.

Two sides should qual­ify from this group, but it will take win­ning home and away against Benet­ton, and then win­ning a cou­ple of home games. The prize is that who­ever wins the pool should be seeded at home in the quar­ter-fi­nals – and who­ever that is should be ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the last four.

Over­all, my guess is that the likely win­ners will come from Cler­mont, Sara­cens or Mont­pel­lier – with the Scar­lets as an out­side bet.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Bat­tle royal: Sara­cens take on Cler­mont in the pool this sea­son

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